Lest you think Memphis is little more than barbecue, biscuits and yardbird, I’d like to turn your attention to Restaurant Iris – a sterling example of what owner/chef Kelly English has coined “progressive Southern” cuisine. The beautiful thing about that phrase is how perfectly it encapsulates the essence of what chef English is doing: farm-to-table cooking rooted in honest Southern traditions.
Which means that of course the salad has a bacon component – yet it’s lardons of artisanal pork belly from Alan Benton’s local smokehouse. (If you don’t know Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, I suggest you familiarize yourself with the miracle of their mail order.) And the lettuces are a peppery local arugula, dressed with grilled scallions in a ginger-soy vinaigrette. Topped with crispy “croutons” of sweetbreads – a bit of genius – there’s nothing outwardly Southern about this dish, yet the counterpoint of tastes and textures is undeniably comfort food at its most refined.
Shrimp and grits might be a classic of Southern cooking but it, too, transcends expectations in the hands of chef English: the coarse-grind Delta grits are closer to polenta, bathed in tomato broth au pistou that’s thick with the taste of the sea. A refined dice of andouille adds just enough heat to prickle the palate while six meaty Gulf shrimp top it off as regally as a crown roast. When it comes to dessert, I’m not at all surprised there’s a cheese course on offer. (It’s at this point that I berate myself for not indulging in the degustation menu.)
As if the food were not enough, Restaurant Iris also has an ideal genteel setting: an intimate Victorian house on midtown’s Overton Square. Marked by exceptional service (a waiter drove to my hotel to return an accidentally left-behind credit card) and stellar cocktails to boot (the Sazerac sings) Chef English will upend everything you thought you knew about Southern dining. And masterfully so, I might add.