Ready to Bloom 

A new chef and a new menu breathe fresh life into Brentwood’s Wild Iris

A new chef and a new menu breathe fresh life into Brentwood’s Wild Iris

Wild Iris

Brentwood Home Shopping Center, 127 Franklin Road

370-0871

Open for lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; for dinner 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat.

Portending the season of stress and chaos that lies ahead, December roared in with a howling temper tantrum last week, but on Wednesday evening neither wind, nor rain, nor hail, nor sleet, nor gloom of night was going to keep my three friends and me from our moms’ night out. Murmur “peppered honey goat cheese” in our ears, and we’ll follow you anywhere, even to Brentwood, which was our destination on this stormiest and most frigid night of all.

The fromage de chevre was just one of the delectable temptations that lured us to Wild Iris, the cozy little restaurant owned by Katie and Gep Nelson, who also have Yellow Porch in Berry Hill and Cross Corners sports bar on Franklin Road. The Nelsons’ Brentwood outpost has never disappointed, in part because it has typically played it pretty safe. But Wild Iris’ new menu, a collaboration between new chef Allison Trinkle and executive chef for all three restaurants Kim Totzke, shows promise of raising the culinary bar.

Totzke is as well known in Nashville foodie circles for her lively personality as for her adventurous, Mediterranean-influenced dishes. Trinkle, originally from Bristol in East Tennessee, came here 10 years ago to attend the Opryland Culinary Institute (which is no longer in operation). After graduating in 1995, she spent four years at Belle Meade Brasserie, working some of that time with chef Corey Griffith (Cakewalk, Sasso, mAmbu), who happens to be one of Totzke’s closest friends and colleagues. From the Brasserie, Trinkle went on to run the kitchen at Merchants downtown before deciding to take a breather from being in command. She lent Griffith a hand at mAmbu for a little while, then came on board at Yellow Porch to spell Totzke.

When the opportunity to run the kitchen at Wild Iris presented itself, everything about it seemed right. “I was ready to get back into it again,” Trinkle says. “I liked the kitchen at Iris. It was small, and as far as I’m concerned, the smaller the better; you don’t have to run around so much. I also liked that the restaurant was small and had a regular clientele; it meant I could get to know who I was cooking for. Both of those things really appealed to me after Merchants.”

Trinkle took over Iris in June; together she and Totzke put out a refreshed, seasonal summer menu that kept some of the restaurant’s popular dishes. The current menu is oriented to colder-weather dishes and introduces more new creations, though none that require LaRousse Gastronomique to decipher. “Because of Iris’ location, it tends to be a little more conservative than the Porch,” Totzke notes. Adds Trinkle, “I try to incorporate what people in this area like, the flavors of the South, into contemporary dishes. I want to cook what people want to eat—but creatively. I don’t want to intimidate people or force them to ask too many questions about the food. I like things that are simple and easy to eat, but memorable.”

When I’m cooking at home, “simple and easy to eat” are rules of thumb, but often that means pepperoni pizza, pasta with red sauce, or anything that accommodates a squirt of ketchup. Trinkle’s fare is quite a bit more sophisticated, though not complicated, and the menu is just varied enough to provoke some pondering over what to order—the wild mushroom ravioli in a creamy artichoke puttanesca sauce, or the portobello Napoleon?—but not so extensive as to cause choice paralysis.

We went with the portobello Napoleon, one of six starters, and were rewarded with a plate of meaty portobello strips, chunky oven-roasted Roma tomatoes and pesto-flavored cheese atop a deep-red pool of robust red pepper marinara, which we sopped up with the toasted foccacia croustades. Likewise, when all that was left of the bowl of steamed mussels were the empty shells, and when we’d polished off the accompanying triangles of grilled crostini as well, I didn’t hesitate to pick up the soup spoon and savor the chili-flecked broth.

The crab cakes were good and generously sized, but if I had to choose, I would go for the potato cakes instead. Grown-up, super-sized tater tots, these are grated cooked potatoes shaped into fat patties, salted-and-peppered, pan-fried, then served with a tangy olive tapenade, strawberries in a sweet balsamic syrup and a few dabs of tart goat cheese. Memorable indeed, and a lovely balance of flavors.

The salads we sampled offered an appealing balance of flavors and texture as well. The slight bitterness of the baby spinach leaves was nicely offset by the fresh orange slices and citrus vinaigrette, with salt and crunch provided by the crisp bacon. The Wild Iris salad combined baby greens with tart dried cherries, savory gorgonzola cheese and toasted walnuts. Also available are a simple baby greens salad and a traditional Caesar.

Five of the dozen entrées, including one special, are seafood, while the remaining selections cover the rest of the bases, including two vegetarian pastas (to which diners can add shrimp or chicken). Embracing our Venus sensitivities, we skipped both of the Martian meat-and-potato options—a tenderloin or New York strip. We also passed on the veggie pastas, though I would have been happy to order the fettuccini in a white wine-garlic sauce with artichokes, mushrooms, tomatoes, spinach and chevre for dessert. Nor were we particularly inspired by the roasted chicken breast, a dish that makes frequent appearances at home.

Instead, we went for the herb-scented tilapia, which tasted as poetic as it sounded, the delicate-tasting fish barely dusted with flour and fresh herbs before being gently pan-fried and coyly sidled up to a luscious tomato-crab cognac cream sauce. The bowl of shrimp scampi, which came nestled in a tangle of fresh linguini in rich lobster sauce, prompted subtle interpretations of Meg Ryan’s climactic diner scene in When Harry Met Sally all around the table.

When visiting a restaurant, I always order risotto if it’s on the menu, since I love to eat it as much as I hate to make it. Wild Iris’ pesto Parmesan risotto, cooked to the perfect texture of creamy-chewy, was elevated to utter goodness by the addition of mussels, shrimp, salmon and whitefish.

And the peppered honey goat cheese? That’s what made the grilled lamb chops impossible to resist, each finished off with a dollop of the treat melting slightly onto the savory meat. The four chops were fanned atop a fabulously flavorful thyme demi-glace, through which I pushed every bite of the fat semolina dumpling that shared the plate.

The morning after, making chicken salad sandwiches for my children’s lunches, I nibbled on the one remaining baby lamb chop I brought home, still bearing just a bit of the honeyed goat cheese, and lingered in culinary after-glow. Simple yet memorable food, Trinkle’s repast performed its mission admirably.

Wild Iris is to be commended for its new chef and new menu, but the restaurant has some unfinished business. While the room is snug by virtue of its size, it is drab and tired and cries out for some attention. The colors are dull, the carpet has seen better days, the stemware is unworthy of even the least expensive wine on the nice list, and glass-topped tables are one of my pet peeves in restaurants that offer appetizers as pricey as $9.50. Allison Trinkle’s food and her diners deserve a better home. With a few small but artful aesthetic improvements, Wild Iris will bloom anew.

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