BABA Serves up Cocktails just like Grandma Makes

Image: BABA

A cozy new bar in Arlington, Virginia, brings a Balkan flavor and feel to the area’s cocktail fans.

 

An evening at BABA is exactly like one spent at your grandmother’s. If she happens to be hip, Balkan, and stirred to whip up inventive cocktails in her parlor, that is.

The new 56-seat seat concept from Ivan Iricanin, who also operates Ambar, the popular Balkan-influence trio of restaurants in Washington, DC, Arlington, Virginia and Belgrade, Serbia, evolves throughout the day, from coffee shop in the morning to a place to grab a quick bite at lunchtime. But it’s in the evening, when the lights go down and grandma grabs her shaker, that things really get fun.

“Baba” is actually the Serbian word for “grandmother,” and BABA the bar deftly melds the warm, comforting feel of her abode with the modern and chic. Accessible via a door adjacent to Ambar’s Clarendon, Virginia, location and down a flight of stairs, the basement lounge touts sumptuously plush armchairs, a mantel is adorned with nana’s crystal, and lots of artwork and family portraits hang on the wall. Other design elements by Nya Gill (who is Iricanin’s wife), including exposed brick, an inlaid tile floor and vintage moulding, add to the cozy vibe. “BABA tells stories through every table and chair, from tiles to the bar, all the way through how lights and windows create patterns when the DJ is playing music,” says general manager Uroš Smiljanić. (The latter happens at 10:00 PM every Wednesday through Saturday evening, when grandmother is apt to really let her hair down and cut a rug.)

One things for sure: she definitely knows a thing or two about cocktails. Like Ambar upstairs, many of BABA’s drinks (created by consultant Esteban Ordonez of International Cocktail Group) have Balkan elements, including honey, preserves and rakia, the fruit-based brandy that can be made with anything from cherries to quince. But downstairs, the drinks are decidedly more elevated and craftier – and often served in vintage glassware including etched-crystal coupes and silver-rimmed cocktail glasses that may have been pulled out of a China cabinet or from that mantel. “BABA’s cocktails are much more sophisticated and recipes are far more complicated,” Smiljanić points out.

Sometimes, this translates to twists on classics; other times, stellar original concoctions in their own right. The cocktail menu’s sixteen options are divided into three categories: Light & Refreshing, Strong & Boozy, and Spicy and Smoky. The fruity and tangy Monastery ($10) uses Maraska Slivovitz, a Croatia brandy crafted from plums, as its base spirit; it’s shaken with lime juice, honey, syrup and plum preserves, and garnished with basil leaves. The B&B / BABA & Beets ($12) mixes beet juice with rum, lime and maraschino liqueur, topped with mint; it comes across as both earthy and refreshing, with a light mouthfeel on the palate (from using a juicer rather than a blender) and a beautiful shade of ruby-purple in the glass. For the CPR ($12), rakia infused with chamomile plays nicely with lemon juice, pear puree, ginger syrup and Ambar’s own bitters; the overall effect of this drink (and most on the menu, for that matter) is more balanced than the counterparts upstairs, which can tend to be on the sweeter side.

BABA’s Gin and Tonic gets a heady update, as gin is infused with cucumber, then mixed with rose water and citrus essence; it’s served in a goblet alongside a bottle of Fever Tree Elderflower Tonic so you can add as much or as little as you want, and garnished with edible flowers. On the boozier side, Belgrade by Night ($12) blends elements of both the Manhattan and Revelation cocktails; rye whiskey is stirred with dessert wine, orange bitters and Gorki List, a brand of pelinkovac, a bitter herbal liqueur from Serbia that’s a stand-in for Fernet Branca.

And to nosh on with those libations is a selection of authentic small plates. “No one can cook like a grandma – that’s a fact,” says Smiljanić. “[Her cooking] is delicious, it’s mouthwatering, and above all it is healthy.” Standouts include roasted cauliflower with creamy eggplant puree and pomegranate dressing ($7), a duo of veal and beef sliders with red cabbage and coleslaw ($6), and wild mushrooms sautéed with onion and thyme, and topped with kajmak ($8), a Serbian cheese similar to cream cheese.

Drinks that are slightly edgy while still remaining accessible, dishes that are a welcome departure from the standard bar fare, and an entire staff that hails from the region that is represented (and who all have their own fascinating personal stories about things on the menu) all add to BABA’s authenticity. “Balkan culture and tradition go centuries and centuries into the past, and going to grandmother’s house is always an adventure,” declares Smiljanić. “She is strong, she is fun, knows everything, and she keeps the family together.” You go, granny.

 

BABA & Beets cocktail recipe - BABA Bar profile
Attribution/Copyrights: Tigran Andronikovich Markaryan / Calypso Digital

BABA & Beets

Recipe courtesy of BABA, Arlington, VA

  • 2 oz. White rum
  • ¾ oz. Freshly pressed beet juice
  • ¾ oz. Lime juice
  • ½ oz. Simple syrup
  • ½ oz. Maraska Maraschino Liqueur
  • 7 Large mint leaves
  • Lime wedge, for garnish

Add all ingredients except garnish to a cocktail shaker, add ice, and shake until well chilled. Double strain into a chilled coupe glass, and garnish with the lime wedge.

 

CPR cocktail recipe - BABA Bar profile
Attribution/Copyrights: Tigran Andronikovich Markaryan / Calypso Digital

CPR

Recipe courtesy of BABA, Arlington, VA

  • 1 ½ oz. Chamomile-infused rakia (see Note)
  • 1 oz. Pear puree
  • ¾ oz. Fresh lemon juice
  • ¾ oz. Ginger syrup
  • BABA Bitters (can substitute other bitters)
  • Ginger candy and bitters, for garnish

Add all ingredients except garnish to a cocktail shaker, add ice, and shake until chilled. Double strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with the ginger candy and bitters.

For the chamomile-infused vodka:

Add 1 cup dried chamomile flowers and a 750ml bottle of vodka in a container with a tight-fitting lid. Store in a cool dark place for several days, shaking several times a day, until desired flavor is reached. Strain out solids and pour vodka back into its original bottle.

 

Monastery cocktail recipe - BABA Bar profile
Attribution/Copyrights: Tigran Andronikovich Markaryan / Calypso Digital

Monastery

Recipe courtesy of BABA, Arlington, VA

  • 2 oz. Maraska Slivovitz
  • ¾ oz. Lime juice
  • ½ oz. Honey syrup
  • 1 tsp. Plum preserves
  • 3 Fresh basil leaves
  • Basil leaf and bitters, for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, lightly muddle the basil. Add the remaining ingredients, add ice, and shake until chilled. Double strain into a chilled cocktail coupe, and garnish with the basil leave and bitters.

 

Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.

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