From time to time, I check the Commercial Appeal for new restaurants in the Memphis area. With the recent departure of Frederick Koepel, Memphis’ esteemed food critic, new blood has filled the role, along with a new approach to reviews. Koepel’s style was at times biting and harsh, but he always gave his honest opinion. Now that Koepel is gone, the Commercial Appeal will only produce positive reviews and has even eliminated the star system. The last restaurant review under the star system was at Iris, a New Orleans inspired restaurant which replaced La Tourelle on Monroe Avenue. The Appeal gave Iris four stars and followed up with a reminder that only five other restaurants had ever received four stars. As I made reservations at Iris, I full-heartedly hoped that I would be able to hand out my first five-star review. Iris barely missed the mark.
When I walked through the front door, I immediately loved the décor. With its New Orleans background, Iris wisely implements toned-down golds, purples, and browns wherever appropriate (chairs, walls). As we sat down, I noticed that at the top of my mother’s menu was a “Happy Birthday!” and the date. When I made the reservations, all I said was, “It’s my mother’s birthday so I hope it’s good!” I didn’t expect them to do anything special. I was wrong. Apparently they print menus with “Happy Birthday” on them. Never have I been to a restaurant that actually personalizes a menu for a diner. Not long after we were seated, we met our waitress, who was everything a waitress should be. She was well-spoken, incredibly knowledgeable about the menu as well as the ingredients used, attentive to our needs, and personable.
For an appetizer, I started with a “rod bailey’s raviolo “neola” with brown butter and mushrooms”. Basically, it was one giant ravioli (raviolo is singular) stuffed with beef from Neola Farms, a local farm in Tipton County that specializes in USDA prime angus beef. The dish was very fragrant and tasted just as good as it smelt. To be honest with you, I loved the dish so much that I failed to stop to ask myself what ingredients were at work. I just ate it. I slopped up the remaining juices with Iris’ freshly baked French bread. Both of my parents enjoyed their appetizers as well (gulf oysters and salad of brusell sprouts). Décor perfect, service impeccable, bread fresh, and appetizer excellent in every way- I anticipated handing out five stars. Then came the entrees. I ordered the American Kobe short rib, which had caught my eye on the menu because of my obsession for Kobe beef, a grade originating from Japan and considered to be the best. This dish was also fragrant and very tasty. I had two problems though. One- I couldn’t tell the short rib was Kobe. Kobe is the most tender, flavorful cattle out there and yet this short rib seemed nothing more than chuckeye (a much lower quality cut of beef) that had been cooked for four hours just to get tender. Two- the dish was very greasy. My appetizer was a bit greasy but the short rib was sinfully greasy. But like I said, the short rib, with its celery root emulsion, was very flavorful, and I ate as much as I could. My mother enjoyed her gulf shrimp with delta grind grits, andouille sausage, and tomatoes, but also complained about greasiness. My father ordered the gulf jack with local tomatoes, shrimp and a harissa “café au lait”. Chef English gets points for presentation for this one because the server actually pours the “café au lait” from an old fashioned coffee press. At the table, my dad quietly ate his dish and at one point whispered, “The fish isn’t fresh.” My mom tried some and actually started choking. In the car, my dad described his dish with one word: failure. For dessert, we shared one of the best crème brulees I have ever had. The “caramel-crust” was the right consistency, but more importantly, the custard underneath was unique from other brulees because the vanilla bean used to make the custard came from Uganda. The custard was smooth, sweet, and provoked an incredible aftertaste.
The décor was perfect, the service was impeccable, the appetizers were excellent, and the dessert was unique, but the entrées were mediocre. Had the dishes not been so greasy, the fish actually fresh, and the short rib reminiscent of Kobe, I would have given Iris five stars. Chef English, towards the end of our meal, made some rounds around the restaurant and personally checked on each table. He was very young so I have no doubt in my mind that the only direction for Iris, in terms of quality, is up.
-Reviewed October ’08