Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Restaurant Iris, Memphis, TN

I am a fan of eating in the bar.  Perhaps this draw stems from my high school and college years spent waiting tables, where the bar was the staff’s social epicenter of the restaurant or maybe it was my early career years in sales where eating alone at a bar was a way to feel less alone. Regardless of the origin, one of my favorite bar tables is at Restaurant Iris in Memphis, Tennessee.  Set in a house in midtown, the bar at Iris is a cozy nook off the entrance, encased in plush floor-to-ceiling curtains, bathed in alabaster candles, where you can watch everyone come and go, while enjoying the full menu and top-notch service.  I would probably also love a table at Iris, but seeing as you have to book weeks in advance, I will leave that to all those who actually plan in life. 

Dinner and a show in the city - what girl would say no?  While I was very excited to see the world's most renown jazz organist, Joey DeFrancesco at the Germantown Performing Arts Center, the deal was sweetened further by a promise of dinner at my favorite restaurant in Memphis, whose chef this very night was off winning an award cooking up heritage pork raised by my friend Brad at Ole Thyme Farms in Oxford.  
At Restaurant Iris on this rainy night, I fine-tuned a theory that will require countless hours of research to ensure validity -- that is, I hypothesize that restaurants that offer Sazeracs on their cocktail menus are more likely to serve memorably decadent food.  The Sazerac, a classic New Orleans cocktail made at Iris with pernod, bitters, rye, simple syrup, and lemon twist, was served in a wine glass on the rocks and hit all the right herbal notes with a sweet, yet strong finish.  The Pimms cup cocktail, a historic drink hailing from London, featuring Pimms No. 1, a gin based liqueur, laced with herbs, and mixed with lemon, spritz, and cucumber, while great on this dreary night, has most certainly secured a spot at the top of my summer cocktail list. With our drinks, we were treated to an amuse-bouche, and although it was not much larger than a quarter, the chopped green apple, goat cheese, pecan and honey-drizzled crostini, packed huge flavor in one bite.  This is one of those dishes that seems so simple that I make all sorts of promises to myself to try to recreate it at home for for friends.
While I grew up in a food loving family that valued dining out, the restaurants we patronized were of the all-you-can-eat crab leg or twin lobster variety, not French cuisine.  I adore both, and by no means am I complaining about great seafood, but I keenly remember my first foie gras, at Farallon in San Francisco.  Like most “firsts”, this little slice of livered heaven changed my life and palette forever.  Iris’ version was seared to perfection with a salty, caramelized crust, encasing a silky, rich interior, with a roasted sweet shallot with an herbed oil.  Like a child, I must have cut my piece into a dozen miniscule bites, but in this case it was to savor every last morsel.  

Not one to shy away from an unusual dish, I could not help but resist one of the new winter dishes for its pure schizophrenic appeal; the veal schnitzel was topped with a farm fresh sunny side-up egg and fresh anchovies, on a bed of knöpfle tossed with oregano and capers. 

 As if that was not sensory pleasure enough, the entire dish was served over a boysenberry glaze.  The briny flavor of the anchovies counter-balanced the buttery veal and the runny egg yolk for a wonderfully salty bite, that when dipped in the sweet boysenberry sauce, made your taste buds jump.  The flavorful knöpfle, a Hungarian style noodle with a chewy dumpling texture, completed the dish.   

The braised American kobe short rib, was served over a roasted winter vegetable fregula, a pasta similar to an Israeli couscous.  This meal was most certainly the antidote to a drizzly winter night; the rich braised texture of the beef was deeply satisfying and frankly there are not too many things in life that make me happier than a perfect baby carrot, smaller than my pinkie finger, with the miniature greens still attached.  
Farm cheddar with sea salt and honey immediately sold us on the cheese plate for dessert.  Creamy and salty, the cheddar was perfect on its own and also wonderful when paired with the tomato marmalade.  The Manchego coupled nicely with the rich caramelized onion marmalade and the fresh gouda was mild and clean, completely unlike the more popular aged or smoked versions.  Being a cheese purist, I didn’t try the crostini that came with the dish until the end, which was a blessing, as the toasts glean what I am calling their “crack essence” from being flash fried, creating a crispy crunch with a very satisfying chew.  Deep fried bread…might make me as happy as baby carrots....

Restaurant Iris on Urbanspoon