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Lamb fantastic

By Norma Olizon-Chikiamco, The Philippine STAR Published May 16, 2024 5:00 am

“You’re in for a fantastic treat,” Christopher Lim, high commissioner for Meat and Livestock Australia, told the group of media people gathered one afternoon in Souv! Restaurant.

Actually the fantastic treat had already begun—for when the guests arrived the tables had already been set with a delectable array of Greek delicacies prepared by chef Robby Goco. And who could resist munching on them while waiting for the presentation to start?

On the table was a platter of crisply fried seafood that included shrimps, sardines and calamari served with cocktail sauce, tzatziki dip and lime wedges. There was also taramosalata, whipped Greek caviar with lemon, topped with dill and salmon roe, to be spread on toasty, thick slices of horiatika bread. On another platter were orbs of sugar beets marinated in a tangy olive oil dressing. Yet another platter was laden with dakos, Greek panzanella salad with a mixture of feta cheese, tomato pulp and sweet onions. Even Georgios Tantis, a Greek long-time resident in Manila, was impressed by the authenticity and flavors of each dish. Every bite was delightful, and we all felt we couldn’t have asked for more.

A seafood platter of crunchy fried shrimps, sardines and calamari is served with cocktail sauce, tzatziki dip and lime wedges.

And yet, there was more, plenty more. After all this was a celebration of Australian lamb and chef Robby Goco, who had just been appointed Lambassador (the first in the Philippines to be so honored), was out to showcase all the delicious possibilities that lamb has to offer.

It’s an honor well deserved, for Goco has been cooking lamb and serving it in his restaurants for decades. It used to be that lamb could only be ordered in five-star hotels, and the choices were limited. But with Goco on the scene, Filipinos were introduced to a whole new universe of lamb dishes.

Chef Robby Goco’s signature dish: Tender and succulent slow-roasted shoulder of lamb, served with Greek fries

As a Lambassador (one of about 50 worldwide), Goco has expanded the ways lamb can be included in the Filipino diet. Already some restaurants are using lamb for native Filipino dishes such as adobo, caldereta and kare-kare. He has also popularized the use of lamb ribs as a delicious alternative to pork spareribs.

“Lamb is one of the cleanest meats there is,” he says. “For one thing, the lambs are fed only grass and the grass in Australia is very, very good.” 

Nutrition-wise, lamb is just as virtuous. “It’s high in omega 3 and helps develop children’s brains,” says Goco. In addition, lamb is raised without hormones and is a good source of protein and iron. Goco himself included lamb in his own child’s diet at an early age.

“I’ve converted many Filipinos to enjoying lamb,” he says.

Charcoal-grilled sous vide of lamb ribs with verjus glaze made with apples

So, what are the ways in which Goco cooks lamb? In a defining moment we soon found out. Trays groaning with lamb specialties were brought to our table. There was Goco’s signature dish: an eight-hour slow roasted shoulder of lamb, succulent and fragrant with the aroma of oregano and lemon. Presented in a tempting pile were the lamb ribs, glistening from the charcoal in which they had been grilled, the hefty slabs of meat and fat dripping with a verjus glaze made with raw apples.

A lamb stew cooked with grape molasses and garnished with carrots, shallots and fresh parsley looked like the quintessential comfort food best eaten with rice or potatoes. And there was what looked like… breaded fried chicken? The first time Goco saw such a dish during his recent stint in Melbourne, he and his fellow chefs also wondered what fried chicken would be doing in a lamb abattoir. The “fried chicken” turned out to be lamb. “It tasted incredible,” Goco recalls. He has since recreated the dish, hence its presence on the table.

Chef Robby Goco, the first Filipino to be named Lambassador by Meat and Livestock Australia, serves sumptuous lamb dishes in his restaurants.

“The nice thing about lamb,” he says, “is that it has a very delicate flavor. When roasted the meat has a sweet caramel flavor, almost like molasses.”

When roasting lamb, he advises putting a little water in the pan, covering the meat with foil and roasting it for about two-and-a-half hours. The foil should then be removed to let the meat brown.

The best herb to use for lamb is oregano, he says, not rosemary, as is commonly supposed, because rosemary can be overpowering. 

One of the best parts of the lamb is the loin, which is very tender when grilled or roasted. But to fry lamb, Goco advises marinating it first in Greek yogurt. His own favorite cut is the lamb shoulder, which he thinks has the best flavor. 

To go with the lamb he recommends Yering Station wines such as Little Yering Chardonnay and Little Yering Pinot Noir from Australia’s Victoria region.

We noticed that mint jelly, often used as a relish for lamb, was totally missing from his repertoire. “It’s not used in Greek cooking,” Goco clarifies. But for those who still want it as a relish, he advises mixing a little soy sauce and calamansi with mint jelly and serving it with grilled lamb.

Aside from Souv!, Goco’s other restaurants include Cyma, where lamb likewise plays a starring role. He also has restaurants in Tagaytay and in El Nido, Palawan. Perhaps what makes the dishes he serves so sumptuous is the attention to detail. The tomatoes must be a ripened bright red, the salt he uses is minutely fine pure sea salt made especially for him by a supplier in Pangasinan, he fries the potatoes in olive oil, and he sources his peppers from a farm in Alfonso, Cavite.

That said, Goco’s obsession is still on lamb. “Lamb lends itself to various adaptations,” he says. “I so enjoy cooking with lamb.”