Snow Day Miracle: I Finally Ate At Restaurant Iris
Last Thursday, I experienced a snow day miracle. My friend Ace saw on Twitter that Restaurant Iris had a few openings that night and she called in right away to snag us a reservation. Good lookin’ out!
You’ve probably heard of Restaurant Iris, Chef’s Kelly English’s first restaurant in Memphis. The fine dining spot has won many awards from local publications for the chef’s creative take on French Creole cuisine.
It’s considered a must-eat in Memphis, and it’s a lot of people’s favorite place in town, but for one reason or another, I hadn’t eaten there yet. It’s been on my list for ages. Iris famously only has 13 tables, so getting a reservation requires a bit of planning and good timing.
Thanks to my quick-thinking friend, we got in for a late dinner. Here’s what happened.
First, we managed to survive the snowy drive and get a spot in the treacherous Overton Square parking lot. Normally, you can park in this lot or the garage, or take advantage of the valet parking at Iris. Don’t even think about parking on the street on that side of Monroe or in the lots for the businesses across Monroe. Just don’t do it.
Restaurant Iris is in a converted house. Inside, there’s a hallway down the middle of the building with several rooms with a handful of tables in each. It’s upscale but cozy. If you tell them it’s a special occasion, they’ll decorate your table.
We were early for our reservation, so the bartender offered us some cocktails while we waited. Ace went for the beautiful Salty Dog, a classic vodka-and-grapefruit cocktail with a salted rim. I chose the pear martini, which is alcohol mixed with slightly-pear-flavored alcohol. My kind of drink, but not for everyone.
Given the average price of cocktails at newer spots in the Overton Square area, I was surprised that the cocktails were all just $8 or $9, with one exception, which was $11. You can’t even get a smallish restaurant-branded margarita at some places for these prices, so props to Iris for being reasonable. The wines by the glass were also in that range, so yay. Moving on.
Promptly at our reservation time, we were seated at a table in one of the rooms, right next to a fireplace, in cushioned upholstered chairs that I could sit back in. I wanted to note this because there’s nothing worse than getting all excited about a fancy dinner only to have a wobbly table or rickety chairs.
Our server was basically perfect. He hit that special note that I have referred to before, where a server is very knowledgable and nimble without being remotely snooty. He gave us a quick and exciting rundown of each dish on the menu (at our request) and later chose the perfect glass of wine for me to pair with both our entrees, offering me a taste even though I’d just ordered one glass, which should arguably be standard practice for that level of restaurant. Classy.
I was tempted by the chef’s choice five-course tasting menu, but our server wisely steered Ace and me towards the regular menu since it was our first Iris experience. We chose a mix of classic, signature dishes and newer, different ones that sounded good to us. Note: the menu changes frequently.
We began with the pimento cheese stuffed okra and lobster knuckle “sandwich”. I use quotes around sandwich because it was more like a monster bruschetta, served open-faced and piled high with a seriously generous portion of the best lobster I’ve ever had.
Don’t you hate when you bite into a piece of bread or crostini piled with something, but it’s way too crunchy for comfort and it crumbles in your hands and mouth, scattering the toppings everywhere? Perhaps the ultimate first-world problem, but one you can avoid with the soft, delicious bread on which Iris serves the lobster knuckle sandwich. I will order that again, for sure.
The okra was a sleeper hit that we kept going back to throughout the meal; the fried okra pieces with tangy pimento cheese filling plus the greens dressed in some cheesy, creamy dressing made for a surprisingly addictive dish. There was also fresh bread and the kitchen sent out a complimentary Brussels Sprouts dish, which was very kind.
At this point, we were both full. There is zero chance that you’ll go hungry at Iris. But we had entrees coming, so we rallied and chose the scallops with gnocchi and beans (newer to the menu) and the infamous surf ‘n’ turf, which consists of fried oysters stuffed with blue cheese in a New York strip.
Scallops are my go-to dish when I’m eating out, and these had a great sear and bright flavor and the gnocchi was ridiculously good. Beans aren’t my favorite, so I probably wouldn’t order this again, but it was Ace’s favorite thing we had that night, maybe tied with the okra.
The surf ‘n’ turf is what everyone told me to order when I mentioned I was going to Restaurant Iris, and it exceeded the expectations. Take heed: it is a very rich, heavy dish that could probably serve two people. Be sure to craft a bite with a bit of steak, piece of a lightly crispy oyster, and some of the sauce. Get it all on your fork and go for it. That’s good stuff, and tied for the lobster knuckle for my favorite thing we had.
There was no way we could finish, so our sever packed up half our entrees so we could go on to dessert. The signature dessert – bread pudding – is the same that’s served at The Second Line, and was moist and decadent like always. I’m a sucker for dessert drinks, so we had to try the milk punch. It’s vanilla, milky, bourbon goodness. Not for the faint of liver or stomach after all the other rich food, but oh-so-tasty. It could stand on its own as a dessert.
My overall opinion: does Restaurant Iris live up to the hype? Yes, definitely. Is it worth the substantial cost? Yes, definitely, if you care even remotely about good food, service, atmosphere, or ingredients.
Ace and I had several cocktails and a glass of wine, two first-course dishes, two entrees (half of which we took home), a dessert, and one dessert drink to share (I suspect they gave us extra because it was served in separate glasses), and our bill came to $175, which included an appropriate tip.
Much has been said about Restaurant Iris, so I’ll keep my overall thoughts succinct. Chef Kelly English and his talented staff succeed not only because the food is inventive and full of familiar Southern flavors taken to the next level, but also because they don’t skimp on portions, and nothing makes you feel like you should be sitting up straighter or wearing white gloves.
If you’re the kind of person who is annoyed with gouged fine dining prices (especially alcohol), small plates menus, or overly modern atmosphere, but who still wants to enjoy quality cuisine and impeccable service, this is the spot for you. I actually love all those fancy things I mentioned (minus drink prices) but I can’t wait to go back and try the tasting menu at Iris.
Restaurant Iris has several tables inside, and when then weather is nice, a few on the front patio, which is fenced-in and pretty private. Vegetarians should be OK, but I’d be concerned about vegan, gluten-free, or kid-friendly dining. Call ahead if you have any questions; the staff is very kind and knowledgeable and I have a feeling they will accommodate whatever is possible.
Restaurant Iris is open every day but Sunday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Be sure to call a few weeks in advance for weekday reservations, or perhaps even a month or two in advance for weekends. I may go ahead and make a reservation for my late December birthday this year, just to be sure. In the meantime, you can check out Iris’s casual cousin, The Second Line.
2146 Monroe Avenue
Memphis, Tennessee 38104