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L’Ardente has only been open two weeks and it already has a signature dish—a 40-layer lasagna that will put you to bed unless you share it. One in two people who come to the gilded Italian restaurant at Capitol Crossing order it, according to executive chef and partner David Deshaies. He says that’s partially by design and partially due to local food writers making it the center of attention in early coverage.
“When you open a restaurant, it’s simple,” Deshaies says. “We need to have six or seven dishes that are killers.” He took that approach at Unconventional Diner, the other D.C. restaurant he owns with Eric Eden. If you’ve been, you know that’s the meatloaf, chicken parm, double cheeseburger, and cheesecake. “Here I need to have a kick-ass tiramisu. Then we need to have a kick-ass lasagna and a kick-ass Caesar salad. We have to be different from everyone else in the city.”
It’s a strategy he learned from his mentor and friend, late chef and restaurateur Michel Richard. Central Michel Richard, which just reopened downtown, still serves kick-ass fried chicken and a chocolate bar that impersonates a Kit-Kat. It’s how the restaurant keeps Richard’s memory alive and diners content.
Theoretically, Deshaies could have created a lasagna with a cult following without going to the trouble of having 40 layers. But he did it because he thinks “it’s cool.” There are 20 layers of pasta and 20 layers of short rib sugo and a truffle mornay sauce that folds in sottocenere—an Italian cheese flavored with black truffles. The lasagna sheets have to be thin and delicate. “Imagine if I did thick, the size would be double,” Deshaies says.
Cooks slowly braise the short rib for three or four hours with red wine, carrot, onion, celery, and thyme. Once the meat is tender, they pull it into tasty morsels that give the lasagna more texture than more traditional ground beef ever could. What braising liquid is leftover goes into the sauce for the dish, along with white wine, tomato, garlic, and caramelized onion.
When the lasagna comes out of the oven, there are crunchy corners of caramelized cheese that have the same appeal as the edges of a quesabirria taco. L’Ardente finishes the lasagna with freshly grated cheese and some fresh herbs. But before those touches are added, the kitchen has to make a decision as to how to present the lasagna on the plate.
L’Ardente has tried several approaches. At first Deshaies plated it as a tall stack, but that ended up looking like a leaning tower of chees-a. “I see the picture you put,” the chef says. “It’s still pretty good, but it looks like a mess.” He thought about making the base wider to give it more stability, but then he’d have to price it for more than $32. “What am I going to do, charge $65?” he asks. “It’s too much.”
A couple weeks into service, L’Ardente now turns its showstopper on its side. Washingtonians love calling people on their bullshit, so lasagna fact checkers can delight in the fact they can more easily count the 40 layers to make sure there’s not 38 by mistake.
Even though Deshaies invested time in perfecting this dish expecting it to be popular, he’s a little surprised at the obsessive reaction. “The media controls that,” he says. “We had to talk about the opening. We had a photographer come in. We did a lot of beautiful pictures. I was not thinking that [food writers] will put the lasagna as the showpiece. But the lasagna is the cool thing of the restaurant. Washingtonian put it out and it started to blow. Oh yeah, we’re getting killed.”
L’Ardente, 200 Massachusetts Ave. NW; (202) 448-0450; lardente.com