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.