Ris Rides Again (Full Review)

Former 1789 chef Ris Lacoste makes a comeback

Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday for brunch, late lunch, and dinner, Sunday for brunch.

In 2005, Ris Lacoste left her job as chef at 1789, the restaurant that’s a Georgetown institution, to open a place of her own—one where she could stretch out, cook more-relaxed food, and not worry about impressing an establishment crowd celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. So we waited.

A year later, Lacoste announced her new restaurant’s location—DC’s West End, in the Ritz-Carlton condo building. Then we waited some more, watching as her corner space remained unchanged. We began to wonder: Was this ever going to happen?

Finally, it has. Lacoste’s labor of love—called simply Ris—debuted in December. It’s a sprawling place with a big dining room, many private spaces, and a friendly bar/lounge. With its panels of red-and-gold wallpaper, orb-shaped flower arrangements, and pinstripe-aproned servers, it feels like a throwback. If Edith Wharton were still around, you might find her at a back banquette.

Lacoste’s ambitions run high. Besides dinner and all-afternoon lunch, the restaurant has a carryout menu and is planning to offer breakfast. One evening, a server told us about the recently added brunch. “She’s talking about making her own English muffins,” she said, rolling her eyes. “See that booth? We’re thinking of turning it into her bedroom.”

Lacoste’s hard work is paying off—you can see it especially in the details, from the baskets of warm, fresh bread to a lovely Earl Grey tea procured from the local Great Falls Tea Garden. The menu doesn’t feel like a concept or an ego-driven celebration of trends and whimsy. It reads like an installment of This Is Your Life, a collection of dishes united not by cuisine but by the fact that Lacoste likes to cook them.

That means your appetizer may be the dark, long-simmered onion soup she learned to make in Paris circa 1981. Or it might be the “scallop margarita” topped with tequila granita—as masterful as a ceviche gets—that she perfected at 1789. Textbook sole meunière brightened with both orange and lemon zest recalls Lacoste’s old pal Julia Child, while an egg-smothered Portuguese steak is straight out of her hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Lime-and-blood-orange-cured scallops aside, the most rewarding dishes are the most straightforward. A classic, Cognac-spiked duck terrine stands out for its lavish smoothness. The burger, ground in-house, comes on a sturdy, slightly sweet bun—surprise, she makes those, too—with a Big Mac–goes-swank sauce of chilies, pickles, mayo, and ketchup. Most rustic is a pot of mussels—listed as an appetizer but big enough for a main course—in a terrific chorizo-stoked roasted-tomato broth. It’s easy to blaze through a couple of bread baskets in soaking it up.

It’s the less conventional main courses that could use fine-tuning. For all that was going on around a hefty lamb shank—a Lebanese-style mix of yogurt, pomegranate, and pine nuts—the flavors never quite came to life. Same with that Portuguese skirt steak: Although it was smothered in peppers, onions, and a runny egg, it tasted bland. A cut of salmon floated in a lackluster ginger broth. A mammoth Berkshire pork chop that was sided with apple-cornbread pudding and bacony shell beans was juicy and tender—and the bread pudding was wonderful—but the dish looked like a mess.

Desserts haven’t yet been a strong suit. Although a butterscotch pudding had just the right sweetness, it was marred by its gritty texture. A German-chocolate-mousse terrine was more leaden than decadent. Better were a homey, deep-dish apple-and-pear pie and a coffee sundae with brownies and house-made marshmallows.

Still, what’s needed here and there are tweaks, not overhauls. Despite the early missteps, much of the meal feels well worth the wait. Ris, it’s good to have you back.


–March, 2010 

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.