RIS-ing Star: Lacoste can finally be the center of attention at her own place. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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As the years rolled by and Ris Lacoste still hadn’t opened her own place, some people began to worry that the chef had toiled too long under the protective wing of Clyde’s, the restaurant group that rakes in tens of millions annually with its 13 properties, including 1789, where Lacoste had been the main attraction for a decade. They privately worried that she might not have the stomach to own and operate her own restaurant—not in this economy, not now in her 50s, not at anytime perhaps.

Anyone who dared voice such a concern, I should note, did so with the kind of compassion usually reserved for small furry mammals in distress, not middle-aged chefs looking to open an up-market cafe. I couldn’t help but notice the care and concern that Lacoste generated from her peers. She seemed to be a rare breed in the hospitality industry: someone without an enemy, even as she prepared to open her first restaurant, RIS, a new competitor in a tight dining market.

I started to ask around about Lacoste to better understand what it is about her that generates so much good will. The answers were all variations on a theme: She’s one big-hearted person. Doris “Ris” Lacoste, the fifth of seven children, grew up in a large, nurturing family in New Bedford, Mass., and she has carried that same nourishing tradition to the only family she knows as an adult—the people in the hospitality business and the people who walk into her restaurants. Consider this quote from an interview I conducted with Lacoste last winter:

“I want the food to embrace them. I love people coming to the table. Eating food is just an important thing and just to relax when you eat. You know what I mean? It’s a concept of life that we owe to ourselves to have a little bit of calm and comfort.”

And yet: The more I’ve learned about Lacoste, the more I think her ur-mother image is an incomplete picture. This is a woman, after all, who has a degree in French and studied pre-med biology at the University of Rochester before deciding to become a full-time chef. The kindly-den-mother shtick doesn’t play in the heat of a kitchen on a busy Saturday night when you have hundreds of tickets to turn out. Nor does it play to the money community, which only wants some damn return on its investment in a new restaurant, not a surrogate mum.

If there were any doubts about Lacoste’s brilliance, it was put to rest when she partnered with Mitchell Herman, a businessman who cut his teeth in the ultra-competitive, small-margin world of large-volume grocery stores. His family founded Shoppers Food Warehouse. Herman now has his own business consulting firm; he no doubt knows how to negotiate deals, with the understanding that every dime saved will be one less that RIS has to earn to cover its overhead. As a source told me recently: “Eighty percent of restaurants fail before they ever open their doors” because their operating costs are too high.

If any one thing strikes me about RIS, it’s that the West End restaurant seems designed to withstand the worst that the economy can throw at it—while still providing a platform for Lacoste’s loftier kitchen talents. It’s part fine-dining destination, part diner. You can order a $36 veal chop with gremolata sauce or a $10 cheeseburger with onion jam. Or a $15 butcher board of house-made charcuterie with pied de cochon, pâté de campagne, and duck liver terrine. Or an $18 chicken pot pie. They’re all on the dinner menu.

Perhaps you might think it odd to nosh on a cheeseburger or pot pie in Lacoste’s elegant, black-and-tan dining room, where the clientele leans toward the button-down crowd. I’m not sure I can explain it fully, but it doesn’t seem odd at all once you’re inside Lacoste’s inner circle of comfort. Part of it has to do with her waitstaff, which specializes in a friendly informality and watchful efficiency. When my dining companion was squeezing the living daylights out of her lone, fairly juiceless slice of lime, trying to raise the acid level of her pork posole, a runner quietly trotted out a small plate of extra wedges without being asked.

I’m afraid the acid didn’t totally solve my main issue with the hominy soup, its lack of even, blended flavors. One spoonful tasted predominantly of cumin, another of oregano, another of the soft, savory pork. No spoonful tasted complete. The hits of acidic Dijon and pickled cauliflower, however, did wonders to punch up the underseasoned pâté and terrines on Lacoste’s charcuterie board.

Maybe it says more about me, or maybe Lacoste has just reached a stage in her career where life’s simpler pleasures mean more to her, but I found her humbler dishes generally more appealing than her sophisticated ones. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing inherently wrong with her Alaskan halibut, its flesh moist and milky and seasoned just so, the fillet surrounded with fennel Pernod cream and a farmers market of spring vegetables and mushrooms. The dish just didn’t pop. I could say much the same for her soy-lacquered salmon and braised lamb shank with yogurt, pomegranate seeds, mint, and pine nuts. They both are essentially satisfying, though neither has the centripetal force to draw me back to RIS.

Lacoste’s loosely formed hamburger, however, is a pleasure worth repeating over and over. Slid into place on a house-made potato roll, the burger relies on its aforementioned jam for sweetness rather than a thick smear of ketchup, the onion condiment serving as a cool counterbalance to the warm juicy goodness of the patty. The grilled Portuguese skirt steak, topped with a fried egg and served over rice blackened with reduced beer and beef stock, also deserves an encore or two. But my favorite of Lacoste’s homey comforts is her Wednesday special of spaghetti and meatballs.

These are no New Jersey gut bombs. Lacoste’s meatballs are small orbs packed tight with rich, savory pork and beef, each slathered with a red sauce and served atop spaghetti tossed with olive oil and butter for more depth of flavor. How good are these meatballs? I had lunch with a friend one Wednesday and we decided to switch plates, so she could get a taste of my pasta dish. As I picked at her lamb shank, wishing it had more tart pomegranate seeds to goose the gamey flavor of the meat, I kept glancing nervously at my original order. My friend was putting a hurt on those meatballs. Fearing that she might eat the whole thing in front of my very eyes, I finally suggested we switch our plates back. The disappointment in her eyes could have cleaved a criminal’s heart in half. We split an order of pastry chef Chris Kujala’s superb butterscotch pudding almost as a peace offering between two nations fighting over the same piece of turf.

RIS, 2275 L St. NW, (202) 730-2500.

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