I spotted it at Hog and Rocks
. The next week, I ate it at Mission Chinese Food
. And when I dined at Gather
in Berkeley a few weeks afterward (off-duty, FYI ― there's no review coming), the waiter recited a special of lamb belly.
Lamb belly, which used to be called lamb "breast" until pork belly went big and redeemed the word, is the variety meat of the moment. It made all the New York trend reports early last year, but seems to have made it big in the Bay Area this summer. Like pork belly, lamb belly is a flat slab of meat with long striations of lean and fat. Unlike pork fat, lamb fat concentrates all the meat's musky, farm-y qualities, which must be tempered in some way to make it palatable to mainstream palates.
One of the first people to serve the cut here ― actually, he started with goat belly and then switched over when his suppliers ran out ― was Alex Ong at Betelnut
, who served a turmeric-braised belly based on a goat stew that he grew up with in Malaysia. "We used turmeric, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, and onions, then braised the cut for three hours, so it was nice and really tender," he explained. Topped with fried shallots and lime juice, the meat ― which I tasted early this spring ― was faintly sweet and deeply spiced, as if someone had infused a saucepot's worth of curry into each tiny rectangle of flesh. (Ong took the belly off the menu for summer and fall, though he's thinking of bringing it back this winter as a sandwich with pickles, fresh herbs, and lime juice. Uh, yes.)
SPQR's Matthew Accarrino is currently serving lamb belly with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, purslane, and olives. He says the cut has been on and off the restaurant's menu for a while; Accarrino first cooked lamb belly working under Tom Colicchio at CraftBar in L.A., when their meat suppliers would sell them the belly meat attached to the lamb rack. He rubs the slab of meat with a paste of garlic, rosemary, and lemon zest, then rolls it into a cylinder, wraps that in plastic, and slow-braises it in an immersion circulator for 12 hours. Then he slices the roll crosswise and crisps the spiral in the pan to order.
Hog and Rocks, Gather, and Lafitte braise most of the fat out of the lamb and then grill or pan-fry the meat to finish it off. At Mission Chinese Food, Danny Bowien buys lamb belly for his lamb
dishes because it's inexpensive, and he cooks it until it falls apart.
Part of the appeal for chefs of lamb belly is its price, but the other part, says Accarrino, is because it requires what he calls "the power of transformation." "Cooking a rack of lamb ― well, not that it's easy, but it's a very trainable skill and doesn't require a lot of creativity," he says. "But when someone throws a box of lamb belly, pig ears, or coxcombs at you, they require a long cooking, and a lot of marinating to make it palatable."