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Lamb Off the Rack

Less frequently used cuts shine on West Coast Menus

Caitlin M. O¹Shaughnessy

While a more conventional dish like lamb chops has been a mainstay on menus all over the West Coast, chefs have recently been featuring less frequently seen entrées like lamb neck, cheek and belly to enrich the flavors in spring-inspired dishes. Move over shanks and rack of lamb – new and unusual cuts are taking their place at the table.

Thinking outside the rack

Roasted rack of lamb is a conventional, yet impressive dish; when traditionally prepared and ordered in a restaurant, the frenched rack of lamb appears with the bones exposed and sometimes even crowned with paper chop frills. Executive Chef Scott Howard, of Brick & Bottle in Corte Madera, describes the move towards working with other less known (and less expensive) cuts, saying, “The more unique cuts of meat include the working part of the animal, such as legs and sweetbreads, which are more difficult to cook. Using these cuts of meat reflects true technique and skill, allowing chefs to showcase their talent in the kitchen while also introducing guests to something new.”

At Brick & Bottle, Chef Howard is currently featuring an herb-crusted lamb loin, with baby bok choy, caramelized cauliflower and a green peppercorn sauce. He says that, “Guests love lamb and are very open to lamb loin. It’s all about introducing it in a familiar style/dish to make it approachable. It’s what we do best at Brick & Bottle – taking comfort foods and putting a twist on it!” The unique flavor of lamb is what really shines when prepared with complementary ingredients, as it can be both gamey and delicate at the same time. Chef Howard elaborates on his dish, saying that “roasted lamb loin is a beautifully simple dish – and roasting something really brings out the dedicated flavors in the meat and the accompanying spices. The dish also pairs well with beverages.”

In San Francisco, Executive Chef David Bazirgan (most recently named Eater’s “Hottest Chef in America”) at Fifth Floor recognizes the fact that lamb is now returning to the spotlight: “All of these ‘unusual’ cuts of lamb

have been around for a long time, but it’s just getting more exposure the more and more people that are using them. But it’s really nothing new. I think since people are tired of pork belly, this is something similar, but different, that’s really appealing to people. I also think that because more chefs are using the whole animal, more and more people are starting to use some of these more unfamiliar cuts.” 

On his dinner menu, Chef Bazirgan features an exotic combination of a roasted lamb loin served with farro, golden raisins, radishes, confit belly, black garlic, argan oil and harissa jus. Lamb is an incredibly versatile meat and its robust flavor is accentuated by broiling or grilling. Chef Bazirgan uses the argan oil and harrisa since “saddle loin is just not super gamey, but it’s tender and picks up other flavors well. I think lamb generally makes a better main course, but of course that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make a good appetizer. I love black garlic, and I think it lends well to the flavors of the dish.”

Simple flavors, local ingredients

With such a strong flavor, lamb really succeeds when it is combined with fresh flavors and simple pairings. In Corte Madera, Chef Howard makes the best of California’s ample resources: “I favor simplicity in my dishes in order to allow the ingredient to really shine. We are so spoiled on the West Coast with such an abundance of fresh and interesting ingredients so it’s all about balancing flavors. I use foraged mushrooms, local produce from the farmers’ market and seasonal fruits and vegetables in my dishes.”

In Sausalito, Chef Kim Alter has recently opened Plate Shop, a 49-seat restaurant on the water that highlights “California handcrafted food and drink.” Chef Alter truly values the outstanding quality of nearby resources, saying: “At Plate Shop we focus on local ingredients. From Sausalito alone we get all of our herbs and edible garnishes, either in our garden where we have a special shed for micro herbs or from the wild. We pick our own nasturtiums, borage flowers, radish flowers, chickweed, etc. Right now I pair braised lamb shanks with whole carrots and vadouvan. Carrots and Indian spices go really well with lamb; it’s a pretty classic pairing.” Lamb is an incredibly versatile protein that can stand up to the heat and powerful flavors of Southeast Asian cuisine. 

Nicolas Bour, the new Executive Chef at El Bizcocho restaurant at Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego, emphasizes the robust flavor of lamb with their dish
featuring roasted lamb and Moroccan couscous with golden raisins, Marcona almonds, and Merguez sausages. Integrating cumin, mint, rosemary, thyme, garlic, shallots and Tellicherry peppercorns; Chef Bour has balanced the sometimes overpowering gamey flavor of lamb with classic Indian and North African flavors. In addition to being an excellent base for strong seasonings, lamb also is a natural partner for alcohol and wine. Chef Bour notes that while “lamb is one of those proteins that has such a unique and sublime flavor, it stands the test of so many wine pairings – my favorite being a good quality Pinot Noir.”

Using the whole lamb for new tastes and textures

While rack of lamb and lamb chop are two of the more typical dishes found on menus, chefs are increasingly choosing to experiment with previously ignored and underutilized cuts and trying to use as much of the animal as possible. In San Francisco’s Mission district, Executive Chef Jason Fox features lamb cheek at Commonwealth, a “progressive American restaurant.” He says that “I personally think cuts like cheeks and breast have more flavor than prime cuts like the loin, since there is more fat and connective tissue, so when they are slow-cooked, that all breaks down into a more flavorful product. Also, as more chefs try to be sustainable, they look to use all the various cuts of an animal, so nothing is wasted.” Across town, Executive Chef Dominique Crenn of the newly opened Atelier Crenn similarly highlights more unusual cuts of lamb, pairing lamb neck with grains, yogurt and wild sorrel on her seasonally-focused menu.

Although Atelier Crenn and Commonwealth are considered two of San Francisco’s top newcomers to the city’s fine dining scene, Chef Fox rarely features the more expensive cuts such as lamb racks and loins that are typically on higher end menus, explaining “I don’t think there is any cut we haven’t used, unless it is illegal or hard to get… I think it is more cost-effective to introduce diners to the ‘cheaper cuts’ like cheeks or tongue, but these cuts have grown in popularity as of late, so they are not as cheap as they were five years ago. I do enjoy lamb racks, or loins, but these are some of the most expensive cuts we can put on our menu, and at our pricing, usually don’t fit in. We have had great success with cheeks, breast, and tongue, which are three of my favorite cuts on any animal, because of their even marbling and distribution of collagen and fat. I think of tongue as nature’s hot dog, because of its perfect texture, that resembles an emulsified meat product like mortadella.”

Cooking techniques are also incredibly important when it comes to creating an outstanding lamb dish. Chef Kim Alter at Plate Shop elaborates, saying that “lamb in general is more flavorful than beef, but it can be a little gamey sometimes. With braised dishes, flavors develop and meld together.” Long cooking times and careful seasoning can make a world of difference when it comes to enticing timid diners with a cut of lamb that is unfamiliar to them.

Alter’s personal favorite is a “whole roasted leg of young or baby lamb. I love slow roasting the whole leg of baby lamb to medium rare. I baste it the whole time with herbs and butter. With the whole leg, you have so much variety. Every piece is different. You have parts that are fatty, and parts that are lean. Some parts with be tougher, while others are more tender. You get this incredible spectrum of flavor and texture.” 


Turkey bacon has been a well-known and healthier lower-fat alternative to traditional pork bacon for some time, but cured lamb belly (or lamb bacon) is now coming into its own especially at The Whisper Restaurant & Lounge in Los Angeles. Based on “the famous private supper clubs of old Hollywood” and reminiscent of a 1940’s speakeasy, The Whisper Restaurant includes a lamb Bolognese on their menu with braised lamb shank and spicy lamb sausage but their extremely unique pomegranate glazed lamb bacon with winter squash puree, Guinness-glazed dates and a peppercress salad is what really stands out.

Executive Chef Anthony Jacquet describes the
creation of this dish: “Lamb is unique because it offers its own distinct flavor profile that is not associated with turkey or pork. What we do is take four lamb bellies and cure them lightly in a mixture of ancho salt, sugar, and Aleppo pepper. We use Activa [transglutaminase] to ‘glue’ the bellies together and cook them sous vide for 24 hours. What we get is a large stack of lamb belly, medium temperature, tender, and a lot of natural lamb fat contained. We cut into flat blocks and crisp them up in a skillet for texture…We then paired the lamb bacon with fall ingredients that would balance the fattiness of the belly and the gaminess as well. We made a yam puree spiked with maple syrup and ancho chili powder, pomegranates glazed in pomegranate molasses and finished with dates that were gently poached in Guinness gastrique. We felt we were able to balance sweet, savory, and the ancho added enough spiciness to the plate to balance.”

As Chef Jacquet surmises, “Plus, working with these cuts tends to add a little more labor of love to produce them, so our guests really get to see the craftsmanship and care for the product coming out of the kitchen.” From bacon to cheeks to tongue, with fresh ingredients, innovative seasonings and a little patience for longer cooking times it’s impossible to go wrong with lamb on or off the rack.

Lamb Neck with Farro Puree, Sheep Yogurt & Sorrel Oil
Inspiration for Executive Chefs