Iris: Visiting Greece and Turkey on a Plate
Iris restaurant introduces New Yorkers to Aegean cuisine in midtown Manhattan
By Beverly Stephen
There’s no better time for armchair—or rather dining chair—travel. Exploring international cuisines in restaurants is the next best thing to jumping on a plane. We’ve all endlessly eaten our way through Mediterranean cuisine but now at Iris, on everybody’s 10 best new restaurants list in New York City, we have the opportunity to experience the creatively interpreted Aegean cuisine of Greece and Turkey.
Michelin star chef John Fraser, who brings his Greek heritage and admiration for Turkish cuisine to bear on the Iris menu, believes people feel, dine, and eat differently in the Aegean vs the Mediterranean.
“It comes down to different waters, different fish, and a different vibe,” Fraser says.
Diners may associate Fraser more with more French influenced fine dining recalling the critically acclaimed now shuttered Dove Tail and Narcissa, or the recently re-opened North Fork Table & Inn in Southold. New York, but his very first restaurant was Snack Taverna.
“I loved it and the two years I spent cooking in that kitchen in that particular style were some of the happiest times of my life and the simplest. In addition, it was the spark that created Iris. Getting back to that heritage style of cooking was always my intention,” Fraser recalls as he happily describes his homecoming.
The two countries have not always co-existed peacefully but at Iris their dishes share the table harmoniously.
“Restaurants are typically places that bring people together over food,” says Fraser. “Countries, borders and ideas change all the time, but food traditions are relatively constant. What we’re expressing represents those centuries that Greek and Turkish cultures coexisted. Political choices and polarization are temporary, and Iris is a place for us to bring people together. A lot of the people we know who are Greek and Turkish actually see their past conflicts as something that older generations are concerned with, not current ones.”
The Iris menu features some traditional dishes such as Greek salad and moussaka, but many other dishes fall more into the fine dining category. The swordfish is a good example of a traditional preparation on skewers with caper-hazelnut butter and as an innovative tartare with pistachios and mint.
“One of the boxes that we tried to tick at Iris was to use an approachable peasant style, but with finer ingredients,” Fraser explains. “The Turbot is a good example of a farmer or a peasant preparation, but with elevated ingredients. The Quail Kebab is another one where we’re using the kebab as a primordial way of holding meat over the fire, but quail is more of a delicate ingredient served with sage butter and market greens. The Aegean Stew became an instant classic on the menu on purpose because we wanted it to be able to flow through the seasons. We started with a spring opening and we’re now in winter, so it’s a very different dish, from the mixture of the fish to the garnish. It might have lobster, fluke, and Green lip mussels.”
Fraser was one of the first chefs to be lauded for his innovative use of vegetables which likely grew out of a personal motivation.
“One of my frustrations as a vegetarian when I eat out is that there’s basically a salad for me to eat at the beginning,” says Fraser. “So, we wanted to create a wide range of vegetarian options available at the start of the meal, not just for the main course.”
The entire mezze section is vegetarian: winter tzatziki with pomegranate seeds and sorrel; hummus with sumac, sesame seeds and fennel pollen; roasted eggplant with pine nuts and golden raisins. Also, the Turkish flatbreads which most customers order for the table always have a vegetarian option.
“Right now, it’s with winter squash, goat cheese and sage. We are looking forward to spring’s fava beans and peas, moving into tomatoes and lavender to salute summer’s bounty,” says Fraser. “Another vegetarian dish that I’m proud of is the Truffle Manti, which is a Turkish pasta dish we serve with braised escarole.”
To drink with all this Aegean bounty, is an amazing list of 75 Greek and Turkish wines supplemented with other global selections. Beverage Director Amy Racine was honored by Esquire as beverage director of the year 2021.
She admits the learning curve was high, particularly with pronunciation.
“We as a team had to tune in to Turkish and Greek pronunciation and deeper understanding in general. However, John is of Greek heritage, and he educated us in that area, and the Turkish producers also spent a lot of time with us on education and pronunciation,” Racine explains. The team also traveled to Turkey visiting vineyards and cellars and tasting.
The learning curve is high for customers too, most of whom have no familiarity with Turkish wines and often little with Greek. It takes a lot of hand selling. “There’s a lot of if you like this, you’ll like that on the floor,” Racine explains. For example, “If you like Nebbiolo you’ll love Agiorgitiko! It’s lighter in body but great tannic structure. We love it with duck breast. Most guests walking in the door are curious to try something new and understand what is coming out of Greece and Turkey.”
She also manages a sweets cart featuring the after-dinner libations Raki and Ouzo.
A specialty cocktail program also incorporates Aegean ingredients into classic cocktails. Specialty cocktails like The Iris Manhattan uses vermouth infused with slightly smokey and spicy Urfa peppers and the Greek Negroni uses a bit of the Greek liqueur Diktamo. “So far Melon of Troy with vodka, preserved cantaloupe and tarragon is the best seller,” says head bartender Sergey Merkulov. “Our specialty cocktails are ordered most often with Martinis coming in second place.”
The bar crowd is lively and so is the dining room.
“Iris is located at the apex of Central Park South, Times Square and the Theater District, as well as Carnegie Hall. We have been welcoming visitors of all stripes, from locals to office workers, theatergoers to concert attendees, and those who just finished a leisurely stroll in the park,” says Fraser.
Iris is located on the ground floor of an office building. It doubles as an amenity to help lure office workers back to their desks, an important factor, along with the revitalization of tourism, for New York’s recovery.
“The hospitality industry is an integral part of New York City’s uniqueness and vitality and one of the reasons the city will bounce back,” Fraser concludes. “We are proud to be doing our part.”
Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is a principal of the culinary travel company Flavor Forays. She is the co-author, with Barbara Mathias, of On the Road With Flavor Forays An Insider’s Guide to Four of America’s Hottest Food Cities—Austin, Charleston, Portland and New Orleans.