Lambert’s is a relatively new barbeque restaurant in downtown austin which bills itself as having “fancy” barbeque, though in actuality it’s more an example of a fancy restaurant which happens to include barbeque on its menu. It’s located at Second and Guadalupe, in what used to be the Warehouse District, in a historic building which was preserved while new skyscrapers went up all around it. It’s a nice location and a bit of old Austin character in the middle of the wasteland of “smart growth” condos and trendy boutique stores, though that environment has clearly influenced the menu as much as the area’s long barbeque tradition has.
We went to Lambert’s for Sunday brunch where we could try a broad sampling of their food for a fixed price, though that price was a bit beyond the range one normally expects for barbeque. I tried a number of the breakfast items as well as all the barbeque they had on the brunch menu. The eggs and bacon were good, the biscuits dismayingly dry and the homestyle hash browns were excellent. Some of the fancier items were questionable. Good asparagus doesn’t need a fancy vinaigrette dressing, and if you put caviar on deviled eggs you might as well just be putting salt on them for seasoning, because the eggs overwhelm the flavor of the caviar. The lowpoint of the breakfast items was the sausage, a rugby-ball shaped lump of the most indescribably awful mystery meat I’ve tasted since I tried to make bratwurst from scratch at home.
Then we got to the barbeque. The brunch menu didn’t offer the full range of what they have on their lunch and dinner menus. Their jalapeno sausage, achiote and lime rubbed chicken and pulled pork were not included, but I did get to try pork ribs, brisket and prime rib. The brisket was pretty good. It was tender, moist and flavorful with a good spicy rub. I suspect that it was not just smoked but also roasted for a while in its own juices. The prime rib was also very good. I doubt it was done in a smoker or if it was it was quick-roasted over the coals rather than actually smoked. Smoked prime rib is usually pretty awful. It did have a nice crust and good flavor. The pork ribs were the least good of the meats, with a maple glaze which was just too sweet, but while I didn’t love them they earned high marks from the kids.
The brunch was rounded out with some nice deserts, including a kind of lemon-filled beignet, tres leches cake and a coconut creampuff with a fudge coating. There were some problems with the service. I’m not sure how long they’ve been doing brunch, but the way they had it laid out was awkward and inefficient, with some items served buffet style, others ordered from the kitchen, meats custom cut and some items kind of hidden behind a bar with no indication that they were there. It was kind of disorganized and the portions served were surprisingly small considering the high price tag.
Perusing the menu from other meals I sensed an uneasy conflict between the desire to be a high-end restaurant and a menu based around traditional barbeque. What you end up with is barbeque which is too fancy and loses its basic character, while at the same time being priced at more than double regular barbeque prices. The truth is that the meat’s not any better than what you can get on the other side of town in places where the atmosphere is less refined and the only desert is banana pudding. I can’t really make informed comment on the gourmet items which make up the other half of the menu, with appetizers averaging $10 and entrees ranging up to $65 for a ridiculously enormous porterhouse steak. By the descriptions and my experience with some of the fancier brunch items, they seem overpriced and overdone, perhaps having lost track of the basic principle that good, fresh food doesn’t need to be overdone with complex additional flavors.
Having said all that, the barbeque is still fairly good overall. I’d recommend it if the prices were anywhere near sane. If you just moved to Austin from San Francisco and want to eat someplace within walking distance of your $500,000 condo and the price of the food means nothing to you, then give Lambert’s a try.