"Playing off the food of different cultures is something we do," says chef Suzanne Goin of her 16 year-old LA restaurant Lucques, "not being boxed in." She cites her Lamb Kibbeh-Nayeh as a prime example of this freedom. A traditional dish of Lebanon, a kibbeh nayeh refers to a raw ground lamb or beef with bulgar, onion, and seasonings. Goin's interpretation heads in a different direction with its use of harissa, raita, and a distinctly California twist. A colorful carrot salad with kumquats from a favorite farm rounds out the dish. "I like the food to look lyrical and playful," she says.
Goin changes up her preparations often, but she's had a lamb tartare on the Lucques menu on and off for years. "When you're open for 16 years, sometimes it's fun to bring things back." And the dish is definitely a hit. Says Goin, "It sells really well. A lot of people think they don't like lamb, but they just don't like old lamb or overcooked lamb."
The dish is part and parcel of what Eater LA editor Matthew Kang sees as one of Lucques' major strengths: "Lucques is an idealized vision of Chez Panisse put into heart of LA. Goin makes familiar ingredients come to life with a keen eye for technique and a knack for finding just the right balance of flavors."
Below, the elements of the Lamb Kibbeh-Nayeh at Lucques:
1. The Lamb
The Lamb Kibbeh-Nayeh begins with lamb sirloin from Superior Farms in Davis, California. Goin likes sirloin's texture, but notes that it's extremely important to properly clean the sinew and cut against the grain to make sure it's not too chewy. There's also an economic reason for the restaurant to use sirloin, and Goin says that "the price of ingredients [is] going up but people don't want to pay more."
She roughly chops the lamb before adding diced shallots and harissa made from ancho chilis, garlic, tomato, sherry vinegar, paprika, cumin, cayenne, extra virgin olive oil, and lemon juice. Goin then does another chop, which mixes these components together. Doing it this way means the flavors of the shallot and harissa "get more deeply into the meat. Instead of feeling like it's been tossed, it's all brought together." For a fresh herbal kick, Goin also adds parsley and mint. As is traditional, Going adds steamed bulgar. Together with the harissa, the bulgar acts like a binder for the tartare. "You want it loose. I thought I'd need a binder, but I didn't." Goin notes that she used to serve flatbread with the dish, but now that she is doing this looser kibbeh, it's no longer as spreadable. She also notes that bread might overpower the flavors of the dish.
2. The Carrot Salad
Goin begins the carrot salad with raw sliced carrots from McGrath Farms in Camarillo, California. Aside from the peeling and cutting, the carrots are not prepped any further, a hold-over from what Goin refers to as her "cold and raw phase." By cutting the pieces small, the carrot can be broken down a bit by the dressing.
Goin says she's "addicted" to Schaner Farms kumquats from Valley Center, California, going out of her way to find uses for them when they come in to the restaurant. The kumquats, she explains, bring something unique to this dish: "Kumquats have a burst of acid, a little bit of sweetness, and bitterness." She also likes how a slice of kumquat has both chew and crunch.
The thinly sliced kumquats are added to the salad, which is then tossed lightly by hand with a harissa vinaigrette made from the same harissa used in the lamb preparation, red wine vinegar, and olive oil. Goin says using the same ingredient in multiple ways in a dish (in this case the harissa) "unifies it and gives you a couple different tastes."
3. The Raita
Because the lamb can get spicy, Goin pairs it with cucumbers in raita. She makes the raita from yogurt combined with garlic, lemon zest, and lemon juice. She then grates Persian cucumber from Rutiz Farms in Arroyo Grande, California and stirs the cucumbers into the yogurt, their juices adding additional flavor to the raita.
4. The Assembly
Goin begins the plating process with the lamb. Even though she is "so not a ring mold person," she loosely fills a ring mold with the lamb mixture to give it shape and structure. She says she likes it to look like "rugged terrain" and notes that she has to remind her cooks not to mash the lamb into a "hockey puck" shape.
After the carrot salad is tossed with its vinaigrette, Goin uses uses her hands to transfer the salad from the mixing bowl to the plate. It's important to do this in one go, she says, because the harissa vinaigrette can leave a red trail on the plate.
Next Goin uses a spoon to add "just a dollop" of the cucumbers and raita to the plate to join the two other elements together. She then finishes with an extra drizzle of harissa.