Monday, May 14, 2007

Dining on Lamb

The Greeks get this right; but the English and Scots aren’t bad!
by Charlie Leck

I am surprised at the number of people I meet who don’t dine on lamb at all – ever! Most of them haven’t even tried. They just assume the flavor is going to be far too unconventional and they just pass. In my childhood home, lamb was a regular item on the dinner rota. Leg of lamb was the favorite of everyone in the house; though my mother was equally adept at preparing chops and shanks. I have six or seven really fantastic food memories from my childhood years and half of them involve lamb of some sort. My oldest brother fought like a dog for dibs on the leg bone after our dinner meat was carved from it. He delighted in carving away from it any of the meat that father might have missed and then, holding it in his big hands, gnawing ever little scrap from it. That leg of lamb was always served with thick, luscious gravy and mashed potatoes. Mint jelly was always served on the side. Some kind of green vegetable, which never interested me, was also always included.

I thought no one in the world would ever be able to prepare a leg of lamb to match that of my mother. My wife, however, passed my mother as if the old girl was standing still. Dear Anne had learned a recipe from some true Greeks and I and most of our children count it as our favorite dinner of all. To this day I call the recipe Leg of Lamb Niforopulos (Greek Style). It’s not a complex recipe and it seems like anyone could prepare it, but Anne has a special knack of making the end result just perfect. The recipe is available in printable format on my wife’s web site:

I’m always pleased when I find a restaurant that can prepare lamb to perfection, or near to that anyway. In my home town area, I’ve never had finer lamb than at Vincent’s in downtown Minneapolis (the corner of 11th and Nicollet Avenue). Be prepared to pay for the pleasure of dining at this extraordinary restaurant and call ahead to check on the menu for the evening or check it out on-line.
I have even pre-ordered to make sure what I want will still be available when I get there. I am sometimes disappointed that Vincent serves New Zealand lamb, rather than a locally produced product, but I can never fault the results.

The very best gourmet lamb dinner on which I ever dined was at a little inn right in downtown Bernardsville, New Jersey. At the end of this essay I will reproduce a review of this experience that I wrote in another place back in March of this year.

Returning to the local scene, I have had smashing lamb at Nancy’s Landing in Waconia. It’s a little restaurant supervised by Chef Paul, who formerly operated Chez Paul, a very popular and successful restaurant in Minneapolis. Again, the menu at this restaurant changes frequently and one needs to check on it before deciding to dine there on any given evening (952-442-4954). Sunday brunch at Nancy’s Landing is spectacular – our very favorite – and the menu revolves around nationality groupings. The English brunch is one of our favorites and it almost always includes lamb. Renee and Steve have a great review of this restaurant on their web site:

There’s a Greek restaurant in the suburban community of Golden Valley, called Santorini’s that is quite good. I’ve had a number of lamb dishes there and I’ve always been satisfied; however, I wish they would use a bit less salt. Service is excellent and cheerful and the setting is informal and Mediterranean. You can always count on a number of lamb items. The place is busy on weekends and it’s a good idea to have a reservation (952-546-6722). You can find a number of on-line reviews of this Greek establishment.

One of our kids, who lives in Minneapolis, is really up on the local eateries. She claims that the very best gyro sandwich in town is at King Falafel on the corner of Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue. hearing this from her, I had to go try it out to see if she was correct. Almost! King Falafel, a walk-in, buffet, fast food sort of place, definitely contains the biggest helping of lamb anywhere in town and it is probably the tastiest. I was more than disappointed with the pita bread, however, because it was very thick, soft and gummy. I like my pita bread on the thin and crisp side, the way that Christos serves it. This restaurant maintains a web site, but it is rather inadequate and incomplete: Now, it we could take King Falafel’s ingredients and put it inside some of Christos’ pita bread we would have a truly award winning gyro.

Among Asian restaurants, the best lamb I ever had was at the Tea Garden in Golden Valley (763-544-3422), quite near Santorini’s. The Mongolian lamb they serve there is really top shelf and I order it nearly every time we dine there. This very, very good Chinese restaurant is right across the parking lot from the Willow Creek Theaters and that makes it convenient to do a movie and dinner – or the other way round.

Then, I’ll personally take credit for the best rib chops around. I love to grill these little babies and I get them off a very hot fire quite quickly, while they are still nice and rare, because they will continue to cook for some minutes after you remove them. I marinate them only lightly before the grilling with a little olive oil, pepper, salt and garlic. What a wonderful summer treat when these chops are served with a cold pasta salad and, perhaps, a side of fruit and a wedge of pita bread.

If you want to find some really great lamb recipes, I suggest again that you go to Anne’s web site and look at the links she has to the best lamb recipes to be found on the Internet. Some of them, like the American Lamb Council, Epicurious and the Home Cookin’ section of About.Com are really wonderful.

I’m open to hearing about other wonderful lamb dishes in restaurants in Minneapolis or Saint Paul. Let me hear your suggestions.

My review of the restaurant in New Jersey follows…What a Rack!I enjoyed the sumptuousness of it!by Charlie Leck (1 March 2007)
Yesterday, I tried the rack of lamb at The Bernards Inn. I don’t consider myself a capable dining critic; however, I do know a thing or two about good lamb preparation. I believe that I can judge the quality of a lamb entrée about as well as any man on earth. Well, perhaps that’s a bit large as boasts go, but here at Sheepy Hollow at Native Oaks Farm we do know more about lamb than the average bear! Whatever! I’m going to give five stars («««««) to the rack of lamb Chef Corey Heyer prepared for me yesterday at this lovely inn on the main drag in Bernardsville, New Jersey. It is difficult to beat perfect; and this luncheon was simply nothing less than that.

It cannot be disputed that the setting (ambiance) in which a meal is served has a great deal to do with the attitude of any diner. That certainly got me off on the correct foot yesterday. After three draining and tiring days, I had slept in late at a Marriott establishment 10 miles or so from Bernardsville.

I had now acquired an unexpected day to myself in a part of the country in which I had grown up as a boy, so I decided to attempt the trip home again. I drove through the old hometown and found myself unpleased by the turns it had taken. I tried to drive by my old high school in which I’d had a few hours of pleasantness as an adolescent. No luck! The roads, highways and streets were all so changed and different up there in Succasunna (take note that this community uses exactly two of each of the letters in its name to spell it out and that’s the trick that always helps me get it right) that I simply couldn’t find the building. I drove through a couple of other towns in which I spent time as a youth, looking for landmarks that might joggle memories. It didn’t go well. It’s been nearly 50 years. You really can’t go home again – especially after that many years! So, I headed back to the hotel in Baskingridge, passing through Bernardsville on the way. It was in this town, named after the gentle Saint Bernard, that I realized I was very hungry. I hadn’t bothered with any breakfast and it was well into the lunch hour. Parking was difficult in this crowded little town and I spotted the inn’s parking lot first. A sign announced that parking was only for patrons of the inn, so I committed myself to dining there because it was the only available parking.

The moment I entered the delightfully decorated establishment, I knew I had stumbled upon a decent choice. There was plenty of space in the dining room and I asked for a small table that I saw over in a well-lit corner. I knew I’d be able to read a bit of a delightful book I had brought along on my day’s journey (What a Party by Terry McAuliffe).

A wonderful wait staff attended to me. I asked for some sparkling water and hot tea. Both were served elegantly and promptly. Some bread followed. We just don’t understand bread in the Midwest. They’re far ahead of us in the East. It was one of my first and strongest reminders of home. “Oh yes,” I thought, “this is the way bread is supposed to be.” A black bean soup, mentioned by my waiter, sounded terrific, so I ordered a cup. It came in a large bowl. Its texture was incredible and its flavor heated up my mouth gently. When I ordered the rack, and asked that it be cooked medium-rare, my waiter was obviously pleased. “Exactly as the chef recommends it, sir. Very good!”

I had plenty of time to enjoy my tea and another piece of that wonderful bread. My dinner was in loving preparation in a far away kitchen and it would take some time. McAuliffe’s book fascinated me and gave me plenty of laughs. How did he know that Vice President Richard Cheney must have been “in the bag” when he shot his hunting companion, Harry Whittington, in the face while on a hunting trip?

“Very simple. You hear all the time about people who shoot their business partners. You even hear about some people shooting their own wives. But let me be crystal clear. Folks, you never, ever, hear about a politician shooting one of their donors!”

The rack of lamb presented to me – no other way to say it, because it was presented with a flourish and you could sense the waiter’s pride – was absolutely beautiful. It was split for me and attractively arranged on a small bed of lightly cooked spinach. A very brown sauce and tiny bits of carrot delicately decorated the plate. A small, bright white serving of mashed potatoes lingered to the side. I had previously noted that no salt or peppershakers were provided on the table and I knew exactly why. A good chef wants you to try his presentations the way he prepares them for you. If he’s done it properly you’ll not likely ask for anything else in the way of seasoning. That evening I would not have dreamed of changing one little iota of the flavor of that meat, vegetable or sauce. They were splendid. The lamb was incredibly lean; yet it was as tender and as juicy as meat can be. A very light and delicate flavor streamed from it. I tried to guess what small, but carefully chosen amounts of seasonings the chef might have used. A touch of garlic for sure and a very light amount of salt. What else? I couldn’t guess! I enjoyed the entire meal in small, small bites, trying to stretch it out, allowing the flavors to linger longer on my palate. That’s unusual for me. I do it only over meals that are spectacular. I wished that I had ordered an extravagant wine to go with this quite unexpected banquet. It was too late now. And why interfere at all with the flavors that were beguiling me?

Oh, had I had my camera along... what a wonderful photograph that plate would have made. I shall remember the vision of it and the tantalizing mixture of flavors for a long, long time. They mesmerized me then and I will be obsessed by them for a long time into the future.

I have had many wonderful meals in my life. I’ve had a much shorter list of dining experiences that I would call truly great. Yesterday, at The Bernards Inn, I added another to that diminutive list.

The Bernards Inn ( or 908-766-0002)is on Route 202 in Bernardsville, New Jersey.

Mother’s wonderful dinners included…Yankee Pot RoastBaked Ham with deep, dark black gravyVery thick Split Pea Soup or Lentil SouthLeg of LambLamb Shanks or Loin Lamb ChopsSpaghetti sauce (cooked all day) and deep, dark red!Hassenpfeffer (German style rabbit)

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