By Marian Burros, Photography By Molly McDonald Peterson
Ris Lacoste is on a mission to find local scallops for her restaurant’s signature Scallops Margarita. There’s one condition: they must be as good as the New Bedford scallops she uses now, or she won’t make the substitution.
Taste and quality take precedence over strict adherence to the local mantra at Ris in Washington’s West End. Fortunately, it gets easier every day to find high-quality products. Still, going local is a work in progress, more complex than making one call to a large distributor. “I keep trying to do something about it every day,” said Lacoste, who opened Ris in December 2009, after years of getting rave notices in other people’s places, like 1789 in Georgetown and the late, lamented 21 Federal. Ris was an instant hit because the food is familiar but has an intensity of flavor that makes it memorable.
Lacoste calls her rustic modern restaurant “a classy neighborhood joint where the bar is always full and I know everyone. The neighbors are comfortable here.”
And so is everyone else.
The tables are far enough apart, the service smooth, and while diners can sometimes hear the siren of an ambulance on its way to the nearby hospital, they feel cosseted and safe, a reflection of the owner’s warm, embracing personality.
The menu, 75 percent of which is local in the warmer months, is sophisticated comfort food. It’s not your grandmother’s chicken pot pie, and no one ever made a butterscotch pudding quitelike the one at Ris.
All of it reflects a distillation of Lacoste’s French Canadian roots, her New England upbringing, her French culinary training, and her extensive experience that began when she planted her first watermelon seed as a child and was so excited when it sprouted she pulled it up to show her mother. No watermelon that year.
By the time she was 12 she was working in a Polish deli; by 17 she was an assistant manager at a local restaurant. Voted most likely to succeed in high school, she went to college where her name changed from Doris to Ris. She studied pre-med for two years and then transferred to Berkeley, graduating with a degree in French while acting as an assistant manager at the Berkeley Faculty Club. Off to Paris to study French with barely a sou, she thought she could earn enough money as an au pair while she studied. Instead she became a part-time typist at La Varenne, Paris’ well-known cooking school, and was soon able to attend classes in exchange for being the receptionist. Her fate was sealed.
Her interest in local ingredients came early, when she worked in Boston and discovered the joys—and quality—of local seafood. “Once you got swordfish out the back door, you just can’t buy Chilean sea bass,” she said. “I fell in love with the notion of knowing the people who are growing my food. I love hunting down ingredients,” but laments the lack of time now that she is running a restaurant. What buying from dozens of suppliers means is “writing 1,000 checks instead of 20.” And often paying more. It’s worth it to Lacoste because the money stays in the community.
But she is not from the mold that it must be local at any cost. So Muscovy ducks comes from California because she hasn’t found any to equal them here. She refuses to limit her cheese plate to local products. She flies in fresh wild salmon in season. And if there are asparagus on the menu, it must be spring. Steaks, burgers, pork, and chicken are local year-round but Lacoste said that she hasn’t found an egg person and she doesn’t know who to trust with grass-fed beef. “I’m not there yet. There are certainly struggles that come along with this.”
One relatively new source of information about local food is realtimefarms.com, a website that provides information about local farms and other sources for raw ingredients and allows the user to ask questions.“It’s a way for my staff to make entries and see how important what they order is, and get excited about what they are buying,” Lacoste explained. “It’s very interactive. One of the toughest things is to convince your staff that it’s worth it to buy locally even though it is time consuming. I give them books to read, like Michael Pollan. It’s like teaching, and at the same time I am teaching myself.”
Shopping at the farmers markets also helps. Year round she’s at the Dupont Circle market every Sunday. In the growing season she adds three or four others.
“My food is providing people with soul and spirit and the best food I can feed them and is good for them,” Lacoste said, hastily adding: “Healthy does not mean I’m not serving butter.”
The world of sustainable ag has noticed Ris. It received the Snail of Approval award from Slow Foods, a non-profit gastronomic organization founded to counteract fast food and fast life, and the disappearance of local food traditions. And oh, yes, swirling in larger and larger circles in Lacoste’s head is a new restaurant. “Once your restaurant is organized your creative juices begin to flow, you want to do something else,” she said. “There is an addiction.”
2275 L Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20037
Marian Burros was on staff at The New York Times for 27 years and still writes for them. She has lived in the Washington area since 1959 and remembers when there were no farmers markets. At one time or other, she worked for The Washington Post and the late lamented Washington Star and Washington Daily News. She was also a consumer reporter for D.C.’s WRC-TV. The author of 13 cookbooks, she has been writing about small farms and the pleasures of local food since the 1980s.