Some local toques start small while dreaming big, tirelessly working their way from modest venture to name brand via fits and starts of epicurean inspiration.
Award-winning chef Ris Lacoste has successfully scaled that ladder (and then some).
Which is why it’s so refreshing to find her ratcheting things back a bit so we can all explore the building blocks of fine cooking she’s created at the new Ris at Union Market.
The upstart food stand debuted at the cosmopolitan farmer’s market late last fall, as a seasonal pop-up just before Thanksgiving. That limited run was obviously intended to whet customers’ appetites for Lacoste’s interpretation of fast food.
The compact carte ranges from exotic ready-to-eat stews and carry-out centerpieces (braised lamb shank, duck leg confit) to tempting homemade sweets. There are also a few crave-worthy culinary cheats some folks have apparently been wanting to get their hands on.
“Oh my God! Veal stock. And fish stock!” a first-time visitor gasped while perusing the rows and rows of classic meal starters.
According to market manager Allison Cortese, customers have been snatching up ready-made selections and pantry staples in almost equal quantities so far.
“Sales are split between items to eat at the market and items to take home. It really depends on the day as to which will sell more,” she said.
Certain items are, by design, not intended for those seeking immediate gratification.
The braised lamb shanks, though precooked, require more love than the typical office microwave can adequately provide.
“We don’t do that by the pound, just by the shank,” a server explained of the hefty, bone-in hunks of meat parked in front of the display case. The market aide recommended slowly simmering the knobby shanks in the complementary lamb sauce for around 30 minutes to really get the natural juices flowing again.
Those searching for a quick fix would be wise to snack around.
A personal-size quiche stuffed with wild mushrooms and leeks left us satiated but lacked oomph. Hearty French-Canadian meat pies fit that bill, offering up mouthfuls of succulent potatoes, sweet onion and sweet-and-savory crumbled pork — a Lacoste specialty spiked with cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg — wrapped in buttery dough.
Curried goat stew weaved together sumptuous meat, chewy black beans and crunchy crushed nuts. A posole bowl proved more enticing; the ravishing brew featured finely shredded pork, tender hominy, crispy radish slices and fiery jalapenos, all cooled by a mound of rich sour cream.
The chicken pot pie — one of the top sellers — fared perfectly well after a half-hour date with the office toaster oven, set to 375 degrees. The flaky crust emerged evenly browned, while the interior yielded forkfuls of caramelized onions, whole peas, mushrooms, cubed carrots and coarsely chopped chicken breast swimming in flour-thickened chicken stock.
A tray of ready-made meatballs (the second-most-popular seller) seemed to take the office cooking treatment equally well. A quick spin through the microwave conjured up steaming orbs of unctuous meat threaded with green onion and smothered in dulcet, chunky-style marinara.
Dessert lovers should be well taken care of at Ris at Union Market, given the shop’s affinity for ornate fruit pies (we spied lattice-topped cherry, apple and blueberry creations), cookies and pudding cups.
Our current favorite is the derby pie. The Southern treat comes courtesy of renowned pastry chef Beverly Bates, who folds together crushed walnuts and mouth-watering chunks of milk chocolate into a sugary, blondie-like center.
“It’s basically a candy bar baked into a pie,” the server suggested/warned as we eyed the intoxicating closer.
She lied. It was better than any candy bar we’ve ever munched on.
Food Court is an ongoing series of semi-regular spot checks of new and evolving eateries with ties to Capitol Hill.
Ris at Union Market:
1309 Fifth St. NE; 202-320-7802; unionmarketdc.com
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday.