Oct 7, 201012:00 AM
Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene
Iris Stays the Course
The shrimp and papaya salad is a standout on Iris' menu.
Photo courtesy of Robert Peyton
When chef Ian Schnoebelen and his partner, Laurie Casebonne, decided to move Iris from the comfortable bungalow it occupied on Jeannette Street to the French Quarter, there were some worries as to whether the restaurant’s patrons would follow. The restaurant’s new location at 321 N. Peters St., in the Bienville House Hotel, was home to a number of restaurants that didn’t quite work out, including Greg and Mary Sonnier’s Gamay. (Note: Please see below for an amendment to this statement.) The perception was that the restaurant’s location, somewhat off of the beaten path for foot traffic, would make it difficult to stay in business.
Thankfully for those of us who love Schoebelen’s approach to cooking, that’s proved not to be the case. The restaurant is hanging in there business-wise, and if there’s been an appreciable change to the food, I haven’t noticed it. Schnoebelen’s cooking is refined; some dishes incorporate Vietnamese or Thai ingredients and techniques, others are purely French or Italian, and some are simply sophisticated approaches to high-quality ingredients.
There is a fantastic appetizer on the lunch menu that features Gulf shrimp over a green papaya salad with Vietnamese herbs and a strong dose of citrus. It’s reminiscent of Thai cuisine but far from a rote copy. Similarly, Iris’ take on Vietnamese summer rolls leaves out the shrimp and pork, replacing them with avocado and cucumber. They’re served with a pineapple sauce that is, again, evocative of sweet-and-sour sauce but far more inventive.
The fresh potato gnocchi that I had as an entree at a lunch a few months ago were outstanding. The tender dumplings were enveloped in a rich oxtail ragoût that was lightened with fresh ricotta cheese. The lamb tenderloin salad, which is my default choice for lunch, is another winner. The thinly sliced lamb is served over a salad of peppery arugula, Persian cucumbers and grape tomatoes. The dressing combines coriander and crème fraîche, and the salad is garnished with Comté cheese. I’m not really a “salad for lunch” type of guy, but I do make exceptions, and that’s one of them.
At lunch, the restaurant offers a prix fixe menu of one appetizer and one main with the sorbet of the day (most recently, an excellent watermelon with bits of dark chocolate) for $20. That works out to be around the price you’d pay for most appetizer/main combinations anyway but with the added benefit of the sorbet. It’s a no-brainer.
The dinner menu offers more choices than are available at lunch, and during dinner service there is the added benefit of specialty cocktails prepared by Alan Walter and Sharon Floyd.
At night, Schoebelen is more likely to serve the lamb loin featured in the lunchtime salad with goat cheese tortelloni and ratatouille. The hanger steak that is also featured in a salad at lunch may come with foie gras-marrow butter and Parmesan dusted fries. Shrimp show up again in a coconut broth with braised baby bok choy and shiitake mushrooms. There are always vegetarian options on the menu; recently one choice for an entree was a lasagna made with locally raised vegetables and ricotta cheese. It sounded appealing, and I must not have been the only one who thought so; they were sold out when I dined last.
Service at Iris is professional, and if you’ve been to the restaurant before, chances are you’ll recognize the men and women attending to you. While the dining area is larger than its former location, it’s still an intimate space, with ample light from windows on two sides and decorated in bright colors.
Iris is open for dinner every night but Sunday and Tuesday from 6 p.m., though the bar starts service at 5 p.m. Lunch is served only on Thursday and Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Contact Iris at 504/299-3944 to make a reservation or for more information.
Note: I have received an email from Mary Sonnier informing me that my characterizatio