As New York came back to life earlier this Spring, chef John Fraser was finally able to open the doors to his Aegean-inspired Midtown restaurant, Iris.
In the works for over two years, the new eatery from one of America’s most vegetable-forward chefs takes diners on a voyage through a culinarily rich and distinctive region, viewed through Fraser’s unique lens.
What is Aegean food you might ask? And why has the chef chosen to champion it at Iris? Simply put, it is the food of Greece (Fraser has Greek heritage) and neighboring Turkey, the food of which he has great admiration for. Typically it conjures up visions of deep gold olive oil, luscious tomatoes and gleaming eggplants as well as hearty meat dishes and fresh seafood. “[I want] to celebrate a region of the world that is special to me and my family, and [for the restaurant to] serve as an escape for people who love the flavors of the Aegean,” said Fraser.
“Greek cuisine is similar to my everyday diet, and how I try to stay healthy while managing a demanding business in New York City. Turkish cuisine is what I crave – the bold use of spices, the expert use of fat to create flavor,” explains the chef. “It’s not about opening a Greek or Turkish restaurant. My menu is inspired by the view from the water – at which distance, you can feel a sense of place without knowing precisely which town or country you’re in.”
Fraser honed his skills at three-Michelin-star Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry under the guidance of legendary chef Thomas Keller. After spells at celebrated Parisian eateries Maison Blanche and two-Michelin-starred Le Taillevent under his belt, the LA-born chef returned to the US and opened Compass in New York’s Upper East Side.
He went on to garner critical acclaim for his seminal restaurant, one-Michelin-star Dovetail which he opened in 2007, followed by Nix in 2016, Both veg-focused eateries are now closed with Nix, like so many, a victim of the pandemic.
[See also: Bar Benno Opens in New York’s Evelyn Hotel]
Despite the closure of Nix, the chef’s culinary kingdom continues to grow. As well as Iris in Midtown, the John Fraser restaurant portfolio boasts Ardor at The West Hollywood Edition hotel, The Loyal in New York’s West Village, four restaurants and bars inside The Times Square Edition hotel and the North Fork Table & Inn in Long Island.
Leading the kitchen at Fraser’s new midtown eatery is Iris executive chef Rob Lawson. Lawson previously worked with Fraser at 701West at The Times Square Edition hotel, where he was the Chef de Cuisine. During his tenure at 701West, the restaurant was awarded three stars in the New York Times.
Rather than reproduce classic Greek and Turkish dishes (though traditionalists will be pleased to see moussaka and kebabs making an appearance, albeit tweaked with Fraser’s creative flare), the cuisine of the Aegean is the inspiration for an inventive menu. Diners can expect a balance of uncomplicated, produce-driven and vegetable-forward eating with unashamed use of spice, fat and heat.
Like any good Turkish meal, dinner begins with a selection of mezze. Raw & marinated fish such as seaweed cured local fluke with hazelnuts and burned rosemary, as well as swordfish carpaccio bejeweled with toasted pistachios, garlic and mint is served alongside dips such as spring tzatziki and whipped feta that can be generously scooped up with fluffy Turkish-style flatbreads.
The Center Table menu offers a selection of dishes designed to share — a nod to the family-style of serving found in this corner of the Mediterranean. Dishes include kneaded bulgar with fava beans and haricots verts; grilled octopus with candied kumquat and antep chili crunch; and lamb sausage with Cretan honey, citrus peel and mustard. Larger dishes follow suit such as shallow braised snapper with leeks and Kalamata olives; free-range chicken marinated in saffron and yogurt and an Aegean stew with poached sea bass, lobster, vegetables a la grecque in a rich shellfish broth.
Dessert at Iris is served tableside, on a cart laden with an array of Turkish delight, traditional spoon sweets, and Aegean spirits. The cocktail and wine program also aim to showcase the best of the region.
Located on the ground floor of the mid-century Mutual of New York Building on Broadway, Iris’s interior takes inspiration from the Streamline Moderne design of the landmark tower it is housed in. Light wood carpentry combined with marble tables and muted walls bring an upscale feel to the elegant 138-seat dining room, while natural textures such as leather, linen and stone create a warm, yet airy atmosphere throughout.