It has not been hard to find Greek food of very high quality in Midtown Manhattan since at least the 1990s, when Estiatorio Milos dropped anchor. What was much harder to find, whether at Milos or at the other restaurants that followed it, was food that would surprise you.
It became a matter of dogma that superior Greek food had to be minimal, elemental and largely unadorned. You might pay $90 for a plate of fish to which nothing more had been applied than sea salt, lemon juice and the heat of a grill. Sometimes it seems that fans of these restaurants pay that kind of money precisely because the cooking is predictable. Without once looking at the menu, they can dine in complete confidence that they will never be served anything that wasn’t deeply familiar to Aristotle.
Iris came splashing into this tranquil Aegean Sea in April after waiting out the worst months of the pandemic. It shares many traits with its forerunners Milos, Molyvos and Limani, all roughly east of Iris’s berth on Broadway in the mid-50s: the mezze, the grill, the seafood captured somewhere in the Mediterranean, the prices that occasionally drift into expense-account territory.
And yet Iris does not stick to the script. For one thing, its chef, John Fraser, and executive chef, Rob Lawson, have widened their scope to take in small portions of Turkish cuisine as well. For another, they don’t buy the notion that food from the Aegean coast has to be predictable.
Pick any three mezze at random (rarely a bad idea). Tzatziki, which you may have encountered as raw garlic and dill suspended in yogurt, is thicker, creamier and tangier. The garlic is this year’s crop, still tame as a goldfish. The yogurt is made even more tart by a salad’s worth of lemony sorrel tossed over it in raw green ribbons.
The mashed eggplant swirls with flavors: smoke and salt; green herbs and flecks of roasted peppers; toasted pine nuts, ready to crunch; olive oil and enough vinegar to make you think about pickles.
A fourth? The dolmas are superb: crisp brined grape leaves wrapped as loosely as a silk bathrobe around fingers of seasoned rice. Or maybe the hummus, singing with lemon juice and sumac? This might be on loan from the Turkish side of the Aegean, though when it shows up, covered with light and dark sesame seeds, it looks like a bagel on loan from H&H. It even has a dimple in the center, in which a last-minute splash of olive oil pools up.
The oil-brushed pita is made from sourdough, which gives it the extra character it needs to withstand all the bright flavors that the chefs have lobbed at the mezze. This bread may bring to mind the deep flavors of the butter-brushed, tandoor-baked flatbread at Nix, Mr. Fraser’s prescient vegetarian restaurant, now gone, a casualty of the pandemic.
Are there other stylistic ties? Over the past few years Mr. Fraser has opened Nix, the Loyal, 701West and Narcissa, among others; taken over the North Fork Table & Inn in Southold, N.Y.; and left Dovetail (which quickly closed), but despite all this activity, or perhaps because of it, it’s not easy to say what makes a restaurant a John Fraser restaurant. He was ahead of the pack in taking an energetic and inventive approach to vegetables. Other chefs have caught up to him recently in that pursuit, though.
The Fraser touch, if there is one, might be found in the determination to bring diners to attention, whether it takes a wink or a sharp jab to the ribs. This might take the form of pickled onions running down the center of the long, canoe-shaped Turkish-style pide filled with feta and leeks. (Note also that the feta is mixed with so much chopped dill that you’re unlikely to taste it and think, “oh, this is just a cheese pie.”)
Or it might be in the shape of bittersweet candied orange peel draped over an octopus arm. Octopus and marmalade? Yes, especially when the octopus is spicy with a crust of dried Antep pepper.
Or it could be an entire reworking of a traditional dish. Kokoretsi is usually made by wrapping a lamb’s intestines around its other innards, stabbing the package with a skewer to hold it together, and grilling it over a fire. As you can imagine, kokoretsi is as divisive as it is traditional. Iris subdues it into a less offal-forward iteration, with ground chicken livers and flesh wrapped, somehow, in veal sweetbreads, and grilled with great care.
Occasionally, Iris’s efforts at originality can make you wonder if you wouldn’t be better off with that simple, boring, $90 fish. The fried eggplant can be too thickly encased in tempura batter, a situation that isn’t exactly improved when the kitchen spray paints the crust with pink, tomato-enriched mayonnaise.
And while nobody will accuse the chefs of lacking imagination, Iris’s menu is not exactly a deeply researched exploration into the cuisine of either Greece or Turkey. The repertory is drawn almost entirely from the Aegean coasts, and there are very few dishes that a vacationer would not run into during a week or so of island hopping. This is a missed opportunity, considering that promotional copy for the restaurant has made much of Mr. Fraser’s “Greek heritage and deep admiration for Turkish cuisine.”
Wines from the two countries, on the other hand, get a much more thorough look on the list compiled by Amy Racine, the beverage director. I doubt any restaurant in the city has a more thorough and appealing selection of Turkish wines in particular. There’s a rosé made by Pasaeli from Calkarasi grapes that has the balance of acidity and fresh berries that you usually look for in Provence, and a chardonnay blend from Selendi that sparkled with the aromas of citrus zest. There are adventures to be had in Greece, too, and when you’ve had enough of the Aegean you can bounce off to Tasmania or Lebanon or Croatia.
Bottles of ouzo and raki ride around the dining room on a cart that they share with pastries. The housemade Turkish delight sounds better than it is, but the bite-size pistachio baklava are worth close study, as are several of the desserts from the kitchen. There’s a rice pudding that is so creamy that the grains of rice seem to be suspended in it like a light mist. Or you could share a plate of loukoumades, globes of fried dough doused with honey syrup. They’re traditional and, yes, simple, though dragging one through a dish of tart pomegranate molasses complicates it in a wonderful way.
Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.