Desert Solitaire and Questions

Let me start off by saying that I am glad to be back. I  received many emails from at least one reader asking about my absence, and I am grateful. I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I would like to assure you that most of the rumors are exaggerations.

Yes, I was in Libya, and yes, I was employed as personal food writer to Col. Gadhafi. Yes, I ate endangered species off of golden plates while being waited upon by highly trained baboons. Yes, I bathed in milk and honey – which I would not recommend. It’s sticky. I can neither confirm nor deny that I engaged in a slap fight with Liza Minelli during a 14-hour, orgiastic meal at Col. Gadhafi’s palace in Tripoli. I was too drunk to say one way or the other. It is possible that I simply daydreamed about engaging in a slap fight with Liza Minelli during a 14-hour orgiastic meal. It wouldn’t have been the first time I dreamed about engaging in a slap fight with Liza Minelli, that’s for sure. But I deny wholeheartedly the allegation that during my time in Tripoli I sang a karaoke version of “Bad Romance.” We all have our limits.

And we all have questions, don’t we? My question at the moment is why, when I have lunch at Iris, I seem to be one of the only folks there? I don’t want to imply that the restaurant is not doing well. I have no reason to believe that, and from what I hear, dinner service is going swimmingly. It’s also possible that the half dozen lunches I’ve had there during the last year have coincidentally been days when they were particularly flat.

What confuses me is that there’s no reason for Iris to have a single flat day. I don’t understand how one of the finest restaurants in New Orleans – a restaurant that has one of the best lunch specials around – isn’t packed like Galatoire’s on a Friday at noon every day they’re open.

Chef Ian Schnoebelen’s lunch menu displays the breadth of his talents. There are always light options available, such as the spicy tomato egg drop soup I sampled on a recent visit. It was a clear red broth brimming with vegetables and garnished with a perfectly poached egg and Vietnamese herbs. The egg was a nice touch, as the still-liquid yolk provided a rich counterpoint to the broth. On that same visit, my girlfriend ordered the beef empanadas with pickled yellow squash and tomatillo salsa. The crust on an empanada (or a local meat pie for that matter) is critical. Your filling could be the best in the world, but if your crust sucks, so do you. At Iris the crust is rich, flaky, and delicious, matching the savory beef filling. It was satisfying, but not heavy, despite being fried.

The Kurobata pork cheek bruschetta is a thing of beauty. The meat is so tender it almost falls apart from the breeze caused by your fork as it approaches to pick out a morsel. It’s served with arugula and another of the outstanding poached eggs the kitchen seems to produce as a matter of course. It’s difficult to conceive of a dish that features braised pork cheeks as light, and really it’s not, but the balance on the plate between the greens, the egg, and the pork makes it seem that way.

Iris has had a salad featuring red meat on the menu for as long as I can remember. For quite a while my default order was the seared lamb loin over greens and cucumber salad. That’s not on the current menu, but the replacement makes it difficult to complain. Now a hanger steak from Painted Hills Farm is placed over baby greens and garnished with goat cheese, pickled eggplant and fennel, and olives. There’s a depth of flavor in hanger steak that’s not found in many other cuts of beef. Olives play well with that depth, and both are balanced by the acidity of the pickled vegetables. The baby greens harmonize the whole thing, making what could be a heavy dish entirely suitable for a mid-August lunch.

You can order anything on the menu à la carte, of course, but the way to have lunch at Iris is the three-course prix fixe menu. You get a choice of any of the appetizers, any of the main courses, then the sorbet of the day to round things out. At $20, and particularly given the quality of the food, it’s a steal.

The restaurant’s dining room is a bright, open space. A long wall facing the bar area has windows that  open onto a patio with a pool. You can reach the restaurant through the Bienville House hotel, which surrounds it, but the main entrance faces N. Peters. There’s ample parking across the street. Service is outstanding; the folks who’ve waited on me when I’ve dined there have been with chef Schnoebelen and his partner Laurie Casebonne for as long as I can remember. There’s a gracefulness in the service at Iris that’s unfortunately atypical.

Iris is open for lunch on Thursdays and Fridays, from 11:30 to 2, and for dinner Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 6 until they decide to shut things down for the night. You can reach them at 299-3944 to make a reservation or for more information. The restaurant is located at 321 N. Peters St.

Before I sign off, I’d like to thank Aaron Weidenhaft for filling in for me during my hiatus. He’s a swell cat, isn’t he? Good writer, too. I congratulate him on his new position as personal food writer for Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang, North Korea. I am only a little bitter that I did not win the job. Like I said, it’s good to be home, even if I no longer eat endangered species on golden plates. As far as you know, anyway.

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