I may not be the youngest hipster on the block, but I'm confident I haven't yet joined the demographic you'll typically find in Del Mar. Not to knock the lovely seaside enclave, but it just isn't my scene. And yet, how have I only recently heard about Iris Food & Spirits?
Iris occupies a busy little twist of residential road at the southern end of Del Mar (2334 Carmel Valley Road); if it didn't sit just west of Interstate 5, we'd call it Carmel Valley. There's nothing trendy or gimmicky here—merely a vibrant little cottage of a restaurant perched right on the marshy lagoon at the Torrey Pines reserve, a swipe of Pacific blue its backdrop. The atmosphere is mature yet lacking in any sort of horse-racing-community fussiness.
We were utterly charmed by our server, Cheyenne, a sparkly little moonbeam whose energy could have been too much, but, instead, made us feel like we'd stumbled upon a restaurant run by a tight-knit team of friendly folks. Whisky is generally my favorite poison, and Iris' cocktail menu looks top-notch, but Cheyenne pointed me smilingly toward her drink, "Cheyenne's Cucumber Daisy." An icy steel mug arrived, full of a dangerously smooth muddle of Hendrick's Gin, cucumber, mint and lime. When the temperatures really start to rise this summer, this will be the drink to get me through the sweatiest parts of August.
The entrées all looked amazing—I was almost lured in by the duck confit with blood orange sauce—but we were correctly steered in the direction of rustic simplicity and decided to share the roasted veggie lasagna. This isn't a noodle-heavy dish; rather, the intense flavors of roasted eggplant, mushroom, tomatoes and garlic are the stars, along with enough cheese to make this dairy-lover quite happy.
We decided to take a tour of the appetizer menu—a fun and often-cheaper way to get a sampling of what they're doing in the kitchen. Two tastes were absolute standouts: the crispy sweet potato spring rolls and the braised-pork tostadas.
The kalua pork in the tostadas is brined for a couple of days, imbuing the meat with moisture and subtle sweetness. The delicate shreds are topped with deeply caramelized onions and a spicy buttermilk sauce that provides a creamy brightness to the other intense and meaty flavors.
The sweet potato spring rolls were a unique surprise. Instead of chunks of sweet potatoes, the tubers are blended to a velvety, creamy consistency and studded with fat, salty chunks of pancetta. Dipping the rolls into the ruby beet sauce was just the treat I needed after a day involving multiple meltdowns by a teething toddler. (The gin helped, too.)
In a vibrant coastal county like San Diego, there's a surprising lack of really good ocean-view restaurants. Oh, sure, there are a few high-end marquee joints, but when it comes to seaside dining, there's a lot of mediocrity out there. Iris Food & Spirits is just the ticket: excellent food, beautiful location and minimal pretension.