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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).

Ambar

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.

The beefy brethren part company once again on the range, with the cevapcici spending time in the company of roasted peppers, garlic and cheese, while the burger is sandwiched between dueling sauces — a smattering of zesty urnebes, which weds ajvar (hot pepper relish) with Bulgarian cow cheese and a dollop of cooling tarator (grated cucumber, garlic, yogurt and salt).

Iricanin is excited for locals to try the traditional sarma (beef-stuffed sour cabbage rolls), while we highly encourage everyone to give the mouthwatering bacon-topped, peanut-sauced pork tenderloin a whirl.

Look for slow-roasted pork and lamb dishes to join the roster in the coming months.

Ambar: 523 Eighth St. SE; 202-813-3039; ambarrestaurant.com

Beuchert’s Saloon No. 2

A bunch of locals have banded together to breathe new life into a former Capitol Hill haunt, paying homage to Beuchert’s Saloon (1880-1934) with a fresh take on farm-to-table dining and drinking.

Beuchert’s 2 is projected to open by the end of January. Partners Brendan McMahon (PS7’s alumnus) and Nathan Berger (Acqua al 2) are spearheading the project, while executive chef Andrew Markert (also of PS7 fame) is handling the cooking.

Guests will be able to pull up a chair inside (47 seats) or outside (20 patio spots). The interior has been restored — from the vintage hand-blown chandeliers to the artfully tiled lavatories — to recapture the spirit of the original speakeasy.

And in a twist on the what’s-old-is-new game, the McMahon family farm, East Oaks Organics Farm in Poolesville, Md., will inform not only the menu but also the beverage program.

“The bar program will be using ingredients from the farm so is there cohesiveness with the kitchen,” McMahon said.

McMahon said the 4-year-old farm is primed and ready to bring the freshness, noting that both Markert and sous chef John Kuespert — “our resident ‘seedhead,’” McMahon called him — have become integrally involved in the cultivation of the raw materials.

Markert said he’s already gotten his hands on kale, bok choy, beets, radishes, turnips, Brussels sprouts, mustard greens, garlic and assorted herbs from the farm. But he is, perhaps, most excited about having people sink their teeth into his growing line of house-made charcuterie.

“We will have about four types of charcuterie at a time on the board” he predicted, listing ready-made portions of lomo, bresaola, soppresatta, lucchese, saucison sec coppa and lamb prosciutto as solid contenders for sampling now. He’s still working on another prosciutto — this one featuring Eastern Shore-raised white Yorkshire pigs — which he hopes to be sliding onto patrons’ plates in the near future.

Those who prefer foods with a little more temperature to them should be comforted by the likes of tagliatelle bolstered by oxtails and hazelnuts, braised lamb with rosemary gnocchi and roasted bone marrow (“One of my favorite to eat myself, as well as to create,” Markert shared) flanked by pickled pistachios.

McMahon, meanwhile, suggests everyone make sure to leave enough room for the house-made bananas foster “Twinkie.”

Beuchert’s Saloon No. 2: 623 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202-733-1384; beuchertssaloon.com

Mari Vanna

Ever partied at a hipster Russian grandma’s pad?

Those familiar with the Mari Vanna chain, which started in St. Petersburg and recently landed just south of Dupont Circle (next up: Los Angeles), can certainly cross that off their bucket lists.

The tri-level retreat integrates faux old and unabashedly new rather seamlessly, sprinkling candy dishes brimming with exotic sweets and lace doilies throughout the cozy second-floor dining room, while outfitting the loungetacular top floor (karaoke nights coming this March) with spinning disco balls and wall-to-wall plush sofas.

The ground floor boasts a serviceable bar, carved from hardwood rather than marble, and a surprisingly small open kitchen; lots of exposed brick and pre-aged wood are in the main dining room, while the kitchen benefits from colorful tile work.

The cocktail crowd can whet its collective whistle with an army of imported vodkas, ranging from the down-to-earth Russkaya to the lofty Beluga line. The restaurant also infuses vodkas year-round, a production cycle that yields up to 60 flavor combinations at any given time.

And while the menu allows guests to feast on traditional Russian cuisine — think sour cabbage-stuffed hand pies, cured pork with hearty rye toast and bracing mustard, caviar-studded crepes — the real draw is power.

“The Clintons are fans of the New York location, so we hope to have them soon,” restaurant spokeswoman Dannia Hakki said, adding that the D.C. location has a Secret Service-friendly VIP entrance designed to accommodate privacy-seeking politicians.

That secret pathway undoubtedly got a workout during inauguration weekend, as Mari Vanna welcomed a host of celebvocates to town for the Creative Coalition’s “Night Before Dinner.” D.C. shadow Sen. Paul Strauss made it out, spending the evening mixing with the likes of entertainers Tim Daly, Paula Abdul and David Arquette.

Not yet a household name?

Mari Vanna still has you covered.

The restaurant has already distributed about 150 “front door keys” to lucky Washingtonians and visiting guests. The totems, which actually do unlock at least one security catch at every location, grant the bearer special access to future events. “The keys are given out as part of essentially a loyalty program,” Hakki said, noting that key holders are privy to “secret parties, cutting lines and global VIP services.”

“It is meant to make you feel like you are walking into your own home,” Hakki suggested. “And your home is at Mari Vanna.”

Mari Vanna: 1141 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-783-7777; marivanna.ru

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