Austin Lamb Jam Recap
I was asked to judge the first annual Austin Lamb Jam on Sunday, sponsored by the American Lamb Board. They’ve been hosting these competitions around the country for the last five years in cities like Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and D.C. but this was the first year they’ve come to Austin. Fifteen restaurants from Austin and one from Dallas competed for best Asian, best Middle Eastern, best Mediterranean and best Latin American recipes with lamb. We judges were to choose one winner from each category, plus one best-in-show.
These were my favorites plus a couple runners up. Hope they give you some ideas for restaurants to try in Austin, or recipes to make at home!
My personal choice for best-in-show (and the winner of best Latin American) was this Patagonian-style lamb from Buenos Aires Cafe. The lamb was cooked perfectly — well-done but still very tender and with a gorgeous, crusty exterior. It was served with chimichurri sauce and a tomato salsa fresca, plus some roasted squash and thin discs of fresh corn. A simple combination, executed perfectly and also beautifully plated.
My favorite in the Asian category was this impressive lamb rillette with carrot-kimchi puree, pickled sesame seeds, and topped with a rice crisp from Bess Bistro. The combination of smooth, rich lamb pate with sweet-spicy puree, fresh bean sprouts and the crispy, salty rice cracker was exciting. The flavor of the lamb was muted or maybe distracted from by the other ingredients, but overall it was very good and the prettiest looking dish we were served.
The group’s winner for best Asian was this excellent lamb pho from Proof and Pantry in Dallas. The red flecks on top are fresh pickled ginger, which was wonderful against the fatty lamb belly. I would definitely eat more of this and the only reason it wasn’t my choice for best Asian was that the lamb rillette got a couple more points for creativity.
This “Lamb breakfast taco” from Odd Duck won best Mediterranean, although I’m not sure what makes it a breakfast taco, as opposed to a regular taco. Lamb sausage in a hand-made flour tortilla with an avocado sauce underneath and some crispy fried chickpeas and sprouts on top. The sausage was spiced with fennel seeds and paprika and had a great texture: not dry but not greasy. One thing that would have made it better for me was a crispier casing on the sausage.
The charred meatballs with chickpeas from Jacoby’s was the best-in-show winner (and also my pick for best Middle Eastern). Fat lamb meatballs, still pink inside, were well browned on the outside and served over a chickpea puree. The thick yogurt on top, adorned with flecks of preserved lemon peel was what hooked me, though. I think there could have been a bit more lemon action there, but over all it was a very nice and balanced plate.
Finally, this lamb pita from Olive and June. It didn’t win. But it could have. All the elements were great: leg of lamb, lemon ricotta, smoked black olives, salsa verde and fresh, shaved root vegetables in a small pita bread. All the pieces were there! Individually, they were delicious and together they were magnificent, but the way it was plated was unfortunately more beautiful than practical and it was impossible to easily take a bite that included all the flavors together. Too bad.
Along with the delicious bites, we also got to sample a Zinfandel and a Merlot blend from The Austin Winery; several beers from St. Arnold’s, and a bourbon cocktail made with Paula’s Texas Orange. I was very impressed with both wines and will look for them again.