A restaurant meal is like a weather report: a distillation of the atmospheric influences that combine to create the day’s conditions. Is the kitchen firing on all cylinders? Did the star server call in sick? Whatever is happening behind the scenes shows up at the table.
Since Black Lamb opened in July, I've watched its weather fluctuate wildly. A beautiful summer lunch led me to recommend the South End restaurant to several people. Everything felt in order. I ate cool, sweet raw scallops blanketed in earthy, acidic truffle vinaigrette. They were served in a scallop shell over ice, functional and beautiful. I lingered over blueberry pie. I love pie and wish more restaurants served it. Black Lamb does, every day.
A mediocre fall meal made me question my recommendation. We ordered Jonah crab Louis with avocado and nectarine, heirloom tomato salad, roasted crab with chile-lemon butter. It all sounded fresh and bright, but in execution it was underseasoned and lackluster. We wanted duck breast frites with orange béarnaise sauce: “Oh, yeah, we’re out of that,” our server said in bored tones. We wanted dessert: “Oh, yeah, the kitchen just closed,” she said with a shrug.
Something had shifted. A supposed-to-be-celebratory winter dinner left the whole table in a bad mood instead: a snack of soggy salt-and-vinegar potato chips; roasted cauliflower with anchovies and grapefruit that looked as if it had been chucked onto the plate and tasted that way too, no balance among the flavors; massive baked oysters with bacon and Parmesan aioli, lukewarm and gluey; fries thrown on top of (very nice!) lamb tartare.
And then, just as I was about to review the place, Black Lamb turned things around, serving up several good dinners in a row. I hope this weather holds, because at its best, the restaurant is an asset for the area.
Black Lamb is located at the South End address formerly occupied by Stephi’s on Tremont — some of the primest of prime real estate for dining in this city. It is operated by the group behind nearby Bar Mezzana, Shore Leave, and No Relation, three establishments with very specific, very different concepts — Italy-by-the-sea, tiki bar, and hidden sushi counter, respectively. Black Lamb’s concept, on the other hand, seems initially to be no particular concept at all. At first pass, and second and third, the menu is a hodgepodge, gamboling from crispy maitake mushrooms to Buffalo chicken wings to classy fish dishes to cheeseburgers, along with daily specials. You’d better want fries with that, because half the dishes here seem to come with them. It’s not the kind of place where you order multiple plates and the whole table shares.
But it is the kind of place where you find the one or two things you really like, and you order them again and again every time you come, which you gradually find yourself doing quite a bit. Black Lamb's concept, it turns out, is "stuff we like to eat and think you might like to eat, too." The South End is filled with occasion restaurants, small-plates purveyors, specialists in regional cuisines. Black Lamb is more neighborhood commissary, open for lunch and boozy brunch as well as dinner. It's a New New American bistro, both familiar and unpredictable, suitable for these New New American times.
At a place like this, hospitality and good drinks take center stage. Restaurant partners chef Colin Lynch, Heather Kennaway Lynch, Jefferson Macklin, Ryan Lotz, and Ben Kaplan are all alumni of Barbara Lynch's restaurants; it's no surprise that when service is good here, it is very good. The can't-be-bothered attitude I found in the fall seems to be largely in the rearview, replaced by staff members who know the menu and wine list in and out, are generous with recommendations, and check in just the right amount at just the right moments.
Lotz is beverage director, and his cocktail list echoes Black Lamb's normcore aesthetic, filled with standards tweaked just enough to be interesting: gimlets, martinis, Old Fashioneds. "It's epically normal and totally available spicy," reads the description of the margarita. The beer list leans local, but not slavishly so, and there's a nice cider selection. The wine list focuses on smaller producers, with by-the-glass offerings that push the envelope just a bit.
I’m not generally a creature of habit, but Black Lamb turns me into one. I always want that gimlet, made with grapefruit and salted lime cordial, or a glass of the Greek white, pleasantly priced at $9. I skip the oysters and other raw bar and go straight to the bay scallops with truffle. There are several rotating vegetable plates; executive chef Chris Drown is devoted to the cauliflower-anchovy-grapefruit version that’s been on the menu from the start. It’s fine, but I could really get attached to a new addition, maitake mushrooms battered and fried, served with curried yogurt (also good for dipping your inevitable fries). The roasted king crab is a splurge, but worth it, the meat ready to pull from the shell, swimming in the bright orange chile-lemon butter.
There is a good cheeseburger with fries, and a good lobster roll, served warm or cold, also with fries. I’ve had and enjoyed them both, but I’d choose that duck (with fries!) every time. The breast comes sliced, rosy and juicy and just a bit fatty; the orange béarnaise is rich and mellow; and there’s a little salad of tender greens with bite to balance out the plate. The fries are solid: crisp, golden, of medium thickness. Duck frites was a bistro update waiting to happen. Braised short ribs are another hit here, beautifully tender, with carrots and roasted cipolline onions. The rotating daily specials tend to be variations on a theme of steak (grilled tips with pickled peppers and fries, rib eye for two) and chicken (sandwich with fries, roast bird with creamed mushrooms), with a veal schnitzel and a baked stuffed lobster added for variety.
This is a restaurant that could get away without having a proper pastry chef, or even dessert, and I’m glad Black Lamb doesn’t take that route. Christina Larson bakes pies, 17-layer chocolate cakes, and those corn madeleines made to order: an array of homey sweets that fit right in.
Leaving Black Lamb after my most recent visit, I run into a friend I haven’t seen in ages. She and her husband are sharing an order of the crab. I ask if they’ve been here before, and she laughs. “We don’t really go anywhere else anymore,” she says. Why bother when the commissary is open for business?
571 Tremont St., South End, Boston, 617-982-6330, www.blacklambsouthend.com
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Snacks $4-$6. Smaller plates $9-$17; roasted king crab $36 per half-pound, $65 per pound. Larger plates $16-$42. Desserts $7-$10.
Hours Sun 10 a.m.-midnight and Mon-Wed 11 a.m.-midnight (kitchen until 10 p.m.), Thu-Fri 11-1 a.m. and Sat 10-1 a.m. (kitchen until 11 p.m.).
Noise level Moderate hubbub.
What to order Bay scallops with truffle, crispy maitake mushrooms, roasted king crab, duck breast frites, braised short ribs.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.