Restaurant Iris, eagerly awaited by Memphis gourmands, was opened in April by Kelly English, a protégé of celebrity chef John Besh. A South Louisiana native who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, English worked at the New Orleans restaurants August and Lüke — and recently as executive chef of N'awlins at Harrah's Tunica.
English has moved into the Memphis market boldly. Not only has he pitched his tent where the iconic La Tourelle once reigned, but also aims straight for Memphians' longtime fascination with New Orleans cuisine, a sentiment that's fueled the success of restaurants as diverse as Justine's and Owen Brennan's.
Iris differs from those restaurants in that it is contemporary, in the mold of August andLüke. English says he set out to recreate the type of New Orleans restaurant where the atmosphere is relaxed but the food is serious, prepared with skill and from the heart.
The décor tells the story about what is new at 2146 Monroe Avenue. Gone are the big French posters and lace curtains, and the new décor allows the bay windows, fireplaces, and other features of this lovely Queen Anne house to shine through. The interior has been redone in soothing taupe and chocolate tones, with simple linen curtains and woven shades on the windows. The front dining room is a bit more formal, the chairs draped in fleur-de-lis emblazoned fabric, and all the tables have silvery mercury glass candle bowls in the center. As a result, the restaurant feels calm, comfortable, and elegant in an unpretentious and easy way.
The menu changes frequently in keeping with what is available through area farmers' markets and local purveyors. Iris has joined the many restaurants who try to buy as much of their food as possible from local growers. It is likely, in fact, that few of these dishes will still be on the menu when you read this.
On our visits to Iris, we sampled a total of five appetizers, of which four were stunning. The first one consisted of three oyster preparations, starting with airy-light fried oysters, very fresh and hot over a blue cheese dressing. The second was a small ramekin of luscious just-out-of-the-oven savory oyster bread pudding nicely spiked with celery, and the third was oyster polo, which the server describes as a lost New Orleans specialty. It consisted of an oyster baked on the half shell with a spunky béchamel spiked with clove, onion, and fresh horseradish.
The knuckle sandwich was a lovely light appetizer, the knuckle being a bit of lobster claw meat stacked on a toasted French bread slice with greens, a tiny green tomato, and a tarragon beurre blanc.
The boudin sausage arrived as little drums of sausage, crumb-coated and fried to an almost brittle crispness, crowned with caramelized onions and served with ravigote, a robust sauce with horseradish and Creole mustard. The boudin is house made with pork, rabbit, and rice.
After one bite it became obvious why the Brussels sprouts salad, despite a name that could scare picky-eater children, is Iris' best-selling dish. Fresh bright green sprouts, blanched and sliced, combined beautifully with bits of strongly smoky local bacon and a vinaigrette with just the right note of sherry vinegar. The roasted local beets over mixed greens, tossed with feta and a subtle vinaigrette, made for a lovely salad but were not nearly so dramatic in flavor.
As for entrees, the just-cooked scallops were actually outclassed by the accompanying house-made gnocchi, so feathery light one could scarcely believe them to be potato pasta. The creamy sauce had a refreshing fennel flavor. Jumbo shrimp was served over buttery stone-ground grits with a thick reduction that was bold and spicy with the flavors of andouille and shallot. Braised American kobe short ribs were meltingly tender and rich, the meat and sauce rich and savory from the earlier deep searing. The generous piece of bass was fresh and sweet, cooked to perfection and served over luscious lobster mashed potatoes.
The showstopper, though, was the Gulf jack entrée. It consisted of a large amberjack steak grilled to juicy perfection and accompanied by ripe red tomato and a pair of shrimp rubbed in Creole spices. What made it dramatic was the fragrant broth of coconut milk, lime, and harissa (a North African spice mixture), brought to the table in a French press coffeepot, strained and poured over the fish. Wow.
One of us also had the five-course tasting menu, which for an extra $20 also includes wine matched to each course. Beginning with a basil-infused mille feuille of silver dollar-sized ripe Ripley tomato slices alternated with disks of mozzarella, the tasting menu went on to include foie gras served with spring-onion confit with pieces of pickled watermelon that were refreshingly complementary, then a scallop served with a bowlful of vibrant "latte" veal stock-based broth fragrant with truffles and other complex flavors. Rare lamb over grilled local peaches followed, and finally a dessert consisting of tiny peach pancakes and ice cream served in a pool of stewed fresh blueberries and blackberries. The wines for each course — and they were generous glasses — were well chosen and meshed well with the food, and in some cases the combinations were downright magical.
Other desserts include a buttery, delicious bread pudding with crunchy praline-coated pecans and a lovely light texture. Crème brûlée was expertly wrought, perfumed with exotic Ugandan vanilla beans. House-made sorbets were fruity and lively, and somewhat porous in texture, which made them refreshingly light. The chocolate milkshake, made from homemade ice cream and whipped cream, was too luscious to resist, and easily puts other versions to shame. The only weak spot in our dessert experience was the rather watery coffee, a far cry from the strong French-roast brew one associates with New Orleans.
As for the wine list, it is filled with unfamiliar names, but the staff is well versed in its merits and will bring samples. English and staff wine expert Jeff Frisby feel strongly about bringing in wines from small producers they believe to be the winemaking counterparts of the local farms that supply food to the restaurant. About 20 whites and 20 reds are sold in the $25-$50-a-bottle range, and about half of these are available by the glass. In addition, a short cocktail menu includes a Sazerac, the New Orleans classic.
Iris also serves a brunch that recently included grillades and grits, pain perdu (French toast), and New Orleans barbecue shrimp.
We found the service to be professional yet informal, and the staff extremely well informed about the food and wine. The first night we had two different servers taking care of us, and we experienced a few minor lags, enough to make us think they were stretched a bit thin. The second night, when we had one waiter, the service felt unified and was more on-point. Both nights every question was answered, dishes arrived and departed efficiently, and the waiters were all helpful and enthusiastic about the restaurant, but not over the top.
It's easy to see what all the fuss is about regarding Iris. The food is gorgeous and beautifully prepared, with personality and with a sense of tradition yet not the same old thing. Take the appetizer of oysters prepared three ways. The light fried oysters and bread pudding were as good as they could possibly be; for the third version English chose a long-forgotten New Orleans preparation. Also memorable are the boudin, the jack, and the Brussels sprout salad.
One welcome aspect of the summer menu was that many of the sauces were lightened up with stock, so you didn't feel weighed down by the end of the meal. English pretty much succeeds, too, with his goal of keeping the atmosphere relaxed. The service isn't perfect, but it's pretty darn good.
In short, Iris shows itself to be the kind of restaurant one goes to New Orleans for, and it's a welcome development to see this one come to Memphis instead.