Restaurant review: Respecting the traditions of Lamb’s Grill
By stuart melling
Special to The TribuneFirst published Mar 19 2012 01:40PM
Institution, iconic, famous — these words are too often thrown around with little thought.
After 93 years, Lamb’s Grill Café truly deserves these accolades. Nearly a century of longevity is a triumphant achievement for any business, let alone a restaurant, where life spans are usually far shorter.
The Tribune reviewed Lamb’s, Utah’s oldest continually operating restaurant, back in 2007. Back then Mary Brown Malouf commented on Lamb’s old-school approach and comfortable familiarity. Skip forward five years, and downtown is undergoing a significant transformation. Change has come to Lamb’s, too, after the restaurant welcomed both new owner Francis Liong and head chef Matt Barrigar in late 2011. With all that in mind, how much has Lamb’s developed since 2007?
The restaurant space is thankfully as much a treasure now as it was when last reviewed. The interior’s grand setting harks back to a time when dining was an occasion. The space has buckets of charm, thanks to grand wooden booths, a sumptuous bar (the restaurant has a full liquor menu) and vaulted ceilings. Servers dash around in classy attire, matching the starched white tablecloths on nearby tables. The menu remains pleasingly unpretentious. Don’t expect foams or fusion. Much like the space, the food speaks to a certain era: grilled calves liver ($11.95) anyone?
That isn’t to say the new chef isn’t making his mark, albeit in careful steps. An appetizer of bacon-wrapped dates ($6.75) I sampled on a recent visit was a new addition — four skewers each providing a mix of salty, sweet, smoky and earthy tastes. A plate of perfectly deep-fried calamari ($7.50) was also enjoyable, served with a garlicky aioli.
Regulars will be glad to learn much of the familiar menu remains. Breakfast is still served six days a week, making Lamb’s a perfect early-morning destination. Favorites, ranging from a classic eggs Benedict ($8.95) to chicken fried steak ($9.50), remain on the menu, but the throwback dish — Finnan Haddie — has apparently had its day. Lunch ticks all the right boxes, too, with sandwiches, burgers, wraps, salads and soups, mostly priced comfortably under $10.
During a recent evening dinner, I was impressed enough to request cooking pointers from the kitchen. While the lamb shank ($18.95; Thursday lunch special, $11.95) had increased by four dollars since The Tribune hailed it as a standout dish, it’s still worth every penny. After our wonderful waiter checked with the kitchen, I discovered the generous piece of lamb was braised for five hours at 300 degrees — and the resulting piece of bone-in shoulder was ridiculously tender. The beef bourguignon ($17.95) was also chock full of tender, rich beef — bathed in a red wine-based sauce.
While a couple of dollars pricier than 2007, a grilled chicken breast ($15.95) in Dijon mustard now comes bone-in, and as a result was plenty juicy. Entrées are served with a starch and the vegetable of the day, but substitutions are handled with ease. For example, at our request, a serviceable side of french fries came to our table with simply a nod and smile, in lieu of the standard mashed potatoes.
Desserts lean toward the heavier side, with options such as chocolate cake ($6.95) and New York cheesecake ($5.50). While the locally famed rice pudding ($3.50) remains. I was steered to the crème brûlée ($5.25) by our waiter, and despite a less creamy custard than I’d prefer, the fantastically crunchy shell still made the dessert a real treat.
While everything must evolve and grow, it’s gratifying to see the new owner and chef respecting Lamb’s traditions and moving forward at a respectable canter, rather than a downright sprint. Much has clearly evolved in the world of dining since Lamb’s opened, and whether the downtown institution will still be here in another hundred years is anyone’s guess. That said, as I left the restaurant on a Saturday evening, I looked around the restaurant — two-thirds full — and the happy faces told their own story. There seems to be plenty of life left in Lamb’s Grill Café.