Ambar Capitol Hill has something going in D.C.
Have you been?
A quick search on Google, and you’ll see Ambar isn’t holding the #1 spot among D.C. critics –though, Tom Siesta adores the Clarendon location.
It is, however, applauded amongst tourist and locals.
Washingtonian championed Ambar as #1 on Trip Advisor.
So tourists are yapping with other tourists about where to partake in the culture of brunching, and it’s Ambar who gets the most hand claps.
And I get it.
The concept is ingenious.
Ambar appeals to an experience-oriented desire and delivers it to you wrapped up with an offering of a $39 endless small plates of Balkan cuisine and drinks; this alone is remarkable.
As an active bruncher in D.C., from the All-American Farmers, Fishers, and Bakers, to Michelin-starred Blue Duck Tavern to the Vegan Farewell Diner, the appeal is hard to ignore, and the cuisine is unlike anything I’ve seen.
The big idea is you bring a few friends and indulge in as many curated small plates and drinks as your stomach can manage, and Ambar provides the hospitality.
The dream-come-true gets a little blurry once you experience the restaurant for yourself though.
That’s not to say it’s all bad, and pitchforks should be rallying in opposition of all the glorious reviews.
But it’s not all good either.
Of the few complaints I have about Ambar, many rank low in comparison to what a wonderland the place is.
Notably, Ambar is a beautiful restaurant.
The restaurant is an elevated version of a modest, rustic home and exudes the warmth that expands the compressed space.
The use of various raw wood is the common theme appointed in the chairs; the tables; the bar paneling; the walls; the ceiling.
While some of these elements seem to be refined and complementary of each other, the second floor narrates a different story.
It’s curated with an abstract black and white statement wall leading up the gold-railed wooden staircase.
Once upstairs, there’s a second bar and more seating.
The standout is the heightened level dining area, partially enclosed in glass overlooking the foyer of the first floor.
Here’s where I discovered the first crack in the foundation.
No matter how beautiful the restaurant is, anywhere you are sitting won’t be comfortable, and you feel the twinge of invading someone else’s conversation.
But, once the menus and your waiter arrive, this draws back into a smoky haze.
If you’re at brunch, your waiter will suggest the $39 Balkan experience, not as an upsell, but because it’s the best value if you’re interested in trying every dish.
Without much thought, you’ll abide after scanning the menu.
Plastered with exotic names, ingredients, and dishes native to Balkan– Ambar strikes a balance of familiarity and unfamiliarity with their small plates.
But the level of execution and care runs the gamut between captivating to uninspired.
I won’t waste time explaining all the reasons you should avoid the potato hash.
I could talk about how a handful of potatoes arrived the temperature of scrambled eggs after 30 seconds, but it was more unimpressive than that.
There’s little to imagine taste-wise, as the seasoning is sparse and mute.
The mezze platter introduced a little bit of everything with slippery, chewy pieces of cold cuts (prosciutto and pepperoni?), lukewarm house-made cornbread, cow cheese; tasteless pepper-based ajvar spread and a dairy-laden kajmak spread I’d love to slather on every piece of bread I own.
Combined together with the airy, bitter morsels of sourdough, having a second platter was inevitable.
The ham and cheese crepe is spectacular.
It’s a refreshing surprise, plated on a small decorative plate speckled and rimmed with a brassy gold.
The crepe is stunning in presentation and demands attention in taste.
Savory and padded with appropriately salty ham, slathered with mild-flavored nutty gouda cheese, rolled in a panko-like breading and shallow-fried to golden envy.
Every last forkful pulled through the red pepper emulsion and thyme veloute, transfixed me.
The almond-breaded chicken sandwich discouraged me from ordering anything else from the Sandwich/Sliders category.
I experienced mixed feelings of disgust and bliss eating the salmon benedict.
The egg was perfectly poached; the salmon… tender, deep colored and glossy.
But all of the elements together took on a spongy mouthfeel partially due to the English muffin soaking in a puddle of soupy, but balanced creme fraiche sauce.
The service swayed in this way too; wading from upfront to distant like waves crashing on a shore then receding again.
Then the tempo came to a halt.
One so conspicuous, I worried we wouldn’t be able to order another dish.
Our waiter, who was formerly omnipresent checking back in often for orders and refilling drinks, idly stood by chatting with a hostess towards the end of service.
The idle standby was no big deal, except I’d requested a medium-rare steak and eggs and my order was nowhere to be seen after 15 minutes.
I’d watched food runners, hurried, come upstairs, turn in both directions, check the ticket again and then plop the food down on a table running back downstairs to pick up the next tray.
I thought how possible making a mistake could be on a busy Saturday brunch.
After I’d caught the waitresses attention for the second time about the steak and eggs, she stood close by hawking over a food runner and double checking the ticket and confirmed my suspicions.
I’d been forgotten.
The careless manner in which my steak was cooked, let me know the fairy-tale experience of Ambar had expired.
Still, I tried once more to experience the magic with the strawberry waffle smeared with Nutella.
Let’s just say the Nutella is more forward than anything and again, the waffle was cakey and lukewarm.
After the bill was paid, a collective “meh” was agreed on the uber ride back home.
Ambar D.C. may have the appeal of a candy store, but for me it lacks the mesmerizing taste and the experience worth coming back for more.