From the outside, the building that once housed La Tourelle looks the same. The inside, however, is very different.
Kelly English's highly anticipated Restaurant Iris began serving earlier this month, and it might be the most elegant restaurant to open in Memphis in a while. If La Tourelle was a trip to a cozy restaurant in a province of France, Restaurant Iris is a piece of New Orleans dining in Memphis.
English, a New Orleans native and John Besh protégé (Restaurant August, N'awlins, Lüke), didn't expect to have to bring in forklifts, but what he and designer Jackie Glisson accomplished sans forklifts is an amazing overhaul.
Warm chocolate tones dominate the revamped interior. The front dining rooms have a traditional feel with chairs covered in rich brown fabric embellished with a gold fleur-de-lis, a stylized design of an iris flower. The two back rooms, intended for groups of eight or more, are slightly more casual with light-colored cottage-style chairs. Glisson added some brickwork to the floors, which complements the natural hardwood. English currently lives in the space above the restaurant but plans on renovating the tower room at one point, turning it into a private dining room.
Surprisingly, despite all this elegance, the restaurant doesn't feel pretentious or stiff. The atmosphere is relaxed, diners can have lively conversations, and waiters don't speak with a whisper.
The food reflects English's training and hometown, where you are likely to find grillades with grits and poached eggs on the Sunday brunch menu, pork belly in your omelet, and bread pudding with brown butter and pecans as dessert. While connoisseurs of New Orleans cuisine won't be disappointed, the restaurant's menu goes beyond Crescent City favorites. Salads of Brussels sprouts, roasted beets, or organic field greens with grapefruit and horseradish are on the dinner menu, along with American Kobe beef short ribs with celery root, scallops with cauliflower, and rack of venison with shitake and a ragout of baby vegetables.
"Our menu will evolve constantly and change with the seasons," English says. "I don't want to be tied down by a certain dish but rather cook with what's available at the farmers' market."
The restaurant is open for dinner only, Wednesday through Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m., and for Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Restaurant Iris, 2146 Monroe (590-2828)
After Cumberland Presbyterian Church announced plans to move its headquarters from Midtown to Cordova earlier this year, the Atlanta-based fast-food company Chick-Fil-A expressed interest in buying the site to put up a restaurant.
News of the potential demolition of the Gothic Revival building, located at 1978 Union, has caused an outcry in the community, and an effort to save it is being led by Memphis Heritage.
"We are not against Chick-Fil-A and would love to have one of its restaurants in Midtown," says June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage. "We just don't want it at the expense of tearing down the historic building."
West said that until recently Memphis Heritage, together with other concerned members of the community, had a "dialogue" with the company. Memphis Heritage proposed the company look into adaptive reuse of the historic building or possibly find another, less-controversial site in Midtown. About three weeks ago, Chick-Fil-A said it was no longer able to discuss the issue.
"They essentially sent a standardized e-mail that said that once the restaurant is in place, they knew the community would love them and that they have a reputation for being good neighbors," West says. "That might all be the case, but it doesn't really have anything to do with wanting to tear down the Cumberland building."
Representatives from Chick-Fil-A did not respond to requests for comment.
West is urging Memphians to contact the company to protest the decision. More information on the issue can be found at memphisheritage.org.