A Native Son Blooms in Memphis

Photo courtesy of Kelly English

Chef Kelly English attended Jesuit High School in New Orleans for several years and graduated from the University of Mississippi in 2002. While in college, he supported himself by working at restaurants, and after graduation, he attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York, finishing in 2004. After some time abroad, he returned to New Orleans and began working for chef John Besh at August and La Provence. He was successful enough that chef Besh tapped him to serve as executive sous chef under chef Jared Tees when Lüke opened in late 2007. 

Shortly thereafter he and his wife were visiting her hometown of Memphis, Tenn., to celebrate her father’s birthday. While at brunch, they were discussing the challenges inherent in opening a new restaurant and were overheard by one of the restaurant’s owners, Glen Hayes. Hayes owned not only the restaurant where the family was having brunch but also La Tourelle, which for many years was universally regarded as the finest French restaurant in Memphis.

I attended college in Memphis, and I remember a couple of meals at La Tourelle in the late 1980s that were outstanding. Back then, Memphis did not have the kind of chef-driven restaurants that were common in cities better known for fine dining. There was good food to be had but not the kind of imaginative cooking we sometimes take for granted here. Dining in Memphis these days is much, much different than when I lived there.

When Hayes overheard English’s conversation, he mentioned that that La Tourelle might be for sale. English had been considering opening his own restaurant, and the next day he and his wife visited the cottage that housed La Tourelle in the Overton Square neighborhood of Memphis. Upon entering the restaurant, they were struck by a stained-glass window with a large fleur-de-lis, and when they left, a rainbow arched through the sky. They were sold.

English opened his restaurant, Iris, on April 2, 2008, and began drawing accolades almost immediately. He was on the forefront of the movement  in Memphis to source ingredients locally and to cook seasonally. I traveled to Memphis recently and had an outstanding meal at Iris with some friends I hadn’t seen since my family evacuated there briefly after Katrina. I was visiting mainly to see my friends, but I’d heard enough about Iris to make a priority of dining there while in town.

There are a few indications on the menu at Iris of English’s Louisiana roots. Fried boudin is served with caramelized onions and a ravigote sauce, and the shrimp and grits on the menu features andouille sausage. He’s been known to serve Louisiana speckled trout amandine, as well.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the restaurant to me was fairly prosaic. When we first sat down, our server brought us a loaf of bread that I swore had to have been baked in New Orleans. The crisp crust, the airy crumb: Everything about it said that it should be filled with fried oysters, dressed and served in a roll of paper. In fact, I was openly skeptical when our waitress told me that the bread had been baked locally. I was wrong. English told me that he found a local bakery producing banh mi, the bread used by Vietnamese restaurants for the eponymous sandwich that we like to call the Vietnamese poor boy. It’s not precisely what comes out of the Leidenheimer bakeries, but it’s damn close.

But certain ties to his native cuisine aside, English has embraced the bounty of his current environment fully. Much of the beef served at the restaurant comes from Neola Farms, in Tipton County, Tennessee. Even the foie gras served at the restaurant is Tennessean, as is much of the produce that graces the plates.

There is a show-stopping steak on the menu; billed as “surf and turf,” it’s a New York strip stuffed with fried oysters and blue cheese. The dish has gained such a reputation that two people who learned I’d dined at Iris asked me if I’d had it. I didn’t, but one of my friends did and reported that it was excellent.

I started with roasted marrow bones served with toasted brioche and a piquant salsa verde. The marrow, also from Neola Farms, was as rich as you’d expect, and there was just enough of it to liberally coat the triangles of brioche. The sauce provided a much-needed balance of acidity.

For an entree I chose the seared duck breast with maltagliati pasta in a broth flavored with tomato, ginger and lemon grass. The skin of the duck was almost black from a combination of allspice and the skillet, but it wasn’t overcooked in the least. As was the case with the marrow, the duck’s richness was offset by the broth. The maltagliati ––irregularly shaped fresh pasta –– was cooked perfectly.

Another friend had the veal schnitzel, which came with small fresh dumplings called knöpfle in a sweetish sauce flavored with boysenberry, anchovy and caper. It was a little sweet for her taste, but I thought it was excellent.

There is a three-course tasting menu at Iris on the weekends that costs $45 and $55 with wine pairings. It was attractive, but not everyone at my table was interested, and that’s almost always a deal-breaker. When I dined, the menu was a white acorn squash soup with truffle and bacon, a porterhouse steak with black-eyed pea ragout and local radishes and a pumpkin cheesecake flavored with coriander.

Iris is housed in a mixed residential and commercial neighborhood called Midtown, near Overton Square. The ambiance of the space, which was once a home, will be familiar to New Orleanians. Service was outstanding; the folks who waited on us knew the menu backward and forward, and that’s impressive given how frequently English changes it.

If you find yourself in Memphis, you can make a reservation at Iris by calling 901/590-2828. The restaurant is located at 2146 Monroe Ave. When you get tired of barbecue, it’s absolutely worth your time.

Categories: Haute Plates, Restaurants