Come springtime, veg-heads rejoice in the return of greenmarket produce, while meat-eaters get excited about the flesh of young sheep. Omnivores get the best of both worlds, matching rosy and supple lamb to the abundance of carrots, asparagus, and ramps available at the greenmarket. Spring lamb’s mildness makes it versatile for preparations cooked or raw, while chefs tame the gaminess of more mature animals with slow cooking and pungent spices. In celebration of the season, here are the ten best lamb dishes in NYC.
10. Lamb over rice, Halal Guys (307 East 14th Street, 212-533-7707) It took more than twenty years, but the little street cart that could (on 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue) went brick-and-mortar last year, finally offering its devoted fans protection from the elements. Carvings of spit-roasted lamb get stuffed into pitas or piled over fragrant sunset-orange rice. Smother the piquant slices in zesty, mayonnaise-based white sauce to complete this simple formula, which has spawned a burgeoning empire, with franchises planned across the country.
9. Lamb bun, Cooklyn (659 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn; 347-915-0721) At his casual Prospect Heights eatery, chef Anthony Theocaropoulos — who worked for fine-dining heavy hitters Mario Batali and Michael White — cooks under the broad umbrella of New American cuisine, employing occasional nods to his Greek roots. One of his best Hellenic dishes is also one of the most straightforward, a $5 sandwich of warm braised lamb slathered in cool feta cream and anointed with pickled daikon and dill fronds.
8. Lamb bolognese, Dieci (228 East 10th Street, 212-387-9545) For eight years, this Japanese-Italian restaurant in the East Village has attracted a steady stream of regulars thanks to clever, offbeat pairings like piquant marinated sea-urchin-topped new potato gratin. The kitchen takes springy, thick-cut ramen noodles and tosses them with a chile-spiked bolognese made from ground lamb. The chunky ragù makes the dish reminiscent of mazemen, ramen’s saucier, soupless cousin.
7. Crudo del día, El Colmado Butchery (53 Little West 12th Street, 212-488-0000) Seamus Mullen’s meatpacking-district sibling to his El Colmado tapas bar inside the Gotham West Market specializes in grass-fed meats from local purveyors — as in, customers can purchase beef, chicken, and even prepared dishes for takeout during the day. At night, there’s a menu of sandwiches and tapas, but diners can also choose cuts from the butcher’s cold case for the kitchen to cook. There’s also a daily changing crudo preparation; one recent standout was lamb carpaccio with puffed farro and cured lemon cream.
6. Lamb burger, the Breslin (16 West 29th Street, 212-679-1939) From an Anglicized, clubby restaurant inside the Ace Hotel, April Bloomfield serves one of the city’s best burgers that happens to be made from Pat LaFrieda–sourced American lamb. The bulky patties sit in between a toasted ciabatta bun under slices of tangy French feta cheese and raw red onion. On the side: superlative, thrice-cooked french fries, sturdy enough to stand up to a saucer of cumin-flavored mayonnaise.
5. Lamb chop in Xinjiang style, Lao Dong Bei (44-09 Kissena Boulevard, Queens; 718-539-4100) The must-order dish at this Flushing Dongbei restaurant — specializing in the cuisine of northeast China — is a hulking lamb rib rack hidden under a thick coating of crushed chiles, cumin, and sesame seeds. The meat’s marinated, braised, and deep fried before it gets its spice mop, which creates a gorgeous dichotomy between fatty, juicy interior and crunchy, pungent crust. Easily shared, it makes for a sensible gateway dish to this lesser-known regional Chinese cuisine.
4. Lamb meatballs, Louro (142 West 10th Street, 212-206-0606) With his weekly, experimental “Nossa Mesa” dinner series and a penchant for pickling, chef David Santos rarely shies away from a challenge. In search of a lighter meatball dish, he’s taken to braising ground lamb in the seasoned white-wine broth left over from simmering Provençal artichokes barigoule. The addition of hay butter turns the liquid into a sauce, and Santos cracks open a jar of kumquat marmalade made with Middle Eastern spices to add a tinge of aromatic brightness.
3. Iskender kebab, Taci’s Beyti (1955 Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-627-5750) At Ersin Beki’s Sheepshead Bay Turkish restaurant, which his late father, Taci, opened over 30 years ago, lamb crisped on a spit takes a bath in tomato sauce that whispers with chile heat. Browned slices are layered over squares of toasted pita mixed with yogurt, which soak up the meat’s juices and soften into something like thin dumplings after being baked in the oven. The result is a kind of loose, homey casserole that’s both comforting and filling with the creaminess of dairy and acidic tomatoes playing against the lamb’s concentrated gaminess, amped up from its time on the rotisserie.
2. Chakapuli at We Are Georgians, (230 Kings Highway, Brooklyn; 718-759-6250) Erstwhile seismologist Marina Maisuradze-Olivo runs this Gravesend Georgian restaurant with her nephew Giorgi, serving up generous butter-and-egg-filled khachapuri breads and filling bulbous khinkali dumplings with mashed potato or a mixture of pork and veal. Delve deeper into Maisuradze-Olivo’s menu, however, and you’ll be rewarded with a rotating menu of earthy, savory stews. When it’s available, don’t miss a chance to try chakapuli, a verdant slurry of parsley, mint, dill, cilantro, and tarragon with tender chunks of boneless lamb.
1. Mutton chop, Keens Steakhouse (72 West 36th Street, 212-947-3636) The city’s finest chophouse owes much of its fame, fortune, and glory to one singular dish: the mutton chop. Despite an earnest mislabeling (actual mutton’s long been replaced with saddle of lamb), the gargantuan meat mountain yields medium-rare flesh that nearly falls from the bone underneath a thick crust of char. Eating the old-fashioned cut feels especially apropos given the surroundings — a labyrinth of dimly lighted rooms, walls cluttered with antique collectibles, and ceilings strung with 90,000 long-stemmed tobacco pipes.