Lamb has a marketing problem.
The critter is doggone cute, for one thing. Lamb for dining purposes is a sheep younger than 1, and in springtime, it’s easy to imagine lambs gamboling in a meadow, maybe with Bambi. Who would want to eat that?
Well, I do, and when well-prepared and presented with flair, lamb chops are one of the best meals around.
For some, it’s an acquired taste — “gamey” is a word that’s sometimes used — and I’ll concede I’ve never had mutton, which is an even more acquired taste. But when it’s a choice cut, typically lamb that’s finished with grass or grain, a lamb chop is just as rich and delicious as beef.
Robert Ulrich, sous chef at Salute Wine Bar & More in Rochester, is among those who “didn’t used to be” a lamb fan, in part because of the lightly gamey taste of New Zealand lamb at that time. With more domestic lamb available, and changes in ranching practices in New Zealand, Robert is on board.
They serve a magnificent full rack ($33) at Salute, about 18-20 ounces, with the bones frenched and just enough fat left to keep the lamb moist during the long roasting, says Robert, who has been at Salute since last summer and worked in the kitchen at the Doubletree for 17 years, going back to the days of Sebastian’s Restaurant.
The rack is marinated and pan-seared in a light herb oil before spending 20-30 minutes in the oven. The result is mild, moist and tender, with a sprig of tarragon, grilled lemon and a range of side dishes — wild rice was a great complement. It’s one of the Four Stars of lamb in the Rochester area.
At the Hubbell House, which has been a legendary place for good food, more or less continuously, since before Lincoln was president, they serve two thick chops, about as thick as their beef filet mignon, with bones trimmed. The chops are seared, broiled and served on a steakhouse broiler plate, with a distinctive mint sauce on the site.
The most imaginative lamb dish I found was at the St. James Hotel’s Port Restaurant in Red Wing, where the menu features braised lamb shoulder with foraged mushroom farrato, wilted arugula and sauce naturel. Before we go further: It’s $22, which for a plate this good is amazingly reasonable. The slices of lamb were as moist and mild as tenderloin, slightly charred and arrayed on a bed of wilted but not overcooked arugula. You won’t want to miss one grain of the farrato.
If you’re not a lamb eater, the Port’s braised lamb shoulder is a good place to start. Ditto for the four chops at the Woodfire Grille, the dining room at Diamond Jo casino, just south of Albert Lea in Northwood, Iowa. The salt crusted chops ($35) also have a strong rosemary and mint infusion, and even cooked to medium, they keep a tender, smooth texture.
Agree or disagree? That’s what Four Stars is all about. Send your feedback, and I’ll add it to the record in my next column.
FOUR STARS OF LAMB
502 Main St. N., Mantorville
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, 11:30 a.m. through the afternoon Sunday; early dinner, 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; dinner, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Rochester Marriott Mayo Clinic Area
101 First Ave. S.W., Rochester
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; bar hours, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
St. James Hotel
406 Main St., Red Wing
Hours: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Lounge hours, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight, Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Diamond Jo Casino
Hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.