My affection for Balkan food is nothing new. When I moved to Vermont in 1998, it was just starting to gain minor popularity in the area, thanks to some refugee chefs who had slowly raised the money to open restaurants of their own. Give me a decent plate of cevapi, and you will have my heart.
On a recent evening, Ambar in Clarendon did much more than that. Yes, the cevapi, a homemade beef sausage that’s a Balkan staple, was suitably juicy. But more importantly, the $35 unlimited small-plate menu brought fun to my table. I ate until I was literally in pain, then said, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”
Part of the adventure is that the greatest hits include both more traditional plates like the cevapi (though it was missing the lepinja bread and kajmak, a clotted cream cheese, that I prefer with it) but also fusion dishes.
Next to a plate of mushroom pilaf that tastes like the forest floor, you might find piquillo peppers stuffed with Balkan cheese, then topped with purple blobs of kalamata jam and served on a bright-red ajvar (roasted pepper dip) emulsion. Beside slow-roasted lamb shoulder that falls apart into shreds tucked around chunks of braised potatoes and carrots, there is the White Flatbread, a deceptively simple stuffed flatbread that’s full of mozzarella, but also topped with salty Balkan cheese, a handful of chives and a slosh of truffle oil.
It’s all accompanied by cocktails that use Balkan ingredients to dress up traditional drinks. The Sarajevo Old-Fashioned, for example, pairs plum rakia and plum syrup with bourbon and bitters. The Zastava Sidecar uses plum rakia too, but is sweetened with hibiscus syrup and made tart with lemon juice.
Including dessert, I sampled 10 dishes. If I had the capacity for more, I would have kept going. But my failure means Ambar’s success. Now I have to go back to try the dishes I missed.
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