Around the spring holidays, we always get a craving for lamb. We still have fond memories of the rack of lamb at Deux Cheminees, and obviously love the lamb shoulder at Zahav. We asked Craig LaBan who else is doing a great lamb dish.
There are so many good lamb dishes to be had in town, with an international array of options. The Uzbek places of Northeast Philly (like Uzbekistan, Suzani, Shish-Kabab Palace, and Samarkand in nearby Feasterville) showcase some of the best lamb cookery around, from charcoal-grilled skewers to fragrant plov, soups, and dumplings. The Cypriot-themed Kanella Grill is another can’t-miss lamb destination, with aromatic ground kofte kebabs, the occasional braised lamb dish, and, I’m told, a charcoal-fired spit planned for this weekend’s celebration of Greek Easter.
There are compelling Asian lamb traditions, too. Lamb loves the ma la spice of Sichuan peppercorns in the cumin lamb at Han Dynasty (one dish that is pretty consistent at its various branches), but I’m especially fond of the spice-crusted Xi’an BBQ lamb skewers (and lamb pita soup) at Xi’an Sizzling Woks in Chinatown. Some meaty Thai-style lamb chops with Massaman curry left an impression on me at Chabaa Thai in Manayunk, where the coconut milk curry is mild but aromatic. In Cherry Hill, I love the Vietnamese-flavored chops of “Lambs on Fire” at Lemongrass, a charming little Vietnamese bistro on Route 38.
For straight-ahead Italian lamb chops, Caffe Aldo Lamberti in Cherry Hill does an excellent Tuscan-style rendition. Some perfectly medium-rare little chops, stacked with feta and gravy over fries, are the poutine-styled star of the lamb frites at Bar Volvèr (where the lamb sliders with harissa aioli are also hard to resist). If classic French chops are what you crave, it might be worth a special request to Pierre Calmels. His menus at Bibou and Le Chéri change regularly, but I still dream about the big lamb chop he once served me over a lamb-stuffed Pithiviers pastry.
Speaking of lamb and pastry combos, if you’re lucky, Sam Jacobson will make one of his crazy Bedfordshire Clangers at Stargazy, a pastry tube that starts with curried lamb sausage at one end, then morphs about two-thirds down into a sugar-dusted peach pie at the other. Jacobson often changes the meat and fruit fillings of that clanger, which may sound bizarre. But the lamb version was totally delicious. The clanger this week will feature coffee-cardamom lamb sausage with minted pineapple at the sweet end.
If there’s one Philly lamb dish other than the Zahav shoulder you must know, it’s the lamb barbacoa served at El Compadre on Ninth Street each weekend. Whole lambs are cooked Mexican-style overnight, then chopped down to order in the front window for tender tacos alongside pancita sausage and a lamb-chickpea consomme that is simply a sublimely earthy feast. One could not get farther from the fancy French version once served at posh Deux Cheminees, but I believe El Compadre’s barbacoa is such a powerfully soulful dish that the late, great Fritz Blank of Deux Cheminees certainly also would have been a fan.