2334 Carmel Valley Road, Del Mar
The Lynnester has ways to make men talk. When Mark and I arrived to meet her at Iris, she was having a drink and pumping the charming manager, Edd Golden, younger brother of chef-owner Tommy Golden, learning the history of the restaurant. Iris has been in business for two years (but only in the past few months has it been generating some quiet stir among foodies). The site used to be the northern location of the late Cuvée, a wine-focused Bird Rock restaurant. Chef-owner, Boston-born Tommy Golden was founder and former owner of the popular Parkhouse Eatery in Hillcrest and Beach Grass Café in Solana Beach — both quintessential “neighborhood restaurants” with interestingly eclectic menus. Here, Tommy’s actually in the kitchen, cooking, which he couldn’t do when he had to wrangle two restaurants at once.
Iris sits on a narrow, rural blacktop bordering the reedy wetlands and lagoon between Torrey Pines and Del Mar. This affords a strange and heartbreakingly beautiful view at eye level, suffering no competition from the splashier seacoast to the west that captures the eyes of drivers crossing the highway bridge. The entryway is well gardened, with handsome, drought-tolerant shrubbery and decorative touches from jewel-like glass “rocks”; it hospitably includes two wooden benches and, at the doorway, several chairs. The interior is California-rural, woodsy and warm-looking.
The Restaurant Week crowd was “right-size” — ample but by no means slamming, nearly filling the roofed patio on a warm night but barely touching the dining room. The prix-fixe choices seemed representative of the regular menu, but in hindsight, Golden could have chosen better starters. The appetizers may be crowd-pleasers, and they are by no means the cheapest (the crab-cake salad normally runs $15) — but I doubt they’re the best, compared to the possibilities of house-made pâté, vegetable-ricotta timballo, Carlsbad mussels, ahi poke, or an outrageous-sounding pizzetta with duck confit, pumpkin-seed pesto, Gorgonzola, fig, and rosemary (oh, bring it on!).
Contrary to the normal pattern, our dinner improved with each successive course — entrées better than appetizers, desserts divine. The table bread was soft, warm, delicious, a sliced mini-loaf of home-style white bread. A soup of local heirloom tomatoes and basil was thick and powerful, the tomatoes amended with a purée of roasted garlic, leeks, Tuscan white beans, and olive oil. Bits of bean-skin that had escaped the blender blades added texture. We agreed that it needed a swirl of crème fraîche to lighten it — and maybe crisp croutons for added texture. But the ingredient list hinted at a wasted opportunity: un-puréed, with leafy cabbage or kale cooked in, this very soup could become a version of that Tuscan masterpiece, “La Ribollita,” with a wealth of flavors and textures instead of a Johnny one-note. (That’s a perfect restaurant soup, too — improving in the fridge, it can be cooked once and served for days.)
Panko-crusted crispy calamari began with thick steaks of large squid, pounded and cut into fingers, but the coating was bland, the interiors tender but nearly tasteless except for a good soy-wasabi dip. It reminded me of the calamari at T.G.I. Friday’s. (Yeah, I’ve eaten there — two late-night desperation dinners in far-off lands.)
Crab-cake salad was barely better. The salad (baby greens, caramelized onions, slices of Granny Smith apples) was fun, but the over-breaded cake was absolutely average, with little maritime flavor. It needed a drenching with a beurre blanc, hollandaise, or the like, to add moisture, flavor, luxury.
The main dishes brought a complete turnaround. I wasn’t pleased about finding grilled local swordfish on the Restaurant Week menu, expecting it would be as dried out as most chefs cook it. Well — hurray for Tommy Golden! It was moist! Yummy! Scattered all over was a charming mixture of chopped papaya, lemon cucumber, heirloom tomato, and serrano salsa fresca. Another hurrah — the garlic mashed potatoes were real home-style mash with dairy (whether milk, half-and-half, cream, I can’t say, but I’m grateful). They were smooth, light, comforting, oh my. Alongside came a generous pile of sliced sautéed zucchini and summer squash. Gold star to Golden for turning two local restaurant wrongs (dry swordfish and lean mash) into absolute rights and for heaping the plate with a good veggie.
“Iris Cassoulet” was tasty, too, although an attenuated version. The traditional Gascon casserole includes duck or goose, lamb, pork, and Toulouse garlic sausages garnishing white beans baked with tomatoes in an herbed meat-and-duck stock. The Iris meats include only chicken breast, pancetta, and Italian sausage, but the mixture had plenty of flavor. “I could skip the chicken and sausage and just gobble up the beans,” said Lynne, with a ditto from Mark. I found the beans a bit salty, with a subtle lash of hot spice. The sausage was rather disappointing: not a vibrant Sicilian sweet fennel sausage but the plainest uncured Italian sausage. Above all, chicken isn’t duck — though it would come closer if thigh-pieces were substituted for breast. (Somebody tell me: Why do restaurants cleave to breasts when thighs are cheaper, richer-tasting, and more forgiving?) For that matter, since the restaurant serves duck confit — why not actual duck in the cassoulet?
Still, pretty good — the beans have it. And like a real cassoulet, the take-home leftovers were tremendous, once all the flavors had made friends with each other overnight. Cassoulet, often made of assorted leftovers, is itself designed to be eaten leftover: Some French bistros have reputedly kept a pot of it on the back burner for decades on end, with the chef regularly adding more meats and broth. (I’m a tad skeptical. Do the beans multiply magically? Don’t the ones on the bottom burn?)
Least successful was a grilled “island rubbed prime pork flatiron steak.” This proved a sort of one-piece satay — an unskewered slab of meat sauced and garnished following the Southeast Asian skewered model, with a mild peanut sauce and alluring, sweetened short-grain sushi rice, plus a pile of good, crisp-sautéed green beans. The pork was overdone and ruthlessly salty — but this dish, too, mysteriously improved in the doggie-box, the saltiness seeming to recede and the meat to soften.
The wine list is a joy, ranging from affordable Aussies and Chileans on up to several fully aged Heitz Cellar Cabernets and their equivalents. (This list tops out at $160 for an Antinori Super Tuscan.) There are even some halves. What caught my eye was an Aussie screwtop chard called Pure Evil — how could I resist? For Evil, it was pretty damned good (cheap, too).
Desserts were another world, three triumphs of the quality you’d hope to find at the area’s top restaurants. A “coconut caramel cheesecake” had the creamy texture of crème brulée, sprinkled all over with toasted coconut shreds, served atop a caramel sauce — the textural equivalent of lying on a goose-down featherbed. And a tres leches cake reminded me of a ride on a merry-go-round — a spin of airy but complex, creamy cake, fresh strawberries, and whipped cream, all innocent gaiety and carefree carousel music.
Finally, the perfect Scorpio birthday cake for Mark and me (Lynne, of another sign, loved it too): a warm chocolate brownie cake with vanilla ice cream and raspberry and chocolate sauces. What makes it Scorpionic is that it’s just barely sweet, resting at that precise point where chocolate becomes pleasurable: It’s the darkest Devil’s Food Cake with the lightest crumb, and the chocolate sauce is of the same ultra-bittersweet ilk. Most local chocolate desserts are so cloying that I dread them, but this one had all the sensual pleasures of fine chocolate without the weight. Two gold stars for Golden on this one. The espresso, also well balanced, was among the better local versions.
So, our dinner was quite good but also a catalog of “it might have beens,” with misguided starter choices, a soup that could’ve been great with one more ingredient and a slight change of concept, and a cassoulet with too-lean fowl. With each successive restaurant, Golden’s food has improved. With Iris, he’s teetering on the edge of excellence.
“It’s a good little place. I’d come back here for lunch,” said Lynne, who works nearby, “but prices are a bit high for what’s really a ‘neighborhood restaurant.’"
Well, the million-dollar “neighborhood” here is the local Gold Coast that runs from Torrey Pines to Solana Beach and encompasses the upscale corporate desert of Carmel Valley just east of I-5. “They’re not that high compared to Del Mar Plaza or Flower Hill,” I mused, “and the food and atmosphere are more comfortable. This is more like slightly adventurous home cooking — but with a spectacular dessert at the end.” Me, I’d gladly come back for happy-hour drinks and snacks on the patio, just to catch the sun setting over the lagoon, and I’d gladly stay for dinner, too. Real home-style mashed potatoes — you don’t find those every day now, least of all in ambitious neighborhood restaurants, whatever the neighborhood.
- 2.5 stars
- (Good to Very Good)
2334 Carmel Valley Road, Del Mar, 858-259-5878, irisfoodandspirits.com.
HOURS: Lunch weekdays, 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.; dinner daily, 5:00 p.m.–closing (circa 10:00); happy hour weekdays, 4:00–6:00 p.m.
PRICES: Dinner starters, $8–$11.50; soups and salads, $4–$16; entrées, $19–$26.50. Lunch starters, $7.50–$10; sandwiches, $10–$17; salads, $5.50–$19.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Eclectic Cal-Mediterranean food with homey touches. Wine list with wide range of styles and prices, decently priced at the high end; many available by the glass. Full bar, fun cocktails.
PICK HITS: Iris cassoulet, fish entrées, desserts. Good guesses: starters of duck confit pizzetta, pâté, mussels, vegetable timballo, ahi poke; crispy duck confit entrée.
NEED TO KNOW: Rating based on Restaurant Week choices, which seemed representative of regular menu. (Better starter choices might have increased rating.) Roofed patio dining available with lagoon view from window tables. Gratuity of 18 percent added automatically for all prix-fixe dinners. Tuesdays free corkage.