Midtown Rising: A Haute Aegean Evening at Star Chef John Fraser’s IRIS Restaurant
Nostalgia, the combination of memory and emotion, comes in many forms, and for numerous reasons.
That feeling overtook us as we recently descended on IRIS, a relatively new restaurant in Midtown, NYC from star chef John Fraser. First there was nostalgia for the paradigm that it represents, the impeccably decked out, extremely well-run hotspot for the besuited office crowd, expense accounts in tow, inclined towards a post-pandemic splash out on a sublime repast while reviewing the days successes and failures. This segment of the hospitality industry was of course hit particularly hard by COVID deprivations, and it’s truly encouraging to see it starting to rebound.
Fraser and partners certainly took a gamble by opening last spring – but as a packed Wednesday night crowd evidenced, it was a gamble that has truly paid off.
A second wave of nostalgia came by way of researching the building IRIS occupies the ground floor of. Insurance giant Mutual of New York built 1740 Broadway back in 1950, and its roof has held landmarks that millions of people have seen, whether it registered or not. Mutual’s neon logo, MONY, which lasted until 2007, was actually the inspiration for the Tommy James/Billy Idol song ‘Mony Mony’ (Who knew??), and featured prominently in the 1969 Oscar winning film Midnight Cowboy; as well, the digital clock and temperature display that can be seen for miles and miles has been in place for more than 70 years.
Which is all to say that the place has a distinctive NYC architectural cred, and was a hallmark of mid-century business life. We couldn’t help but imagine that Don Draper would have been propping up whatever bar was on this site back in the actual Mad Men days.
But it was 2022, and upon crossing the massive glass-walled threshold into the reception area of IRIS, we were immediately enveloped in the serene sophistication of the place. White oak, taupe, gray, and gold tones made up the color palate, with subdued lighting enhancing the distinct “Art Moderne” vibe. The menu was billed as Aegean, which had us feeing nostalgic, again, for our Greek isles vacation of just a few years ago. Indeed, food had played a big part in that trip, a local cuisine that was both sophisticated and yet eminently approachable.
But it takes considerable vision to elevate what is essentially pretty humble food – salads, hummus, olive oil, pita bread – to AMEX platinum card worthy status; and that’s where IRIS’ Michelin-starred chef Fraser excels. His resume includes stints in California, Paris, and of course NYC, where Dovetail garnered him his first star; but we suspect it was under the guidance of the detail obsessed Thomas Keller at Napa’s The French Laundry where he truly honed his magic. (The Anthony Bourdain A Cook’s Tour episode stands as one of the great mash notes to Keller’s brilliance.)
So, yes, we were about to find out what haute Aegean was all about.
We started with the mezze mix, a sampling of all their best finger food, including hummus with sumac and fennel pollen, tzatziki with sorrel and sheep’s milk feta… IRIS’ signature sourdough pita was provided for dipping, as were petals of endive, which was a nice lighter alternative to the bread. Small portions of raw and marinated seafood were next, and we chose salmon tartare and fluke crudo, though there were also great sea bass and oyster options; a beef tartare dish had somehow cheekily snuck onto that section of the menu. Multiple ‘center table’ sharing options such as grilled octopus and Greek salad were offered, but we opted for quail kebabs, perfectly grilled fowl in sage butter – a decadent snack, certainly.
Entrees tended to the recognizable, with flashes of genuine brilliance. Our Aegean stew, a Greek fisherman’s staple, combined poached shrimp, fluke, and mussels in a shellfish broth, while the Long Island duck added Mediterranean touches in the form of pomegranate and rhubarb. The vegetarian moussaka, which we were told introduced eggplant to the Middle East, Turkey, and Greece, was flambéed with ouzo in the style of saganaki, the Greek dish of feta cheese set alight. Elsewhere on the menu we saw beet skordali, sweetbreads, and other delicacies endemic to the region.
Long time Fraser associate and Beverage Director / Sommelier Amy Racine (she was Esquire’s top pick for 2021) stopped by to talk us through the cocktails and wine list, which is thorough without being intimidating, and before long the charming white and glass dessert cart was being wheeled over, reminding us of the grand old restaurants that were the scene of occasional youthful celebrations. Fried Greek cardamom doughnuts with bee pollen, and crème anglaise were washed down with a crisp Turkish raki, putting a sweet and savory cap on our Aegean feast.
Blame it on the wine and raki, but on exiting IRIS we found ourselves heading down Broadway towards the lights of Times Square, not our typical destination, and perhaps another symptom of the air of nostalgia that had followed us all evening. From its edges the crossroads of the world seemed as tantalizing as when we first saw them a lifetime ago.