I admit I was a bit skeptical when I heard Iris would uproot itself from its Carrollton location and move downtown to the ground floor of the Bienville House hotel in the French Quarter.
I've been a big fan of Iris ever since it first opened in January 2006. This was among the first wave of new fine-dining restaurants to open after Katrina, and to me it was a source of inspiration.
Chef Ian Schnoebelen and partner Laurie Casebonne had conceived the idea for their first restaurant and made it a reality all completely in the aftermath of Katrina. People who also decided to stake their future on the nauseatingly uncertain prospects of New Orleans and its ruined or at least lonely neighborhoods at that time could look at these young entrepreneurs with a feeling of camaraderie and wonder. So while my own kitchen situation remained a tepid cooler and a menagerie of canned food back in blasted-out Mid-City, I found myself eating at Iris more than any other restaurant during that first post-Katrina winter and spring.
Naturally, I got attached to the surroundings, the intimate former-cottage with its two tiny dining rooms, its close, four-seat bar and even the narrow porch in front where we could sit in nice weather and wonder if the streetcars would ever again rattle down the Jeannette Street tracks just below on the way to their barn. I had the best first date of my life here. So, on many levels, I associated Iris with good things.
With all this in mind, I pushed open the doors of the new Iris on South Peters Street last night with some trepidation. Could those good feelings be transferred, or rekindled, in a new and different locale?
The new restaurant is gorgeous, and though it is much bigger than the original location, several zip codes away and in a hotel rather than a Carrollton cottage, it still feels and, quizzically, even looks like the old Iris.
The color scheme helps, and so does the fact that Schnoebelen hasn't made any drastic changes to his eclectic menu. Alan Walter, a visionary with the cocktail shakers and one of those rare bartenders who actually makes a convincing, potable argument for the elaborately crafted cocktail trend, is still mixing his unique drinks here, though now with a much larger bar from which to work. The restaurant can hold twice as many people, but a partition of wainscoting and glass effectively divides the space into two dining rooms, one with a view of the hotel's courtyard, the other dominated by a panel of singularly striking wallpaper from the Bywater's own Flavor Paper line.
The food didn't miss a step. Exhibit A: the meaty, crusted fist of monkfish with grilled baby octopus on top of bok choy and cilantro with an exceedingly light basil vinaigrette (pictured below). That's Schnoebelen's cooking distilled in a single dish – fresh, vividly flavorful, out of the ordinary, informed by a mix of European and Asian influences and ingredients.
The changes are intriguing: Iris now serves lunch Thursday through Saturday and will soon offer a menu of snacks available exclusively at the bar before, during and after normal dinner hours. Dinner is served Monday and Wednesday through Saturday.
I know the streetcars are running down Jeannette Street now and past the old Iris porch. But they're also cruising down Canal Street, two blocks from this replanted flower of a restaurant.
-- Ian McNulty