Don't Be Sheepish with Lamb

Lamb is sporting a new kind of confidence. Younger diners in particular are digging it. Already gravitating toward global and more creative approaches – to which lamb lends itself – they’re also benefiting from the protein’s growing presence in fast casual restaurants. The number of menus serving lamb grew 11 percent over the last four years, according to food industry research firm Datassential.

“People say lamb tastes gamey at times,” says Francis Derby, executive chef of The Cannibal, a restaurant and butcher shop in New York City and Los Angeles. “To me, the word gamey means, ‘I don’t like the way that animal tastes.’ But if you have good product and you know what you’re doing, you can change anyone’s mind.”

Most Americans have been divided on lamb – loving it or hating it. That’s changing, however, thanks in part to a heightened focus on quality. Chefs are sourcing better raw material, which often means younger meat and less pronounced flavor. There’s no better time than now to change the minds of the holdouts. Preparations are brighter and more dynamic in the spring, thanks to spices and produce that thrive at this time of year.

Neck to Tail: Quality All Around

Buying top quality meat can reshape attitudes, Derby says. For a restaurant anchored by a butcher shop, this means bringing in the whole animal. To do so, he keeps the menu flexible. At the Los Angeles location, he offers a rotating collection of cuts – which may include roasted lamb shoulder, braised lamb belly and neck confit. The most popular preparation, however, is raw. For a lamb tartare appetizer, Derby minces top round and seasons it with lemon oil, chives, salt and lemon juice. Diced green apple and charred leeks add sweetness and depth, while olive oil and a grating of goat cheese impart richness in place of the typical egg yolk.

At Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, Executive Chef Carlo Lamagna also buys whole lamb for the quality and the creative freedom. He especially likes working with the neck. “With the concentration of meat around the bone, it’s one of the more flavorful cuts,” he says. Lamagna confits the neck in rendered lamb fat, which adds depth and lets him leverage a byproduct of buying the whole animal. To tie the lamb taste to peas, fava beans, asparagus and ramps paired with the confit neck, he dresses the vegetables in a meaty vinaigrette enriched with lamb fat and jus.

A Leg Up: Focus on Flavor

Certain restaurants naturally lend themselves to selling customers on lamb. Souvla, a Greek counter service concept in San Francisco, goes through 16 to 18 legs of lamb at each location every day, says Chef-Partner Tony Cervone. Of all the proteins served, lamb is the most popular option at all three locations. Its popularity comes down to flavor, Cervone says. “The staples of Greek cuisine are lemon juice, oregano and olive oil, and if you add that to any lamb dish, you have an easy crowd pleaser,” he explains.

After experimenting with other cuts, he found that boneless legs of lamb were best, because everything can be consumed. To prepare the meat for spit roasting, each leg is seasoned with salt and pepper. As it cooks on the rotisserie, juices drip off and baste the meat. Because the leg is a lean cut, Cervone marinates the cooked meat in garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, oregano and spices. “We have to add olive oil to give it that moisture,” he says.

At Tava Kitchen, a three-unit fast casual restaurant based in San Francisco, customers choose the format (burroti, bowl or plate) and then add a protein, such as lamb meatballs. The menu’s focus on South Asian flavors makes lamb a natural fit, says co-founder Hasnain Zaidi. Because diners can see the protein as they order, those wary of lamb can sample some before committing. “One out of five (customers) is getting lamb,” Zaidi says. “Not only are we getting people to try it, but those people are raving about it.”

Pulled lamb shoulder has been on the menu in the past, but Tava currently serves lamb meatballs made from the leg, which offers more control over seasoning and fat content. “What you’re going for is something broadly applicable,” Zaidi explains. “You want lamb to taste like lamb, but you don’t want it to be too gamey. It’s about balancing the freshness.”

Spice Is Nice: Lighten Up

While lamb is often prepared in rich European-style braises for winter, warmer weather demands brighter preparations. Often this comes from adding spice – and having some fun with it. Lamb, spices, crackerlike flatbread and yogurt are a successful combination for spring at Seven Lions in Chicago. When a wrong delivery from a farmer left Executive Chef Patrick Russ with a goat instead of a lamb, he experimented, coating the goat with garam masala, braising it, and serving it with lavash crackers baked crisp like crostini. The goat was a tough sell – but those who got the dish loved it. When he changed it to lamb, however, it took off. “What do you want to eat when it warms up on the patio?” Russ asks. “You want this.”

How to Turn Lamb Loathers Into Lovers

Position It as a Luxury

Elevate lamb’s rep through unique or more sophisticated preparations, like the lamb tartare appetizer at The Cannibal in New York City and Los Angeles. Have a seasonal menu? Even better. Present lamb as an irresistible limited time offering.

Make It Feel Familiar

If upscale fare is out of the question, take a page from fast casuals serving lamb in more approachable and affordable formats. “Shanks, shoulder and thigh are great for kabobs, or you can mince lamb with some fat to make burgers,” says Maneet Chauhan, executive chef at Chauhan Ale and Masala House in Nashville, Tennessee.

Beat the Game

Cut lamb’s gamey taste by sourcing younger meat. Season it with flavors that balance earthiness and freshness. For example, Tava Kitchen offers lamb meatballs made with cumin, garlic mint and cilantro.

Kate Leahy is an award-winning cookbook author. Follow her on Twitter @KateLeahy.