Sunday, April 5, 2015

Ambar Brunch Review

Fried Chicken Sandwich

I've been all over Europe; but to this day, haven't had a chance to visit the Balkans. Another wish for my bucket list, perhaps; but yesterday's brunch at Ambar gave me a tasty peak of what I've been missing. Afterwards, I'm happy to say: The Balkans just moved up a few spots on my aforementioned bucket list.

You can thank Ambar for that, and a whole lot more. Barracks Row has gone from contender to frontrunner in DC's hotly-contested restaurant wars; and Ambar deserves a place in the heart of its lineup (baseball reference... Opening Day is tomorrow.) Ambar's $39 Unlimited Weekend Brunch puts it just behind Rose's Luxury and Medium Rare for best dining option on a packed 8th Street, SW. The fact that it offers all-you-can-eat & drink for Brunch (and a daily, pricier Bottomless Balkan Dinner) could even put it at the top.

Cheese Pies

Yesterday's feast began with two scrumptious balls of Fried Sourdough Bread. They don't need butter or jam... the latter, which accompanies the dessert version (more on that later.) Just pop 'em in your mouth, and relish in their deliciousness. Screw doughnuts: Even plain, a bag of these could fetch a tenner on the open market. For someone (like me) who puts a lot of stock in bread, it's enough to ensure everlasting loyalty... not to mention, multiple repeat visits.

Balkan Salad

My second plate of food featured a crust so flaky, you can't help but wish for a chicken pot pie or fruit pie later. The culprit? A relatively deconstructed Cheese Pie with ajvar emulsion and cucumber yogurt on the side. It's like no cheese pie I'm used to: Rather, it's beautiful and refined with smooth-as-silk cheese tucked inside an impossibly tender crust. I'm ashamed to say: Were it not for unlimited dishes, I wouldn't have thought enough of it (by name) to order it. Now? It's a new favorite, and a must-order for anyone else who visits.

Ham & Cheese Crepe

Speaking of favorites, imagine my surprise to discover DC Outlook's new #1 salad in the DMV. Ambar's Balkan Salad takes fresh to an entirely new (and delicious) level. It's a marriage made in Heaven, of crispy cucumbers, tender onions, red & yellow peppers with cherry tomatoes and crumbles of aged cow cheese. If you decide to order a la carte, don't let it slip away at just $7 for a most generous portion.

Eggs Benedict

Next up... a rare miss. Ambar's Ham & Cheese Crepe is a bit too "out-of-the-ordinary" for my taste. A crepe in name only, it sits atop a bed of tartar sauce and red pepper spread (neither of which marry well with warm ham & gouda cheese.) I suppose it also doesn't help, that gouda is one of my least favorite cheeses. Crepes conjure up thoughts of delicacy and subtle flavors. Sadly, this dish has neither.

Fried Sourdough Bread to start

Luckily, their Eggs Benedict does, with the creative addition of kajmak sauce in place of traditional hollandaise. The English muffin adds crispiness, while proscuitto ham beats the you-know-what out of comparatively boring Canadian bacon. Five bites and... poof, it was gone.

Ambar Mimosa

Around this time, I started to get full (I'm going to have to start splitting brunch reviews across two days... I'm missing out on way too many tempting items.) This left me with the day's toughest decision: Which sandwich to order? It came down to the Balkan Burger (with beef and pork) and the eventual winner... Ambar's Fried Chicken Sandwich. I felt guilty over not ordering beef all-day (especially their Steak and Eggs) but one bite of the almond & walnut crusted fried chicken, and I knew immediately... I made the right choice. Served with incredibly tender (and well-seasoned) potato wedges, the true star of this plate turned out to be the apple-wasabi slaw that slathered the sandwich with unrivaled flavor. Decked out with fresh tomatoes and lettuce, inside warm pita bread - my only complaint was... not enough chicken. The final quarter of my sandwich had none, delivering mild disappointment (only because the majority of it was absolutely sensational.) Otherwise, near-perfection.

Corn Bread Muffins

Before I discuss dessert (and a few corn muffins I requested, normally part of their Mezze Platter) allow me to comment on the creativity of the kitchen. The majority of my plates looked entirely different than I imagined they would. Ambar takes familiar staples, and infuses them with Balkan charm (and love.) Mark my word: You're not going to find flavors/food like this, anywhere else. That said, I can't say I fell in love with their Corn Bread Muffins... which arrived a wee bit on the dry side. They also come with red pepper spread on the side, which I prefer to apply to toasted pita. Here's one instance where traditional (butter) would have made a better compliment.

Cinnamon Sweet Sourdough

My final bite of the day was appropriately the same as my first (only sweeter.) Ambar's Cinnamon Sweet Sourdough, served with homemade jam (tasted like pears and apricots) qualifies as the perfect dessert (I chose it over three different waffle options.) It reminded me of Danish Pancakes, only fried... and more sinful. I almost shed a tear, when I left one unfinished (I wasn't telling tales, when I said I was full.)

As you probably already figured out, my first visit to Ambar was a monumental success. Service was warm and professional: Dishes were cleared promptly, drinks refilled and flatware/napkins swapped out when needed. The atmosphere fits Barracks Row perfectly: Ceiling to fall decor, rustic, stained floors and even a stack of Encyclopedia Britannicas (real ones, I checked) for perusing. Not that you'd have time to read them, of course; but the more options, the merrier.

The vibe is hip, yet relaxed (with nice music, such as Bah Samba's "Let the Drums Speak") and the staff treats everyone the same... like part of the family. They also serve a mean mimosa, including their namesake Ambar Mimosa with Balkan sparkling wine and a peach/lavender puree that's three days in the making. That extra time pays off with huge dividends... namely the strongest (and subsequently clearest) lavender flavor I've ever tasted in a drink. Finally, a drink that lives up to its title.

Ambar surprised me on a number of levels... most importantly, in terms of deconstruction and flavor. I've enjoyed a number of great brunches of late, but I predict Ambar's will stay fresher/longer in my mind. I'm already counting the days until I can explore the Bottomless Balkan Dinner lineup. Bacon and Peanut Pork Tenderloin, Cabbage Casuela and an all-star Sausage Platter. Sounds like a grand slam to me. Batter up.