Worth the wait

When esteemed local chef Ris Lacoste left the Georgetown restaurant 1789, she told The Hill that her new restaurant’s opening would be “six to 12 months away. It could be up to two years away.”

That was in 2005. Five years later, Lacoste has finally fulfilled her dream with Ris, a place to call her own in Foggy Bottom.

“I want to have a restaurant and surround myself with the things I love,” Lacoste said then. “I want music, art. I want to offer my guests a great place to come and enjoy themselves. I want a place that’s full of life, lots of windows to look out of.”

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The windows, yes; the art, check; the music, not so much. A great place to come and enjoy oneself, though, Ris certainly is.

“I want it to be a world atmosphere,” she’d said in that interview five years ago. Her new restaurant’s menu reflects that desire, veering from chicken pot pie to Asian-inspired salmon and detouring for French bistro night, a weekly special menu that allows Lacoste to show off her background in French cuisine.

About that chicken pot pie — it’s flawless. It may look small, but don’t be dismayed — it fairly bursts at the flaky seams with piping hot gravy and tender chunks of roasted chicken, the quintessential comfort food to warm up a cold day. But take this advice: Resist the urge to ravenously inhale those first few bites without giving them adequate cool-down time, or you’ll wind up with a severely scorched tongue. Still, if you can’t help yourself, it may be worth the minor injury to savor Lacoste’s luscious entree and its saucer of slightly sweet gravy bearing playful hints of apple and cinnamon. Don’t disregard the salad on its side, either; though not the main attraction, it is a worthy — though much lighter — accompaniment to the hearty pie.

Ris’s Caesar salad isn’t half-bad either, though perhaps slightly inconsistent. One visit finds the perfect greens-to-dressing ratio; on another, the impressively fresh romaine leaves arrive drenched in Parmesan cream and lemon anchovy vinaigrette (which, by the way, tastes summer-sun bright — I just wish there were less of it).

But if I’m talking salad, I’ve saved the best for last. Even the pickiest eaters won’t be able to resist the beautiful octopus salad, decorated with tangy feta, rich yogurt and impossibly fresh cucumbers. Though it may sound like a springtime appetizer, it’s a dish that definitely transcends seasons.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the scallop margarita, one of Lacoste’s signature items that is too tart and too sweet for winter (and maybe even summer). As for a more seasonal appetizer, the velvet-soft gnudi — ricotta dumplings with lively tomato fondue — excels amid the blustery snow.

Warmer weather, however, may not be so kind to the heavy appetizer and its oversalted side of Swiss chard.

Lacoste makes no secret of her affinity for dark, leafy greens, as evidenced by the collards paired with a succulent pork chop or the spinach nestled beside a lamb shank. As for lamb, it seems to be Lacoste’s lot in life — 1789’s rack of lamb (which Ris now serves on Thursday nights) put her on the local gourmet map, and the shank stacks up well to its popular culinary cousin, falling off the bone on the touch of a tine.

But it isn’t the only main course to benefit from her stylish cooking. Neither the soy-glazed salmon nor the cider-glazed pork chop is overcooked, a state in which both of those proteins seem often to find themselves. Rather, they are a perfect (and elusive) medium-rare.

So, too, is chicken-fried skirt steak, a Southern-inspired brunch menu gem that uses a much nicer cut of meat than does the dish’s traditional preparation. The morning steak comes with a coffee-pan gravy that makes the standard cream-style sauce served elsewhere seem like glue.

If your brunch tastes lean toward the sweeter side, Ris’s French toast can cure your craving. Try not to drown it in the side of silky maple syrup or you’ll miss the best part — cranberry apple chutney that tickles your tongue with its waltz of sweet and tart.

Those two traits continue commingling in the passionfruit cheesecake with blood orange sauce and lemon meringue. Several of the other desserts shine at Ris, with pastry chef Christopher Kujala churning out a symphony of inspired options.

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Take the butterscotch pudding. This is not your lunchbox’s Snack Pack. Kujala’s rendition combines the thickness and full flavor of pudding with the fluffiness of a mousse. The German chocolate mousse torte, meanwhile, is so irresistible that I finish it — something I never do with dessert. And though it’s about 15 degrees outside, I can’t get enough of my dining companion’s homemade salted caramel ice cream. Kujala’s desserts fit more cohesively into a genre than does the rest of the restaurant’s fare, but Ris’s versatility has the potential to become part of its charm.

Though Lacoste’s menu is all over the place, it’s a testament to her talent that Ris successfully produces such a wide variety of foods. 

It may have taken several years to get there, but it seems it was worth the wait.