New Orleans: Booze Beyond the Beads at Iris
At times, it's difficult to take the dining and drinking scene of the French Quarter in New Orleans seriously. A few storefronts down the street from Arnaud's Restaurant, home of the legendary French 75 cocktail, there's a dive bar advertising 'Big Ass Beers To-Go' for $5. Visitors stumble through Jackson Square, sloshed on rotgut liquor and bottom shelf plonk. But around the corner from the myriad of tourist-friendly chain restaurants, Iris has taken root, and sports an ambitious menu and equally ambitious cocktails.
Iris is a relative new comer to the dining scene, first opening in 2006 in the uptown New Orleans neighborhood of Carrollton, where they catered to the locals and destination diners and drinkers. In 2008, they moved to the French Quarter where they now do brisk business with the tourist trade, but retain a loyal congregation of New Orleans residents. The interior, like its namesake flower, is bright, pretty and airy—the low buzz of punters is welcome respite to the oft rowdy conditions of neighboring bars and restaurants.
Iris's chef, Ian Schnoebelen, was part of the 2007 Food & Wine Magazine class of "America's top 10 best new chefs" and focuses his restaurant's menu towards local and season ingredients. The cocktail program, which is curated by mixologist Sharon Floyd, makes ample use of seasonal fruits and herbs.
Floyd likes to play with your sense of smell, as a number of her cocktails are topped with whole herbs which have been lightly bruised to expose their essence. A sprig of fresh oregano atop the Veradero ($11) gives you a fragrant whiff of herbs with each slurp. This cocktail is built around Herbsaint Absinthe, but the brawny anise profile of the spirit is soothed by the teasing citrus of lemongrass, zesty ginger syrup, and calming vanilla.
The drink is poured over a tumbler of crushed ice—whole cubes are tucked into a side towel which the elfin slender Floyd theatrically wallops with a dowel rod, hewing the ice into rough pebbles. It's also been striated with a chiffonade of mint, basil, and the like, ensuring that every sip is kissed with an herbaceous note, redolent of freshly mown fields. The Veradero is exhilarating and refreshing to drink.
On the other hand, the Western Disguise is a smoother cocktail, leaning towards the sweeter side with a curiously salty background. This salinity, which does well to accentuate the drink's sweet and sour nature, is achieved through a soy sauce and pineapple juice reduction, which is vigorously shaken with Oronoco rum, "Well of Wisdom" sake, and Campari. A topping of fresh herbs, this time in the form of sweet basil, makes an appearance and binds the drink into a well balanced and pleasant sip.
I'd assumed (incorrectly) that the French Quarter's drinking scene was merely a sea of cheap bourbon served in plastic shot glasses and frozen hurricanes pumped into audaciously large plastic chalices draped with beads. But in a modern twist to the classic New Orleans cocktail scene, Iris makes it quite possible—once again—to drink elegantly in the French Quarter.