Ten years of Restaurant Iris’ acclaim and excellence are propelling Chef and owner Kelly English into a new wave of refinement and reinvention. His 40th birthday coincided with the opportunity to rethink his beloved Overton Square restaurant mainstay — and one month in, the new concept is delivering.
“I was so in love with Iris and what it was — now I’m just as, if not more, in love with what we’re doing,” says Kelly. “I’m really happy with what we’ve done so far in just a month.”
The dining destination has always been known for its intimate space, high level of service and commitment to quality. Yet by knocking down a few walls and reimagining the eatery’s interiors, Kelly and his team, including visionary interior designer Rachel Gray, developed a plan to continue these reputable elements while bringing a more contemporary, approachable aura.
“This was the perfect time to shake it up,” says Kelly. “I like to say that, sometimes, if something isn’t broken, you should break it.”
Beyond the shell of the historic building and the dedicated staff, all of whom remain at the helm of the restaurant’s next phase, Restaurant Iris is totally new. And it’s beautifully done.
“We took a look at ‘Who is Memphis now?’ and viewed that through our own lens collectively,” says Kelly. “We’ve made a commitment.”
The new entrance is spacious and striking, accommodating multiple tables for walk-ins only. Restaurant Iris’ reputation for “you can’t get in” is no longer.
“We want to host guests who aren’t planning two weeks out,” says Kelly. “And now our space can accommodate for them. If we don’t have space available in the main dining room or in our walk-in-only bar area, there’s space to enjoy a cocktail until the table’s ready.”
A brand-new dedicated bar area evokes elegance and richness through deeply hued wallpaper, chic seating and a zinc bar-top. The coveted corner window banquette, which comfortably seats six, is first-come, first-serve six days a week. It’s the perfect place for the restaurant’s new shareable punch selections with embellished glasses for self-serving. A French 75 sherbert punch invokes nostalgia while tasting exactly as you’d expect with gin, citrus and champagne.
“We envisioned a forward-thinking bar program that couldn’t be done with two seats,” said English. “Now we have an arena to showcase the talent we can put behind the bar, led by Larin Culp, with cocktails that serve a place and time and purpose.”
The modernity continues throughout the space, as white tablecloths are replaced with sleek tables. The shift is part of English’s philosophy on relationships. Says Kelly, “In any relationship, whether with a spouse, a friend or, in my case, a restaurant, you can’t do the same thing every day. You’ve gotta do things differently or add something new every so often to keep things interesting.”
Such perspective is applied to the menu, as well, crafted by Executive Chef Camron Razavi under Kelly’s mentorship.
“Iris deserves someone in that kitchen fighting hard every day, and if I want to mentor people, I need to put someone in that position,” says Kelly. “I have the utmost respect for Cam as a culinary and as a human being. Cam is making food that I am so proud to have in my restaurant.”
Camron’s menu is diverse, reflective of a background that incorporates various heritages, culinary colleagues, mentors like Kelly and his own family. A few standouts include the ham hock hush puppies. As a meal-starter or cocktail complement, the cornmeal base is deep fried, as it should be, with a paper-thin slice of lardo that melts into your mouth, adding just the right level of smokiness. A smoked aioli supports the dense dough with light and garlicky undertones.
The char siu quail with wild mushroom chestnut stuffing is the perfect autumnal entrée, nestled atop greens with a spicy mustard caramel. For the vegetarian or Middle Eastern aficionado, a charred eggplant with lemon tahini, harissa, couscous, radish and crispy chickpeas is colorful and full of flavor.
Camron also takes the traditional shrimp and grits up a notch with a rice grits congee, lap cheong sausage and a boiled peanut garnish for textural complexity and a nod to low country tradition.
For the traditional yet elevated beef entrée, Kobe beef flat iron is sliced and served atop an inventive mozzarella bread pudding with roasted tomatoes and a vibrant arugula pistou.
“It’s fun to watch someone walk in for the first time — they typically need a moment to take it all in,” says Kelly.
Walk in, reservation or not, and enjoy the new Restaurant Iris.
Restaurant Iris is located in Overton Square at 2146 Monroe Avenue, Memphis, TN 38104. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; bar open 5 p.m. until closed; closed Sundays. For more information, visit restaurantiris.com.
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