When my bosses at Eater send around their annual December email asking for the biggest dining surprises of the year, I already know what to tell them: That Ernesto’s, chef Ryan Bartlow’s hip Basque spot on the Lower East Side, is selling a gloriously fatty mutton chop.
Chic new restaurants in the city don’t sell mutton chops; they sell burgers. Restaurants that sell mutton chops are called Keens, and Keens, which opened in 1885, hasn’t really sold definitive mutton, the meat of an older sheep, for quite some time. It serves older lamb, aged about 10 months to a year before slaughter.
Mutton is a staple of cuisines throughout the world, including British, Middle Eastern, and Chinese. But the meat, found on hundreds of New York menus in the early 1900s, fell out of favor as the U.S. cattle industry boomed in the mid-20th century — and as soldiers returning from World War II grew tired of canned mutton rations and their pungent, musky flavors. To this day, subtler strains of beef are king at American chophouses; lamb is rarely found outside of its polite “lollipop” chop form at these institutions.
At Ernesto’s, Bartlow receives two whole lambs every week from Kinderhook Farms in Upstate New York. Each is aged from 18 to 24 months, putting it deep into a category known as yearling mutton. As the kitchen gets closer to the center of the animal while breaking it down, Bartlow portions a loin cross cut with the tenderloins and saddle attached — just like at Keens. That’s all technical meat speak for the fact that this chop looks like an R-rated horror movie riff on the Atari Space Invaders alien, complete with two floppy legs and a spinal cross section. It is the scariest looking cut of meat in the known universe.
The kitchen grilled the meat rare on my visit, basting it in a marinade of garlic and rosemary. It came with a giant pile of fat golden fries. A few dribbles of parsley oil adds a bright green counterpoint to carnivorous color palette. I ate it at the black marble bar, working my knife along the bone at first and then using my hands to pick away at the meaty crevices. Reckoning with a mutton chop is never a pretty affair.
Bartlow says he likes to cook the saddle medium while bringing the ribs to a full medium-well. My specimen, by contrast, came out gorgeously silky and rare, with a deep crimson hue. Exterior bits displayed a bit firmer heft, while the whole shebang exhibited a sausage-like musk and a gentle sweetness. None of the flavors lingered too heavily; no one would describe this cut as gamey. I used the crisp frites as a sponge for any wayward lamb fat and blood. This is my type of steak frites.
The cost is $32, a buck less than the version of mutton sold at the bar at Keens (the full version is $62). How does it compare? At Keens this week, I found the meat was cooked through more, with a pinkish hue that’s more characteristic of a slightly younger animal. This resulted in easier cutting, but it also meant the slightly under-seasoned flesh didn’t have the same seductive, tartare-like mouthfeel as at Ernesto’s. The flip side, however, is that at Keens, the generous fats displayed a better level of char, cranking up the heady lamb flavors and sugars to a more elevated level. A drizzle of mint-infused jus further amped the funk factor.
Neither chop will likely do much to convince steak eaters to switch over, but for those who love lamb, the Ernesto’s cut is most definitely BUY, as is the majestic chop at Keens. Just keep in mind that at Ernesto’s, the dish, listed as a lamb chop, isn’t available every day; call ahead to confirm.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).