320 Decatur Street
New Orleans, LA 70131
Napoleon's Rating - ****/*****
Conceived late in 2005 and opened very early in 2006, Iris was among the first ambitious, upscale restaurants to come along entirely in the post-Katrina period. That was a bizarre time for New Orleans, but this new restaurant quickly made a name for itself on the strength of chef-owner Ian Schnoebelen's unique blend of cuisines and understated creativity in the kitchen. Food+Wine Magazine named Schnoebelen one of the nation's top 10 new chefs the following year, and the buzz intensified. In 2008, the restaurant moved from its original Carrollton area home to a larger space in the French Quarter, though the format and approach remains unchanged.
Iris is housed inside the Bienville House Hotel, but its dining room and bar have a distinct identity, and it's very easy to forget that a hotel lobby is just around the corner. The design and décor balances modern and classic. The big, arched windows retain the room's French Quarter feel while a subtle color scheme, smart lighting and contemporary touches like a wall of striking, metallic-print paper separate it from the old-fashioned. It makes the place feel young yet not punky. There is a large bar area, where some people dine, and a few tables are available in a tiny, practically hidden poolside courtyard.
The wait staff here are pros, though they may come off as a bit laid-back for people accustomed to formal service at top-tier restaurants. But they know their wines, and they keep abreast of the ever-changing menu and intricate cocktail list.
As always, the Iris menu is a globetrotting collection of influences brought into harmony by the chef's precise, understated style. Duck confit, an appetizer large and rich enough to stand in for an entrée, is done in a straightforward manner, but then there are the Gulf shrimp treated like a Vietnamese dish, served cold with a crunchy tangle of shredded papaya with hot peppers and crushed peanuts. Italian influences turn up in the ravioli stuffed with meltingly tender veal cheek meat or the toothsome gnocchi with white truffle oil and shaved Parmesan, or perhaps a rich oxtail gravy. A salad topped with charred, chewy baby octopus is another mainstay.
The mix of Asian, Italian and French that defines the first courses continues through the entrees. For instance, a meaty, crusted fist of monkfish might be paired with grilled baby octopus with an exceedingly light basil vinaigrette. The menu always features seared scallops with braised Vietnamese greens and grapefruit butter, a creamy, slightly bitter foil to the sweet scallop meat. Steak frites is done in the classic way, with a knob of garlic butter melting on top, while treats beef short ribs to a few varying but reliably Asian-inspired interpretations. People looking for a culinary theme on this menu will not find one, apart from the elevation of pristine main ingredients with unconventional touches. Sauteed Alaskan halibut could rest on charred baby bok choy with a sprinkling of chanterelle mushrooms while a lamb T-bone might find company with lentils, fava beans and rosemary soffritto. Some of the dishes repeat in modified form at lunchtime, when Iris does a three-course deal for $20.
There is a fairly short dessert list with straightforward selections. The chocolate bombe was a lusciously-textured dome of mouse set on a disk of chocolate cookie crust, and I also like the poached pear with salted caramel ice cream. The cheese plate, dainty but well-composed, is always a good option here too.
Creative, often obsessively-designed cocktails are a major draw at Iris, so much so that sometimes the bar fills with curious tipplers even when the dining room is slow. That's the work of bartender Alan Walter, who dreams up these drinks and crafts them with a collection of his own tinctures, extracts, syrups and juices, blending in exotic liqueurs and a strong dose of the main event. The line up changes all the time, but the "Kentucky crown" with rye, beet juice, bitters and Suze Aperitif, or the "Marguerite" with tequila, lime, pine needles, lemongrass and thyme-infused Cointreau are good examples of the program here. The wine list is short but covers good ground with a mix of Old World and New World bottles.
You should expect to drop some cash here, though prices are actually a shade below its peers at this level of dining, especially in the French Quarter. Most appetizers keep below $10, and few entrees verge above $25. The wine list is moderately-priced, though those specialty cocktails will run $11. Lunch, served Thursday and Friday, is an unbeatable bargain, with three courses for $20.
Though Schnoebelen's cooking defies neat classification, people headed to Iris can expect vividly flavorful, out-of-the-ordinary dishes, informed by a mix of European and Asian influences and ingredients. It is a refreshing break from beloved local standards, and together with the bright, youthful feel of the restaurant and its intriguing cocktail selection, it helps make Iris one of the city's most exciting contemporary restaurants.