Let us now sing the praises of lamb.
Maybe the most underrated of meats, it's richly flavorful, great on the grill and easy to serve a number of different ways. Few things look and taste as luxurious as a rack of lamb chops, but lamb is also an inspired addition to a spring vegetable stew. Ground lamb makes great sliders, with red onion slices and dabs of garlic-yogurt sauce.
And yet Americans have yet to catch on to something that Greeks, Middle Easterners and New Zealanders have known for ages. According to The Food Lab, the average American eats about 100 pounds of chicken and 96 pounds of beef every year — and less than one pound of lamb.
Now is the time for Dallas to learn to love this great meat. A new bar in Deep Ellum celebrates the animal so much that they even put it into their name, On the Lamb, and their logo, a “pirate sheep” wearing an eye patch and earring. On the Lamb serves up lamb pâté, lamb pastrami, lamb stew, lamb belly and lamb neck, among other things, and it’s almost all terrific.
Standing out amid Deep Ellum’s restaurant boom is tricky, but On the Lamb is unique even in its atmosphere. Keeping trendy “industrial chic” to a minimum, the restaurant is a sunlight-filled space with a handsome black walnut bar and a non-deafening volume level. The tiny open kitchen is the size of a walk-in closet, keeping chef Ross Demers and his team on their toes.
One result of the space constraints is an extensive charcuterie program, with about 10 meats available on any given night (three for $14, five for $21). Biltong is a South African specialty, a dry cure that brings to mind German speck ham. The waitstaff calls it “jerky,” but rest assured, biltong bears no resemblance to Slim Jims. An even bigger success is the duck ham, moist and fatty cured duck that's especially good with the contrasting sharpness of the brasserie’s whole-grain mustard. And then there’s the intensely flavored, scene-stealing lamb pastrami.
On the other hand, lamb pâté proves divisive, sweet from the inclusion of cognac-soaked golden raisins. Based on the flavor, my table guessed, incorrectly, that the pâté contained goat cheese. A link of dry lamb sausage, “saucisson sec,” comes off curiously free of personality. But every cured meat order brings a generous helping of sides and garnishes, including capers, mustards, wafer-thin bread slices, golden raisins and pickled green beans.
The slate of appetizers is truly formidable. The richness of perfect duck confit ($12) is offset by the salt of sliced olives and a tease of saffron. Also great: lamb boudin ($11), a sausage link messily packed with lamb, rice and spices, and lamb belly ($11), fork-tender from slow cooking and rich with flavor. To avoid meat overdose, try a pear, watercress and herb salad ($10), arranged handsomely into a crescent moon and finished off with flower blossoms.
Main course selection means more tough decisions. A rotating seafood special seems reliably successful; most recently, the brasserie was flawlessly cooking a Santa Barbara king fish, which tastes a lot like salmon, elegantly plated on a bed of field peas ($32).
Piri-piri chicken ($24) is a mark of the South African restaurateur, Anton Uys. The gently hot spice blend originates in Portuguese food, but has become popular worldwide thanks to Nando’s, a South African chain restaurant that is to piri-piri what Chipotle is to burritos. The only American Nando’s locations are in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, but On the Lamb’s spice mix is just as good, and its veggie sides are far better: a corn cob dressed in elote fixings and a pile of skinny fries. There’s only one complaint: One of our chicken pieces arrived still dark pink in the center.
On each of three visits, the bar’s menu changed, each time for the better. The restaurant seems keen to improve itself, most notably with the bourguignon, a classic French stew usually made with beef but here made, of course, with lamb ($28). Early diners reported a veggie stew topped with huge slabs of overcooked steak. But if that report was once true, it is no more. Now the lamb bourguignon is a star, a stew of medium-rare, bite-sized lamb morsels with a variety of wild mushrooms, fat little carrots, whole pearl onions and slightly al dente peas. This bar’s tiny kitchen is only getting better.
Pastry chef Francisca Lang’s desserts (mostly $10) don’t look exciting on paper. The menu describes them as “concoctions” and simply lists base ingredients. But those dry descriptions are hiding satisfying, Instagram-ready desserts. One “concoction” brings together white chocolate shavings and almost candy-like apricot slices. A slice of cherry chocolate stout cake is not too dense but far from dry, finding a balance which makes a huge plate easy to clean.
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Lang says the “passion fruit entremet” ($8.50) is a poor seller, which she keeps on the menu out of sheer stubbornness. Reader, please order the passion fruit entremet. The fruit is in a rich, luscious mousse, piled onto vanilla cake, with a layer of pineapple jam in between. On the side: an exquisite scoop of coconut sorbet.
On the Lamb’s star drinks are its seasonal cocktails ($11 to $12). Summertime means especially good infusions, like the Kentucky Ram, with strawberry- and pink-peppercorn-infused vodka, or the Fig Tree, with fig-infused rye.
It’s curious that, despite On the Lamb’s South African ties, the affordably priced wine list avoids that nation entirely. A bottle of 1999 pinotage, not for sale, sits atop the bar like a cruel tease. But with good cocktails and a half-dozen rotating tap beers, the brasserie hides its wine deficiencies well.
And, given the restaurant’s rapid evolution, any critiques here might be outdated in a month’s time. On the Lamb is quickly becoming one of the best places to eat and drink in Deep Ellum, and, at least until the crowds discover it, this brasserie is a quiet date-night spot too. The most under-appreciated meat in America finally has a great place to shine.
On the Lamb, 2614 Elm St. Suite 110. 214-484-1118. 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Sunday