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New Year's Eats

Fledgling D.C. Restaurants Embrace the Eastern Bloc and Celebrate Vintage America

Courtesy Travis Vaughn Photography
Mari Vanna chain, which started in St. Petersburg, recently landed just south of Dupont Circle.

We’re only a few weeks into 2013, but a parade of ambitious new restaurant properties has already begun marching into reality.

With options ranging from whip-smart Serbian cooking served in modern environs to farm-to-table cocktails shaken up in the remains of a Prohibition-era speakeasy, January is on target to be the most delicious month of the year (so far).


Co-owner Ivan Iricanin, who previously partnered with restaurateurs Richard Sandoval and Kaz Ochi in Masa 14 and El Centro D.F., credits chefs Bojan Bocvarov (savory) and Danilo Bucan (sweet) with helping blend the tastes of his youth with a nod to the future.

“The menu is 50-50 traditional recipes and tweaks,” he said, categorizing most embellishments as more aesthetically inclined (presentation) than substantive. “We really wanted to get it right. We didn’t just want to serve whatever,” Iricanin stressed.

That commitment to bringing the best of the Balkans to Barracks Row has proved to be quite trying at times. Like building distribution bridges from Chicago to Belgrade, just to keep customers in all the rakia — a fruit-based brandy — they could ever want.

“We established the whole new line that is imported just for our restaurant  . . .  an eight-month process,” he said of the hunt to secure a steady stream of the Serbian spirit. Today, Ambar boasts 22 varieties of rakia, a selection that ranges in base materials (flavors include: quince, apricot, plum, grape and honey) and maturity.

“There’s no specific rules like Champagne or tequila,” Iricanin said of the native beverage, noting that Ambar carries about a half-dozen aged specimens, while the rest likely flowed directly from still to bottle. The curiously sweet liquor is splashed all around the beverage carte, subbing in for more familiar pours in Balkanized martinis, pisco sours and Moscow mules. Iricanin has also invested in 50 Slavic wines and a pair of Serbian beers (Jelen, Lav).

The food has been obsessed over even more.

The restaurant debuted with about 70 percent of the planned menu, with new dishes — the kitchen recently rolled out two additions, a Macedonian special incorporating paprika-spiked baked beans and house-made sausage as well as hamand kajmak (fermented milk curd)-stuffed veal schnitzel — slowly being added to the ever-evolving menu.

The strongest performers to date include ultra creamy white veal soup, saucy cevapcici and a masterfully crafted burger. Both the cevapcici, which is billed as a “kebab” but is more spiced roll, and the aforementioned pleskavica are fashioned from a 50-50 mix of never-frozen, house-ground beef (80/20 cuts of beef shoulder and tenderloin trimmings) and pork (shoulder and belly). The cevapcici mix is bolstered by salt and sparkling water, while the pleskavica is interwoven with freshly chopped onions.

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