Lest you think Memphis is little more than barbecue, biscuits and yardbird, I’d like to turn your attention toÂ Restaurant Iris – a sterling example of what owner/chef Kelly English has coined “progressive Southern” cuisine. The beautiful thingÂ aboutÂ that phrase is how perfectly it encapsulates the essence of what chef EnglishÂ is doing: farm-to-table cooking rooted in honestÂ SouthernÂ traditions. Which means that of course the salad has a bacon component – yet it’s lardons ofÂ artisanal pork belly from Alan Benton’sÂ local smokehouse. (If you don’t know Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, I suggest you familiarize yourself with the miracle of their mail order.)Â AndÂ theÂ lettuces are a peppery local arugula, dressed with grilled scallions in a ginger-soy vinaigrette. Topped with crispy “croutons” of sweetbreads – a bit of genius – there’s nothing outwardly Southern about this dish, yet the counterpoint of tastes and textures is undeniably comfort food at its most refined. Shrimp and grits might be a classic ofÂ Southern cooking but it, too, transcends expectations in the hands of chef English: the coarse-grind Delta grits are closer to polenta, bathed in tomato broth au pistou that’s thick with the taste of the sea. A refined dice of andouille adds just enough heat to prickle the palate while six meaty Gulf shrimp top it off as regally as a crown roast. When it comes to dessert, I’m not at all surprised there’s a cheese course on offer. (It’s at this point that I berate myself for not indulging in the degustation menu.)Â As if the food were not enough, Restaurant Iris also has an ideal genteelÂ setting: an intimate Victorian house on midtown’s Overton Square. Marked by exceptionalÂ service (a waiter drove to my hotel to return anÂ accidentallyÂ left-behindÂ credit card) and stellar cocktails to boot (the Sazerac sings)Â Chef English will upendÂ everythingÂ you thought youÂ knewÂ about Southern dining. And masterfully so, I might add.
In a city full of unremarkable architecture the small red brick building on Front Street is an unassuming as they come. The facade belies the miracle of alchemy happening inside. Served piping hot and without any frills, Gus’s punctuation-impaired fried chicken is no joke. I always thought I understood fried chicken and just didn’t like it. I was wrong. I’ve never had proper fried chicken until today. I don’t know what it is – the cayenne in the coating, the cooking in peanut oil – and frankly I don’t feel compelled to have that mystery revealed. I’m just happy knowing that it exists somewhereÂ – and like the girl who’s had her virginity taken I think a part of me will always secretly pine for that tremulous taste of my first liaison with Gus’s moist and meaty bird, his hot and spicy crust.
Small plates that’ll have you thinking “Korean tapas” are the highlight at Danji, the friendly and unassuming restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen that’s mixing authentic flavors with French technique in a space that feels strangely similar to the inside of a Scandinavian sauna. If you’re early enough to beat the pre-theater rush, sidle up to the blond wood bar and take advantage of the flood of natural light over a plate of melt in your mouth panko-crusted tofu with ginger and scallion. The rear of the room is not nearly as spacious but at least it’s dimly lit, which is to your advantage when the sticky, savory, finger lickin’ good Korean fried chicken arrives. (It’s cleverly listed on the menu as KFC.) Filet mignon bulgogi sliders topped with pickled cucumber on a brioche bun are easily the best mini-sandwich in town; depending on your point of view, two on a plate is either a blessing or just downright cruel. I subscribe to the latter and heartily advise you to do yourself a favor: order seconds while you can. Once word gets out there’ll be Shake Shack-style queues snaking down 52nd Street.