Words By Logan Hollers, Photos By Blinkofanaye
My date, upon walking into last year’s Lamb Jam: “I probably should’ve mentioned this earlier, but I don’t really like lamb.”
That same date, upon walking into this year’s Lamb Jam: “Goddamn, I missed Lamb Jam!”
Such is the power of lamb.
A horde of nearly 400 lamb lovers again descended upon Union Market’s Dock 5 for this year’s American Lamb Jam Global Flavors Tour. The event, in its sixth year in D.C., is a multi-city culinary cook-off showcasing locally-raised lamb dishes from 17 of D.C.’s best chefs. This marked the second year that the participating chefs were categorized into Mediterranean, Asian, Latin, and Middle Eastern flavors.
In addition to dynamite all you can eat lamb small plates, the event also featured numerous local beer, wine, and booze purveyors; a live butchery demonstration by Master Butcher Matthew Levere of Urban Butcher (which provided the only poor showing of the day when we watched some douchebag literally shove aside an older woman to catch a package of lamb tossed out to the crowd); and a table of free swag, courtesy of the American Lamb Board.
Also, as a brief aside, mad props to the Lamb Jam staff for putting together a vastly improved event this year. Gone were last year’s swarms of people, huge lines for food and beverages, and general sense of being way, way too packed, replaced instead with a comfortable number of attendees and an increased booze presence, helpful in rinsing down a legitimate shit-ton of lamb.
On to the food!
The Middle Eastern crew was crushed all day, featuring such bites as Kapnos’s smoked lamb kibbeh (think lamb falafel) with apricot and a spring herb salad; sticky grilled lamb spare ribs with fig chutney from Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House; and, the winner of the Middle Eastern category, Evening Star Café’s slow roasted lamb shoulder with harissa glaze and quinoa tabbouleh.
Mediterranean entries included Gravitas’s category-winning dish of braised lamb shoulder, white beans, and a tzatziki flatbread; crispy lamb belly with a pistachio crumble and lemon jam, courtesy of Alta Strada; and one of my picks for the top dish of the day: Cava Mezze’s lamb shoulder shumai with harissa, crispy lamb skin, and an outstanding avgolemono.
The Latin dishes featured such heavy hitters as Jackson 20, who served a super deep lamb adobada, reminiscent of a Mexican molé, with house-made tortillas; Rappahannock, which combined lamb and clams in a savory pozole; and (of course) Del Campo’s black lamb birria with burnt tomatillo and cuttlefish escabeche, a jet-black bite that stained the tongue and went on to win the coveted People’s Choice Award.
But it was the Asian category that stole the show, with dishes such as the Kung-Fu Panda bao buns with lamb and homemade kimchi from Nonna’s Kitchen; Sixth Engine’s whiskey-marinated lamb belly with soba noodles, toasted benne seeds, and peanuts; and, the big Best in Show winner of the day, Brasserie Beck’s charcoal grilled Vietnamese-style lamb in grape leaves, a charred, smoky wrap that included a sharp, acidic papaya salad and some thermonuclear hot chili sauce.
Chef Dean Dupuis and the Brasserie Beck crew now head to the fall finale to compete for title of “Lamb Jam Master” alongside winners from Lamb Jams in Boston, Seattle, Austin and San Francisco.
Stuffed full of lamb, at the point of being hammered, and aglow in the wash of one of D.C.’s most fun culinary events, my date summed it up best when she turned to me and asked, “We can come back again next year, right?” Oh yeah.