Worth the wait Ris Lacoste's place lives up to her mission
** 1/2 (out of four stars; Good/Excellent)
Sound check: 71 decibels (Must speak with raised voice)
Things I never thought I'd see in my lifetime: an African American president, gay marriage and a new restaurant from Ris Lacoste.
The last is an exaggeration, but not by much. During her 10-year run at 1789 in Georgetown, Lacoste became one of Washington's most prominent chefs and developed a large and loyal following. When she left the American classic at the end of 2005, it was to open a place of her own, she announced.
And then, nothing. Oh, the chef would pop up at charity events or as a consultant now and then, and we'd get occasional progress reports, but it wasn't until December that she finally opened her eponymous restaurant under the same roof as the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton in the West End.
Four years is a long time to keep people waiting for dinner. Expectations for, and from, Ris are sky-high.
One spoon into a bowl of chowder -- thick with carrots, potatoes and two kinds of clams -- I'm pleased to see Lacoste, 54, back in the game. Not only does the roux-thickened appetizer summon the good old days at Kinkead's, the seafood stalwart where she cooked before 1789, but it sums up the chef's early mission statement for her new act. From the start, she told me several years ago, she wanted a "neighborhood joint" and a menu at once "rustic, elegant and mid-priced." Supporting her in the goal are chef de cuisine Ed Kwitowski, 42, the former executive sous-chef at Bistro Bis on the Hill, and pastry chef Chris Kujala, 45, previously with Potenza downtown.
Another blast from the past at Ris is the seafood "margarita," a fire-and-ice signature from her menu at 1789. As before, the parfait fits in lime-marinated scallops, chilies, avocado and what tastes like a tequila snowball.
You won't need a microscope to see what you're eating; Ris serves its food with a generous hand. Just about everywhere else, crudo is considered a light launch. Here, the plate of fish -- pastrami-cured salmon, glazed yellowtail and citrusy tuna -- is catch enough for two to share. On the subject of surf, the grilled octopus salad is very busy but also very tasty. Feta cheese, diced celery, cured lemon and tiny croutons all contribute to the cause.
If something here sports a cover, order it. The rewards are rich, thanks to lard in the crusts. I'm talking potpies, filled with chicken or even fruit. Sweetly spiced pears, apples and raisins beneath a thin disk of pastry are an enormous pleasure enhanced by a scoop of rum raisin ice cream that melts from the heat. The light raft of meringue that more than garnishes Ris's wicked cheesecake, circled with blood orange sauce, is a sweet treat all its own.
Who needs Mom (or a shrink) for comfort when they've got in front of them a grilled pork chop bursting with juices, or a butterscotch pudding tasting deeply of toffee? The thickly cut meat includes some winning sides: tangy collard greens and muffinlike cornbread pudding veined with apple bits. The silky dessert, served in a martini glass, is decorated with whipped cream and delicate chocolate tuiles that shatter in your mouth. (Like several items on the menu, that pudding has been tweaked since its grainy debut.)
One of the liberating things about serving a modern American menu is the carte blanche it extends the chef; contemporary "American" cooking can be just about anything. Sure enough, Ris has almost as many accents in its repertoire as Meryl Streep. The Middle East is (well) represented by a lamb shank set off with pomegranate seeds and creamy labneh, while Italy is channeled with terrific gnudi: dumplings coaxed from ricotta, ringed with a tangy tomato sauce and crunchy with bits of sauteed prosciutto. There's a steak on the menu, but it's not anything like Morton's or the Prime Rib's. This cut, tender skirt steak, leans Latin with a fried egg on its surface, rice and fries on its side and stinging-hot peppers in its inky-black beer sauce.