This is my 100th post for this blog. And by random coincidence, it is an account of a meal that marked a far more important occasion. My wife and I celebrated our five-year wedding anniversary over the past weekend with a trip to Restaurant Iris next to Overton Square in Midtown.
Restaurant Iris is one of the most loved and reviewed places in the city, as you can see from a quick glance at its Urbanspoon page. Since so much has been written about the amazing things chef Kelly English is doing with Southern food, and I left the camera at home to enjoy myself with no distractions, I'll focus more on what makes the place so special rather than the specific details of our meal.
We went on Friday night, and while it had threatened to rain throughout the day, the evening ended up having perfect weather that made us wish we'd requested outdoor seating in front of the historic home that houses the restaurant. The interior of the building is still divided into rooms from its days as a house and the layout combined with the friendly yet professional staff creates a cozy atmosphere without the stuffiness you find at a run-of-the-mill, sprawling, dimly-lit "fine dining" establishment.
The atmosphere combines with the balance of creativity, tradition and attention to detail in the dishes themselves to create the kind of experience that makes dining in New Orleans so wonderful, and that Memphis needs more of. These are the characteristics that make Restaurant Iris and Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in East Memphis two of our absolute favorite places to dine on special occasions.
Iris is also similar to New Orleans in that it is an excellent place to drink with a very well-thought selection of whiskeys, beers and wines and knowledgeable servers that can be counted on for good recommendations. Our server did an excellent job picking a red wine later in the evening to go with my wife's entree.
We started the night with whiskey drinks followed shortly by oysters three ways and a spectacular arugula salad with toppings that included crispy pork belly and sweet bread "croutons." The last time we visited my wife had been impressed with the restaurant's version of surf and turf, which tucks fried oysters blue cheese into a New York strip. However, she declared me the "winner" after sampling the soft shell crab dish, and its delectable sauce, that I ordered. My wife is a firm believer in competitive ordering, where someone at the table is, sometimes begrudgingly, declared the "winner" based on her opinion of who gets the best food.
At one point during our meal we overheard someone at a nearby table requesting a myriad list of substitutions and alterations to a main dish. The server graciously obliged them, even though they were probably making a mistake. If you have a genuine allergy or intolerance to an ingredient, certainly ask if that food can be left out of any dish you are interested in ordering. But if it is just a matter of personal culinary prejudice, when you are paying to dine somewhere that a gifted chef has meticulously crafted every item on his menu, trust that he has put plenty of thought into the specific combination of tastes and textures for every dish.
The chefs from Restaurant Iris and Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen had the honor of representing their city in the recent Memphis Cochon 555 event for a reason. We are lucky to have them here. The Cochon event was a competition between true artists who work in flavor, and Kelly English was the winner that night. The trophy is still proudly displayed above the bar in his restaurant. If you have the privilege of dining there, enjoy every bite as he envisioned it.