Restaurant profile: Iris at the North Carolina Museum of Art

Creativity is a hallmark of the North Carolina Museum of Art. It should come as no surprise, then, to find innovative cuisine at Iris, the NCMA’s full-service restaurant that’s as worthy of exploration as any exhibit hall.

Formerly known as Blue Ridge in a previous space, the restaurant’s new moniker pays homage to major benefactor Iris Cantor.

Not surprisingly, Iris is aesthetically impressive at first glance. The expansive, modern dining room is suffused with natural light thanks to abundant windows that extend from floor to ceiling. An adjacent wall features a massive natural, woven sculpture created by local artist Patrick Dougherty.

“The piece is called ‘Out of the Box,’ explained Alesia DiCosola, the museum’s assistant marketing manager. “It’s made of branches and sticks, and people really appreciate the artist’s work because it’s so distinctive.”

Also distinctive is the restaurant’s contemporary American gastronomy with a Southern fusion approach. Executive Chef Andy Hicks, who honed his culinary chops at various Triangle restaurants, including Chapel Hill’s La Residence under Chef Bill Smith, draws from regional and global influences while sharing kitchen duties with Executive Pastry Chef Jennifer Hicks, his wife. Jennifer, who also serves as the museum’s special events designer, received her training at the esteemed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

“We both have individual strengths, but we complement each other very well,” Andy said. Interestingly, he and Jennifer met while working together at the museum’s restaurant. The couple just had their second child in October.

Among both chefs’ primary passions is a wholehearted commitment to sourcing local ingredients whenever possible. Whether it’s beef, seafood, vegetables or dairy products, there’s total dedication to using the freshest provisions available.

“We rely heavily on nearby places like Chapel Hill Creamery and Celebrity Dairy in Siler City for high-quality items,” Andy said. “We also use local seasonal produce.”

Andy revealed that just this year the staff planted an herb garden on the museum grounds. “We have two kinds of oregano and mint, three kinds of rosemary, chives, tarragon and basil.” Moreover, in an effort to be environmentally conscious, the staff also composts all its kitchen scraps.

The assurance of excellence and freshness is evidenced by the first-rate bill of fare. Consider, for instance, the Iris burger, which features all-natural, grass-fed beef from Rare Earth Farms along with Hickory Grove cheese and green peppercorn chive sauce. “We grind the meat ourselves,” Andy said. “The onion roll is baked in-house, along with all our bread.”

Other standout entrées? You can’t go wrong with the succulent arugula Florentine-stuffed North Carolina flounder with roasted red pepper almond coulis and garlicky sautéed spaghetti squash. Then there’s the seared snapper with spicy pistachio cornbread dressing, Pommery Riesling reduction and fig conserve.

While the restaurant’s menu changes with the seasons, popular items are often carried over. “We always have some rendition of our chicken salad,” Andy said.

Oenophiles will appreciate the inspired wine list featuring elegant varietals from California, France, Italy, Spain, New Mexico and elsewhere. Wine is sold in bottles and by the glass. Beer and cider is also available.

When it comes to dessert, Jennifer’s masterful creations range from fruit-imbued crumbles and dark chocolate brownies to house-made sorbets and ice cream. “We try to introduce some slightly unusual flavors like goat cheese and shoofly ice cream into the mix,” Jennifer said. “It seems like our clientele takes it pretty well, and we try to change up the desserts about once a month.”

Jennifer added that Iris handles a large volume of on-site catering events. “We frequently see large corporate and private functions like wedding receptions, as well as special exhibit affairs,” she said.

Service at Iris is outstanding. Attractive, attentive and well-trained staff members deliver top-notch service time and again.

Closed Monday, Iris is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Friday dinner is served from 5:30–10 p.m. (final seating at 8:30 p.m.). Brunch is served on weekends; Sunday hours are 10:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Reservations are accepted and encouraged.

The restaurant accepts all major credit cards, cash and checks. All sales benefit the museum’s future expansion and development. Current NCMA members are eligible for a 10 percent discount off their meal. Museum admission is free.

2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh
(919) 664-6838

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