In Memphis, where he operates Restaurant Iris, Kelly English enjoys the reputation that Gerard Craft of Niche and Kevin Willmann of Farmhaus do here: that of a young, progressive chef whose passion for food extends beyond the plate to those who grow the produce and raise the livestock he uses. Also like Craft and Willmann, English was named a "Best New Chef" by Food & Wine Magazine.
English certainly boasts an impressive pedigree: He was born in Baton Rouge but spent most of his upbringing in New Orleans and claims one of the city's most celebrated chefs, John Besh, as a mentor. He ran Besh's restaurant N'awlins at Harrah's property in Tunica, Mississippi, before making his way to Memphis and, now, St. Louis.
"I just follow the fleur-de-lis," he told me when we spoke last year.
He means this literally as well as symbolically. "When we walked into the building" that would become Restaurant Iris, he explains, "there was a stained-glass fleur-de-lis. It was kind of a sign."
"I love cities that have a soul," he adds, "and St. Louis definitely has a soul."
You have to dig a little to find that soul at English's steak house. The space itself has a generic upscale look, all muted colors and modernist light fixtures — pleasant but forgettable. You enter through a small, circular lobby just inside and to the right of the casino's main entrance. To one side is the smaller of the two dining rooms, which seats maybe four dozen at tables and another dozen or so at the bar. On the other side is the main dining room, though dining hall might be a better term for this cavernous space, edged with cushy booths spanning both long walls.
The restaurant is isolated from the casino gaming floor, which eliminates the blips and jangles of the slot machines, not to mention the secondhand smoke. Both have windows. In the main room, these overlook the mall-like concourse that leads from the main entrance to the gaming floor; in the other dining room, they look out on the hallway that connects the casino complex to the adjoining hotel. In other words, there is no escaping the fact that you're in a casino.
If the restaurant didn't call itself a steak house, you might not think of it as such based on the menu. The steaks are grouped under the category "Steaks, Chops and Fowl," and the selection isn't expansive: 8-ounce filet mignon, 12-ounce filet, 16-ounce rib eye and 22-ounce porterhouse. Discretion taking the better part of valor, I opted for the rib eye, medium-rare. The steak showed excellent grilling technique, with nicely charred crosshatching and a perfectly warm red center, but at this level (the rib eye costs $35, the porterhouse and larger filet $42 and $43 respectively) a high-temperature broiling for a crunchy, flavorful crust would seem more appropriate.
Ordering a steak entitles you to a salad and one side. The selection of sides features the usual steak-house suspects, which is to say potatoes: baked; smashed and seasoned with horseradish; French-fried. Mac & cheese is an excellent alternative, thick and tangy with Parmesan and cheddar beneath a crisp, light breadcrumb topping.
The rest of the menu often nods to the Creole and Cajun roots of English's career. In fact, the best dish here isn't a steak or even an entrée but the "Creole Midnight Snack," a starter. This brings toasted brioche topped with very plump, perfectly cooked — just barely opaque — shrimp, tossed in a rémoulade that has much more depth of flavor than the iconic sauce (overused and underseasoned to the point of cliché) usually has. Atop the shrimp is a poached egg, its yolk piling yet more richness onto that rémoulade and making this appetizer satisfying enough to stand in for a main course.
Truth is, seafood is the standout at Kelly English Steakhouse. The "Lobster Knuckle Sandwich," another appetizer (and a signature dish at Restaurant Iris), consists of a slice of toasted baguette spread with a lightly tangy aioli and topped with a generous serving of buttery, tender lobster claw meat and a smattering of cherry tomatoes. "Potato Skins" are a fun, if straightforward, appetizer: crescents of roasted potato topped with a few small bits of tuna tartare tossed with crème fraîche, a touch of lemongrass and a wee dollop of caviar.
Seafood entrées include an absolutely gorgeous piece of sea bass crusted with Parmesan cheese (not too much to clash with the mild fish) and served with a gently sweet cornbread dressing and, for contrast, a mustard-butter sauce that delivers a slight kick. For a more robust Creole flavor, the seared redfish brings yet another excellent piece of fish — the sourcing and execution of seafood here is as good as anywhere in town — armed with a biting and aggressively salty seasoning. If not for the rote side of smashed new potatoes, this would be a dish to write home about.
The "Surf and Turf," another Restaurant Iris signature, melds English's Crescent City upbringing with the steak-house concept. Featured on an episode of the Food Network program The Best Thing I Ever Ate, this is a New York strip steak cooked to your preferred temperature and then butterflied and stuffed with blue cheese and three fried Gulf oysters. That mutant turducken is dressed with hollandaise and bordelaise sauces, and then the whole shebang is served atop a hash of bacon and potatoes. It's quite possibly the single richest dish I've ever eaten — the only thing missing is a slab of foie gras. Inarguably impressive in theory, it's overwhelming on the plate, the cacophony of strong flavors and dense textures crowding one another out. (Thank God it isn't deep-fried.)
Service is prompt and professional, as should be expected from the crown jewel of a higher-end casino. The wine list, alas, is a bust, split between run-of-the-mill supermarket wines by the glass (yes, Mabel, we do have a white zinfandel) and the same cult reds favored at every steak house from sea to shining sea. If you had Caymus ($135) in your office pool as the first cabernet listed, you hit the jackpot.
Really, though, you shouldn't venture out to Kelly English Steakhouse for a dose of the steak-house experience. You should come because English is a talented, creative chef whose hand with seafood is distinctive and delicious, and because a generic dining room in a Maryland Heights casino is a helluva lot closer to St. Louis than Memphis.