The Iris Restaurant – Great British Dining in Wakefield

This article first appeared in the June 2013 edition of the Wakefield magazine TopicUK. Please check the restaurant’s website for updated details of menus, prices, opening hours, etc.

Anyone walking around Wakefield will have noticed the number of new restaurants that have been opening across the city in recent years. This has been very good news both for local residents and visitors to the city, with a wide variety of restaurants now catering for just about every taste. In fact, it’s now harder than ever to decide where to go if you are looking for good food, good service and reasonable prices, all delivered in attractive surroundings.

One of the city centre’s newer offerings is the Iris restaurant in the Bull Ring, run by young chef Liam Duffy. Opened in November 2012, following a gestation period of nearly a year while a former empty shop unit was slowly fitted out with all the perquisites needed to operate a quality establishment, the Iris claims to offer “Great British Dining”. But what is it like to eat there? I went along to find out one rather busy Saturday evening in April.

I should perhaps declare that this was not my first visit to the Iris – I have eaten there before on a number of occasions. The fact that I keep going back suggests that Liam and his team are doing something right so expectations for this review were high and I’m happy to confirm that they were met once again.

When you first approach the restaurant, which is just down from the corner of the Bull Ring with Wood Street, you are faced with a smart, restrained, and indeed, understated, exterior but one which definitely adds something to the street scene. The windows are frosted to shoulder height – providing privacy for diners but also a sense of mystery for anyone walking past – you do have to study the wording to see that this is in fact a restaurant. (Liam worked closely with the landlord, Woodhead Investments of Wakefield, to ensure that both the interior and exterior of the building were fitted out to a high standard.)

On entering, you will usually be greeted by the restaurant manager, Laura, who will show you to your table – and, ideally, you will have booked in advance, especially at the weekend as the restaurant’s rising reputation means that it gets very busy and booking is really essential. The restaurant seats up to 50 in total over two floors and Liam likes to offer customers their table for the night – there’s no pressure to make way for other customers who followed you in in the hope of a table.

Interior décor is elegant, simple and modern and includes photographs of Wakefield. Dark wood tables and seating keep the atmosphere cosy and intimate and it does feel a world away from the noise and bustle of the street outside. While I’m not a huge fan of piped music, on the occasions I have dined at the Iris, there has been music playing very quietly in the background and, I’m pleased to say, it is not intrusive and does appear to have been selected to enhance the mood.

But, what about the food, I hear you asking? Well, ‘scrumptious’ is the word that comes most readily to mind (possibly because I read too much Enid Blyton as a child). The menu is not extensive – a choice of five starters, five mains, and five desserts on the night I was there, plus a handful of grill/steak offerings for those who really like their meat. There are also accompanying appetisers and trimmings – I particularly enjoyed the selection of artisan breads (£2.75) and the homemade chips (£2.50) were extremely ‘moreish’. There were four of us in my party and between us, we sampled three of the starters on offer – Arancini (goat’s cheese in breadcrumbs with olive and tomato salad); Scotch Egg (with smoked haddock and asparagus mayonnaise); and a fresh asparagus special served with a hollandaise sauce. All were light, delicious and well presented. For the main course dishes, we had Macaroni Cheese (served with a hen’s egg in breadcrumbs and spring vegetables); Sea Bream – the Grimsby-landed ‘fish of the day’ (served with a garnish); Free Range Chicken (with wild garlic and broccoli risotto); and a vegetarian risotto also from the specials menu. Again, all very enjoyable although we did have a debate about the unexpected choice of Sea Bream.

As a vegetarian, I am sometimes deterred by restaurants that only offer one vegetarian ‘choice’ of starter and main – when you are presented with just the one item from which to select, the choice really boils down to whether to bother eating there or not – so it was good to be asked when I booked my table whether there were any vegetarians or people with other dietary needs in my party. On the night, we were then offered a number of alternative vegetarian starters and main courses to pick from that don’t appear on the printed menu – so do make sure you let the restaurant know when you book if this is something that applies to you or a member of your party.

Portion size is good – generous enough to fill you but not so much that you can’t manage dessert – which meant that we all found room for puddings, and portions of the Rhubarb Roulade and the Coffee Crème brûlée were consumed with relish (you know what I mean). The menu will be changed every month or so.

Pricing is certainly competitive for food of this quality. Although all items are priced individually (starters at £4.95 and £5.95, mains £14.95 or £15.95 – extra for grill courses, and desserts £4.95 – £6.95), it is also possible to have two courses for £16.95 and three for £19.95 (a supplement will be charged for some items such as the Grill dishes). Wine is also sensibly priced and on a par with what you would expect while cocktails can be ordered from a selection priced at £4.95.

A few days after the meal, I went back to talk to Liam to find out what motivated this 21 year-old chef to open such a restaurant in Wakefield.

Perhaps the most obvious factor is that Liam is Wakefield born and bred – so he wanted to put something back into his home city. He could have gone elsewhere, of course, as he has experience of working in a number of well-established restaurants in the region and beyond, including at the Malmaison Hotel in Leeds, the Michelin-starred Burlington restaurant at the Devonshire Arms, and Aiden Byrne’s Church Green restaurant in Cheshire.

Fortunately for the bon vivants amongst us, Liam felt that the time was right for such a venture here in Wakefield where his roots and his family are. He also returns to the place where his career as a chef really began for him. His original ambition was to be an actor, and while attending college, he was taken on by Sloanes restaurant as a part-time pot washer. This led to an offer to train as a chef and so began his apprenticeship with Liam leaving college and swapping a career in the dramatic arts for one in the culinary arts.

His personal aspiration for the Iris (named after his grandmother in case you were wondering) is to provide quality food that is fresh and sourced locally (he buys his meat from Allums Butchers in Brook Street and his fish comes from Grimsby Docks via Doncaster fishmonger Stuart Shepherd, for example). And he wanted to employ local people – the restaurant now employs a team of ten young people including two apprentice chefs.

You have to admire Liam. He has worked hard to set up this restaurant and deserves to succeed. Will one restaurant be enough for Liam? Possibly not: this young man has ambition and a dream. Perhaps we will see a chain of Iris restaurants in years to come. He even has an idea for a hotel…..Now, I wonder where that will be!

12 Bull Ring, Wakefield, WF1 1HA

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