Restaurateur brings Serbian cuisine to Capitol Hill

Ivan Iricanin has brought a little of his home country to Capitol Hill with his new Serbian restaurant, Ambar.

A native of Trstenik, Serbia, Iricanin said he was “surprised there was no representative of Balkan cuisine” in Washington, D.C.

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So Iricanin, who’s also a partner in Masa 14 and El Centro D.F., decided to open the city’s first Serbian restaurant.

The result is Ambar, a two-story establishment on Capitol Hill’s Barracks Row.

Iricanin said he picked the spot because so many congressional staffers have visited the Balkan region.

Though Serbia is mainly known for its conflicts and Slobodan Miloevic’s abuse of power, Iricanin said he heard something else from those visitors: “The food is amazing, people are hospitable and rakia is a good drink.”

So he brought the rakia —a fermented fruit brandy — to the United States.

"This is the only place in the United States to have them because we did all the paperwork,” he told The Hill, adding wryly: “I was glad to have help with that.”

There are three bars in the restaurant — one downstairs, one upstairs and one on the patio — and, all told, there are more than 30 different kinds of rakia to sample. Several of the cocktails incorporate liquor.

Dressed in a gray shirt and speaking in softly accented English, Iricanin spoke to The Hill about his vision for Ambar.

“We’re a neighborhood restaurant with a neighborhood feeling — you can come in flip flops or a suit — but you’ll still get amazing service and amazing food.”

Decorated in wooden accents with a small outdoor bar on its upstairs patio, Ambar focuses on small-plate food — items such as stuffed cabbage, grilled bacon-wrapped prunes and the Balkan version of the kebab with beef and pork combined with roasted peppers and cheese. Desserts include a forest gnocchi (a rich blend of chocolates) and Balkan-style apple pie.

The small portions were Iricanin’s idea.

“Our food is heavy, and on top of the food being heavy, the portions are huge,” he said, noting he wanted tapas-style so customers could sample several offerings.

“The idea is to try as many dishes as you want.”

Iricanin owned a few bars in Serbia, which is what began his fascination with the restaurant industry.

He came to Washington in 2005, starting as runner at Zengo and working his way up in the restaurant world.

“I wanted to leave Serbia because there was nothing going on — we went through a few wars and revolutions, and there weren’t a lot of opportunities,” he said.

Before opening Ambar, he and business partner Richard Sandoval traveled to Serbia in August 2012, sampling the cuisine and the wines, to find inspiration for their new venture.

What hit home with them during their trip was a Serbian restaurant called the “Little Factory of Taste.” They were so inspired by it that they brought in its chef, Bojan Bocvarov, to the United States to design Ambar’s menu.

Iricanin describes the cuisine as “modern Balkan fare mixed with tradition.”

“The proportions are different, but the tastes are the same,” he said.

The restaurant opened in January of this year. Its name — Ambar — is a Serbian word for a structure that is used to dry corn.

It showcases its namesake in its decorations. Wooden slats line the walls with white plaster peaking out between the cracks.

“The wind goes through it and dries the corn. That corn feeds your animals and is used to make bread,” Iricanin explained, noting that in Serbia “everyone has one.”

It took about 15 months to find the space and design the setting and menu.

The building, which used to house Jordan’s 8, was opened up to let in natural light. The second floor, which has an area for private parties, had a portion of its flooring removed so it overlooks the downstairs. Skylights were added.

The restaurant’s reviews have been positive. It has a four-star rating on yelp.com, with users calling it “superb” and complimenting the friendliness of the staff. The Washington Post wrote that “eating this underrepresented food is a pleasure.”

As for the restaurant’s future, Iricanin has a positive outlook.

“What makes me happy is that in the first few months, we had so many repeat customers.”