Balkan-Inspired Or Just Inspired at Ambar?

Our recent brunch at El Centro reminded me how much I’ve always enjoyed Richard Sandoval restaurants … I had read about his new endeavor on Capitol Hill with mixed interest: 1) Capitol Hill is far, I mean Virginia is closer to those of us in Dupont Circle and 2) just what constitutes Balkan cuisine? That said, we decided to check it out.

If you haven’t been to Barracks Row in Capitol Hill in a while, you’ll continue to be impressed at how many new places have come up on that strip.

Yummy sourdough in mixed bread basket

Yummy sourdough in mixed bread basket

Ambar was buzzing, though not absurdly crowded on a Saturday evening around 9:15. It had clean, modern lines and a hip, yet still welcoming feel. There was a large group – birthday celebration perhaps? – in the upstairs bar area, but otherwise tables of two and four.

Not sure where to start, we chose the mixed bread basket. While the cornbread was decent, it was the fried sourdough that really took our breaths away. Delicious. I could eat baskets of it, nevermind the various dips they brought – cheese, red pepper …

We chose several small plates. In the end, because we were too hungry, we probably chose one too many. I think the pork loin was good, but I was already so full, I’m not really sure. I would probably skip the shrimp and spinach risotto next time as well – good and rich, but not particularly unique or striking, particularly given the other choices.

Who knew I’d love stuffed cabbage? Reminds me of my babysitter’s cooking when I was a kid … then again, I’m sure if I tried this at home, it would be nowhere as tasty. A sour cabbage outer level stuffed with a grape leaf-like filling inside. Unmatched.

Stuffed sour cabbage, perfect for a coolish evening

Stuffed sour cabbage, perfect for a coolish evening

Veal stew, also delicious …

Veal stew

Veal stew

Mushroom crepe, rich and comforting, with the mushrooms tasting as if they bathed in mushroom gravy …

Mushroom crepes

Mushroom crepes

The menu had a good description of wine options, all from the Balkan region. We debated a while and decided on a red. A pinot noir-sounding wine, or something a bit heavier, more like a zinfandel? A Slovenian wine would be more similar to Venato or Austrian? In the end, we chose a Croatian plavac mali, which went nicely with the rich and flavorful food. We thought about trying their native brew, some type of fruit brandy, but decided we would save those cocktails for next time. Yeah, dessert, too.

A fun time, good meal, if only it were closer. But we’ll be back!

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