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April 08, 2007

Lambert's, 401 W 2nd Street

Like Castle Hill many years before it, Lambert's has managed to navigate a transition from cramped, charming confines to a big, boisterous establishment. Unlike Castle Hill, Lambert's has more or less abandoned the subtle, precise cuisine of its former digs and opted for a high-end, yet avowedly populist, take on Southern food and barbecue. It would be unfair to call the new Lambert's a very expensive barbecue joint (the menu's subtle joke lies at the bottom of each page: "Fancy Barbecue?"), or even an absurdly upmarket Black-Eyed Pea, but one look at the organization of the a lá carte mains and sides might prompt you to wonder what on earth you are doing dropping a C-note for a few plates of smoked meat and some collard greens.

Luckily there is more here than meets the eye. That's good for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a decor and ambiance that could best be described as mid-century cowboy dadaism. High-modern pendant lights float over wood planks and cow paintings, and the wait staff sport matching black western shirts and enough body ink and piercings to staff Emo's on a weekend.

Their service could be charitably characterized as "casual" – even by the debased standards of Austin service, one expects a bit more attentiveness with their $32 steak. Then again, Lambert's continues to wrinkle its nose at any whiff of pretense, forging ahead with its bold mission to serve fine wines in cheap, square-sided tumblers – presumably, in this case, because that's the way ranchers and cowboys drink their $60 bottles of malbec.

Whether or not Louis Lambert recognizes – or even cultivates – the irony of this sort of democratization is beyond me (the tumblers are one notable carryover from the old establishment), but I've never found wine served this way (especially light and medium-bodies reds) to be as enjoyable as a real wine glass.

The democratic implications of a $32 steak are another matter altogether. Our bone-in strip was impressive both in size and preparation, a murderous swath of meat big enough for two, cooked perfectly and accompanied with thin-sliced fried onions. I chose the herb-crusted prime rib, which came smoked and then finished on the grill. The meat was superb – smokey and tender – but the horseradish sauce had so little kick to it that it might as well have been mayo.

We tried smoked bacon braised collard greens and spicy ranch beans from the menu of family-style sides; both were hearty and authentic. Our waiter was kind enough to comp a dessert for us (we had let him know at the outset of the meal that his fly was open); we opted for coconut cream pie and – as you would expect from a renowned pie master – it was spectacular. Light and airy, sweet and flaky, it was the perfect postscript to our meaty narrative.

Fancy barbecue? Well, yes, I do. Fancy barbecue? The concept demands a a series of logical twists to swallow – but we can probably trust Mr. Lambert to get it right over time. Austin seems to have an unlimited appetite for meat at both the high and low end, and I applaud Mr. Lambert for using natural and local ingredients as much as he does. Lambert's is a bit pricey for the service, but the food is undeniably good. If you want to save yourself a trip to Lockhart or Llano and prefer a big red over a Big Red, you can't do much better than Lambert's.


Posted by brentbuford at April 8, 2007 03:33 PM


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