“I probably should’ve mentioned this earlier, but I don’t really like lamb.”
This was the first thing said to me by my date upon entering this year’s Lamb Jam DC. Nice, right? Solid start.
Three hours, some embarrassing lamb-themed photo booth shots, countless glasses of local beers and wines, a lamb toss reminiscent of a bridal bouquet throw, and damn near 20 dynamite lamb dishes later, she was singing a different tune. But we’ll get back to that.
This year’s event was christened a “Global Flavors Tour,” with 17 of the most talented chefs from the D.C. area sorted into categories representing locales and flavors from around the world. Latin, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Asian-themed lamb dishes ensured the palate some different takes on the same (delicious) protein. A live presentation of lamb butchery helped attendants understand exactly what they were eating, as well as providing a forum for the meatmongers to show off their…sharp wit. (sorry)
Each motif had some hits, each motif had a few tiny misses, but all clearly showed off both the cooking chops of local chefs and the versatility of lamb.
The Latin region was well-represented (if a little heavy on the salt all-around). Favorites included The Partisan’s lamb riblets, braised in mezcal and served with a toasted onion puree and crispy shallots. Sticky, tender, and with a great pull from the bone, these were fantastic one-biters. I mean, it’s Ed Witt…obviously he’s going to slay a meat challenge. Taco Bamba’s “Erik Bruner-Lamb” tacos, filled with lamb chorizo and pickled lamb’s tongue, were an homage to the Toki Underground / Maketto chef; Thai chilis and cilantro lent this rich, fatty mini-taco some blazing heat. I ate like six of these. #sorrynotsorry. Pepita put out a monster bite – a bright corn salad and preserved lime puree resting under a filled (stuffed, packed, jammed) lamb rib, fatty and greasy; napkins definitely required. Tico even doubled down on the lamb, topping a slab of sous vide lamb belly with house-cured lamb bacon.
Considering the region’s history with the featured meat, the Middle Eastern chefs had a heavy burden. Spoiler alert: they delivered. Trummer’s on Main’s Persian-spiced pulled lamb shank with shirazi salad (herbs, cucumber, and tomato), couscous, and labneh stayed true to its category, and tasted fucking awesome. BLT Steak kept it classic, serving up a lamb belly gyro; Jackson 20 presented a lamb rib rubbed with a deep, complex Baharat spice mixture; and Belle Haven Country Club put out a Middle East-inspired lamb medley.
Although lamb may not be a super traditional Asian ingredient (or maybe it is – what the hell do I know?), the category’s chefs did a great job featuring the lamb while also introducing some unique and distinctly Asian flavors. BYT’s love for The Fainting Goat is well-documented. It’s no surprise then that Chef Nathan Beauchamp served up one of our favorite lamb dishes of the day: Thai-spiced lamb belly with pickled eggplant, long beans, ramps, and cashews. This dish was a flamethrower, easily the spiciest bite we tried all day. Occidental Grill & Seafood (last year’s champ) plated a complex-flavored lamb shank scented with lemongrass and ginger, and served with a green tea tapioca, green apple, and papaya salad. Lamby bubble tea. City Perch Kitchen + Bar was the one competitor to offer a paired drink with its dish; Malaysian lamb rendang with coconut rice was a spot-on match with their homemade rosewater-mint tonic.
The Mediterranean-themed dishes won my “best overall category”; Zaytinya’s lamb frika with spit-roasted lamb shoulder, farro, peas, and mint was a ragu-like dish I’d absolutely pay for in a restaurant. Rappahannock, known primarily for their super-fresh oysters, showed some versatility by presenting slices of perfectly medium-rare leg of lamb with baby artichokes, harissa, and an oil-cured black olive tapenade (hella Mediterranean). ICI Urban Bistro was making mini-gyros to order, then topping them with a braised lamb leg, a lemon-onion marmalade, and herb yogurt. A sprinkling of microgreens cut through the richness of the meat, and made for a gorgeous presentation. The Washington Court Hotel (What? They serve food?) actually had one of my favorite dishes of the day: slow roasted lamb shoulder minestrone with preserved lemon and wild ramps.
This category also pumped out the overall champ (absurdly cheesily dubbed the “Lord of the Lamb”) – Cava Mezze’s DC/Mediterranean mashup of a 100% lamb shoulder half smoke combined a ground lamb sausage with lamb chili, mustard tzatziki, and marinated onion: a worthy champ. (Slinging dishes for Cava was former BYT Events Assistant Brandon Weight – congrats, man!)
And my overall winner for the day? Bluejacket’s Asian entry of ground lamb with lime, chilis, green curry mayo, pickled quail egg and peanuts on Bibb lettuce. A riff on larb with just enough spice, richness, and deep lamby flavor, these mini-wraps were hard to stop eating. Just a great, great dish that hit all my favorite flavor profiles.
Honestly, there wasn’t a dish that I didn’t enjoy – often a rare occurrence at big events like this.
Which brings me back around full circle. While my date may have started the afternoon with her lamb dislike disclaimer, I couldn’t have been happier as we were leaving. Her summary? “That was awesome – I love lamb!” Word. Another convert.