Small Plates, Big Taste: Balkan Date Night in Arlington

I’ve lived in Arlington nearly 10 years. I’ve seen places come and go. But my complaint about this area is always the same: we need more diversity in our restaurant scene!

Look, I love a good sports bar as much as the next person (and that’s actually true. I love sports. Hence, the baseballs used as my rating system below). But I can only eat buffalo wings and tater tots so many times before I have to stop writing food/date/travel blogs and have to switch to, “How to Shrink Your Ass in 10 Days” blogs. By the way, if you have a trick, let me know.

Zlatibor (crack cheese spread)

Enter Ambar. My beloved Ambar. I was so excited when this restaurant came to the neighborhood. Not only because I loved its original spot in D.C. and this one is a five minute walk from my apartment, but because my Grandpa is Serbian! The food here is INCREDIBLE. I clearly wasn’t the only person excited because since its opening in 2016, I have never walked by when the restaurant wasn’t completely packed – brunch or dinner.

Balkan Salad

Like its sister restaurant in D.C., Ambar hosts a small plate menu with the Balkan Experience: all you can eat small plates for $35. The D.C. location is a bit more expensive and includes drinks as well, but alas, Virginia laws don’t allow unlimited drinks. So, they have a solid cocktail and wine list to help you out. And don’t miss the rakija. It’s a type of fruit brandy (not sweet) that is known throughout the Balkan region. My grandpa always drank the plum version, but at Ambar I have also tried apricot and pear. So delicious (and strong!) and the bartenders won’t steer you wrong.

You can order a la carte from the menu, but the price of the experience just makes sense since you can try more dishes this way. The servers are always willing to make recommendations of their favorites (most of the staff is from the Serbian region). The zlatibor cheese spread pictured above was the recommendation of a server I had one night, and I have gotten it each time since. To me it has the texture of ricotta but the flavor of feta. Delicious.

The menu is easy to navigate with charcuterie and spreads, to salads, soups, vegetables, and heartier meat and seafood items. We always start with a couple of spreads which include bread (they bring crudite for Josh) and the Balkan Salad (pictured above). The Balkan Salad will remind you of a Greek Salad (bell pepper, cucumber, tomato, onion and a crumbled cheese similar to feta). So refreshing on a hot day.

Braised Cabbage with Yogurt
Marinated Peppers

We usually move on from there to the vegetables. Now, Ambar has the BEST Brussels sprouts ever. Sadly, they had already sold out of them by the time we arrived so I don’t have a photo to share. So we went with the braised cabbage which we had never had (delicious), and the marinated three peppers which are one of Josh’s favorites. The green are spicy!

Balkan cuisine is meat heavy. This is the area of the menu where you can do serious damage because everything is so good. We always get cevapi which is a beef and veal sausage. They serve it with paprika and onion. Josh loves the pork sausage with mustard. It is similar in flavor to Polish kielbasa. This was the first time we tried the pulled pork. I thought it was fine, but nothing to write home about. The flavors weren’t as bold as some of their other meat options.

We moved on to a few additional meat options. The lamb at this restaurant tastes just like the lamb my mom makes for Serbian Christmas (Orthodox Christmas). Growing up with a Serbian father, her family celebrated Christmas on December 25 and on January 7. When I was growing up, we continued the celebration with my grandparents. I loved our double celebrations because they were unique, and on Serbian Christmas we always had roasted lamb! This time we also tried the wild boar patty which is so good. They stuff it with delicious smoked gouda.

We finished with two of my favorites which I always save for last: sarma (stuffed cabbage) and the stuffed bell pepper. Sarma is another dish we always have on Serbian Christmas. The version I make is stuffed with a combination of beef, pork and veal. Ambar’s is stuffed with a pork mixture. It somehow tastes better when I don’t have to spend six hours in my kitchen making it! I love the stuffed pepper as well but what really makes it is the sauce. It sits on top of a creamy lemon dill sauce which you will want to drink with a straw. Two of my favorite dishes by far.

I couldn’t recommend this restaurant enough. Each time we go, we try different things which is why the $35 Balkan Experience is such a great deal. A few things I love that weren’t ordered this time around: Cheese Pie (better than Spanakopita – I promise) and Grilled Pork Neck (I know – but trust me). And the Brussels Sprouts are a must if they don’t run out! They also have a great cocktail selection and interesting wines from the Balkan region. We had a great Pinot Noir from Bulgaria. Who knew?

Make reservations. As I said, I’ve never walked by when it wasn’t completely full.

Rating: Four Amazeballs. A great opportunity to try new things and not break the bank.

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