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Missing the spot; It takes effort to find Iris, a work in progress

Walking up to Iris, I wondered why a place on the side of a plaza didn't make itself easier to spot. DAKOTA is still outlined on the facade, a clue it was formerly the Dakota Grill. Posters in the windows said Iris, so I started trying doors.

The restaurant is part of a larger enterprise called the Maple Entertainment Complex, including the Forvm, a music venue, and the Library, which is said to offer 50 craft beers. The sign outside said it was karaoke night, but when Cat and I were led to our table, I noticed a band setting up.

We were one of four tables in a room that could have seated many more, decorated with murals of musicians for a jazz club motif. The table was set with a wrinkled white tablecloth, paper napkins and an artificial iris in a vase, a bit downscale from the menu prices.

We chose zucchini Parmesan ($7.75), French onion soup ($4.95) and New York State apple salad ($8.95) for starters. The mojo quesadilla ($8.75), with pork tenderloin and ancho sweet potato puree, also looked interesting.

Our entree selections, from menu choices we've seen many times before (sea bass, strip steak, pasta con vodka, and so on), were shrimp and clam scampi ($19.95) and chicken piccata ($16.95).

Our server brought a basket with two types of warm rolls, crusty white and a sweeter whole-wheat number, and butter.

When our apple salad arrived, it was a surprise. The menu description did not mention mixed field greens, which was the salad's main ingredient. As presented, the salad was a generous portion of dressed foliage that happened to sport some Granny Smith slices. It could have used a few more. Stilton cheese and walnuts added points of interest.

The French onion soup was reminiscent of bouillon cube, while not overly salty. It did contain plenty of sweet onions, sealed with a cap of melted cheese. Cat's side salad was field mix, boxed croutons, grape tomatoes, cucumber and onion.

I was warm to the idea of the zucchini Parmesan, described as a crusted, fried slice of squash in a marinara-and-mozzerella embrace. What arrived was half of a mature zucchini that had been sliced lengthwise and not deseeded. So after it was dipped and deep-fried, it bordered on watery, and the coating fell off with a touch. The combination still tasted good, though.

Cat's shrimp and clam scampi contained three medium-sized shrimp and six clams, in a mild broth fortified with cheese. I like more lemon brightness in my scampi, but it was a satisfying plate, albeit overpriced.

My chicken piccata offered one chicken breast, not pounded or filleted to make it thinner. There were small capers in the sauce, adding a needed salty touch. The risotto was chewy but cheesy.

"What is this?" said Cat, proffering a purplish item on her fork. It was a baby carrot that had been "glazed" in merlot, but not long enough to make it tender. It was the vegetable of the day, allowing me to crunch purple carrots, too.

A delightful, warm cranberry orange bread pudding ($6.95) brought the meal to a pleasant conclusion. The whipped cream melted into the squiggle of caramel sauce, and we left no spoon unturned.

A band had started warming up while we ate salad. I noticed the musicians talking to the occupants of every table but ours. When they started to play, one musician told listeners they were new at this. "It's our first night ever, actually."

Later in the evening, the long-haired guitarist tore into Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man." His soaring solo reminded me that working with new mates is no excuse for a flat performance.


Note: Last week's review of Protocol omitted lunch hours, which are 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.





DESCRIPTION: Casual restaurant in the Maple Entertainment Complex, styled like a jazz club, needs a few more rehearsals.

WHERE: 4224 Maple Road, Amherst (831-3271,

HOURS: 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and salads, $7.75-$11.95. Entrees $14.95-$27.95.