Raviolo Remains Popular Choice at Restaurant Iris

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

Another entry in the occasional “Signature Dish” series.

Let’s settle one thing first. Kelly English, owner and chef of Restaurant Iris, is the brother of Todd English, but not the Todd English who’s a celebrated chef in New York and the owner of a string of famous restaurants. No, it just happens that Kelly English has a younger brother whose name happens to be Todd. “If you ask me if I’m Todd English’s brother and I say ‘yes,’ well, I’m not lying,” he said recently at the Midtown restaurant. “I’m just not saying which Todd English it is.”

Chef Kelly English of Restaurant Iris holds his dish, Rod Bailey‘s Raviolo “Neola” with brown butter and mushrooms. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Not that Kelly English requires any false assumptions or associations to validate his talent. He opened Iris – in the house at Monroe and Cooper long home to La Tourelle – in April 2008, and in 2009 Food & Wine magazine selected him as one of its Best New Chefs of the year. “That was a game-changer,” said English.

We are at the restaurant early on a weekday so that the chef can demonstrate how he makes one of the most popular dishes on the Iris menu, Rod Bailey’s Raviolo “Neola” with Brown Butter and Mushrooms. The appetizer is named for a local businessman who visited the restaurant regularly during its remodeling and reconstruction phases to check on progress and who was among the diners on opening night. The “raviolo” – which Spell Check keeps changing to “ravioli” – was served as a special one night not long after Iris opened when Bailey was in the house.

“He ordered the dish and liked it so much that he insisted we keep it on the regular menu,” English said, “so we did, and we named it in his honor. It’s never been off the menu since then.”

“Neola” is Neola Farms, the Black Angus ranch in Tipton County that supplies many local restaurants with beef. In the case of Rod Bailey’s Raviolo, it’s short ribs. In fact, when we go into the kitchen, the sole inhabitant a young man quietly concentrating on rolling out and cutting gnocchi, a large pan of meat, looking a bit like chopped barbecue, sits on a prep table.

“That’s 40 pounds of Neola Farms short ribs that we braised with salt, pepper and allspice in roasted chicken stock with lots of garlic and herbs,” said English. After braising, the deboned meat and stock are separated and the stock reduces – in a giant pan that covers four burners – with thyme and tarragon and truffle oil until it’s almost a glaze, and then it’s reunited with the meat. That’s what forms the golf-ball sized lump inside the ravioli. “When you cut into this thing there’s a kind of burst of winter unctuousness.” He’s not kidding. The pan of meat and the barely bubbling reduction show us what the background preparation for the dish is. Now, as a single plump ravioli gently bounces around in boiling water – “one of the challenges is that with such a big filling you have to cook the ravioli just right” – English prepares the sauce that will engulf the ravioli. He tosses a few shiitake mushrooms in a sauté pan and adds slightly congealed veal stock, brown butter – butter carefully cooked until it’s brown and nutty – and sherry vinegar, along with diced shallots; then a spare handful of peeled, seeded and diced tomatoes; and garlic, all cooked to make what’s essentially a warm vinaigrette.

“I love sherry vinegar,” said the chef. “The earthy aroma, the tang, that’s what makes the dish. This may be my favorite thing on the menu.”

The finish touch consists of two fried sage leaves, not the dinky sage leaves that you buy at the store in those plastic shells but dark green leaves the width of a baby’s fist. They grow in the restaurant’s herb garden. From the moment that English picks up the sauté pan until he holds the completed dish, “plated,” as they say, in a wide, shallow white bowl, under our tantalized noses, the cooking of Rod Bailey’s Raviolo “Neola” has occupied about three minutes. Beforehand, of course, there were hours of preparation, though most of that was hands-off braising and reduction time.

The raviolo, looking rather like a large dumpling, sits with a complacent yet expectant air in its bath of glossy, deep-brown sauce roughened with pieces of dark mushrooms and flanked by the crisp sage leaves. An incredible woodsy redolence rises from the bowl. The dish is fabulously rich and flavorful, the filling of the ravioli dense and succulent; it could make a meal in itself. The price on the menu is $15.

English was born in New Orleans and cooked there under the legendary John Besh, of August, La Provence, Besh Steak, Lüke and other restaurants, including Lüke San Antonio, his first restaurant outside Louisiana. English is emulating his mentor by extending his reach to St. Louis, where he’s opening a steakhouse. As far as Memphis is concerned, “There will be another Kelly English restaurant in Memphis,” he said, “but it won’t be a second Iris, there’s only one of this place. It will be something completely different. We’re looking at a couple of concepts, but that’s as far as we’ve gotten with it.”