Pantà: Chef Kelly English brings the vibrant flavors of Spain to Memphis – Commercial Appeal
“Doesn’t look anything like the original Iris, does it?” Kelly English said as he gave a tour of his new restaurant, Pantà.
English has dreamed of owning a Spanish-inspired restaurant for decades. On Oct. 30, his dream will become a reality.
The building that housed his flagship Restaurant Iris at 2146 Monroe has been transformed into a colorful and vibrant Spanish tapas bar and restaurant.
It’s a departure from the Southern fare that this chef is known for, but as he demonstrated in a pop-up last year, this Southern chef knows a thing or two about authentic Spanish fare.
Pantà will bring the flavors of English’s time spent in Barcelona to life.
“I lived in Barcelona for six months when I was in college,” English said. “It’s where I realized I wanted to be a chef.”
For a few months last year, English hosted a Spanish-themed pop-up at Restaurant Iris. Dishes from the Catalonia region of Spain replaced the Southern-inspired menu that Restaurant Iris is known for. (Barcelona is the capital of this region in northeastern Spain.)
The success of this pop-up planted a seed.
“During the past two years, I realized a 12-table restaurant with valet wasn’t sustainable. We had to change,” English said. “We are moving Iris out East where there is plenty of parking and a bigger kitchen to allow us to keep some of the pivots we did.”
With Restaurant Iris moving to the former Grove Grill location in Laurelwood Shopping Center, a more casual Spanish tapas bar and restaurant was the perfect fit for the space on Monroe. (Restaurant Iris is expected to open in its new spot in 2022.)
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English enlisted the help of Memphis designer David Quarles IV to help transform 2146 Monroe into his vision.
“When you walk in the door, you know this is going to be a good night,” Quarles said. “We have created an ‘experience’ that makes you feel transported to a different place.”
Quarles has infused the once dark space with vibrant colors of yellows and reds, hand-painted murals and bold wallpapers and mosaic tiles.
Parc Guell, a park in Barcelona designed by Antoni Gaudi, was the inspiration for the remodel.
“Gaudi is one of Kelly’s favorite architects,” Quarles said. “I did a deep dive into his work. The color schemes at Pantà were inspired by one of Gaudi’s first projects, Casa Vicens.”
Art plays a large role in the design elements.
Quarles hand-painted the mural at the front window banquette himself. Photos from Memphis photographer Ziggy Mack hang in the main dining room. A ceiling mural by Memphis artist Frances Berry completes the theme of “The Dragon Room” private dining area at the back of the restaurant. (English decided to incorporate a dragon theme in his logo and in spots throughout the restaurant because of Barcelona’s annual La Mercè festival, which includes a colorful procession of fire-breathing dragons.)
“Even the bathrooms are Instagramable,” joked Quarles, adding that a soon-to-be-installed rooftop neon sign will add the finishing “Pantà” touch to the exterior of the historic Midtown house.
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English described his vision for the new restaurant as « a really great bar with great food. »
“The food is going to be bright and a lot of fun,” he said, adding the décor and the menus complement each other.
The menu features a selection of small plates that have their roots in Catalan cuisine.
Catalan classics like Patatas Bravas (Roasted Garlic Potatoes topped with Brava sauce) and Gambas al Ajillo (Shrimp cooked in a garlic, lemon and olive sauce) are on the menu.
English also adds a Memphis-twist to a handful of traditional Spanish dishes.
“We have a hard-core Catalan menu, but we reserve the right to ‘Memphis it up,’” English said.
Bomba Barceloneta, a fried potato ball filled with braised meat, is stuffed with Payne’s pulled pork barbecue at Pantà.
Aaron Ivory (who is the lead manager of Pantà), Morgan McKinney (who was most recently behind the bar at Bari) and Laurin Culp (the beverage director for all of English’s restaurants) have worked to develop a strong bar program.
Culp has curated a wine list of only Spanish offerings, making Pantà the perfect place to explore wines from Spain.
“I let Morgan run with the cocktail program,” Ivory said. “Our signature Naked Dragon, a cocktail made with reposado tequila, aperol, hot chili-infused yellow chartreuse and lime juice, is her creation.”
The bar will also feature a selection of gin and tonics. Spain is known for its version of this classic cocktail made with herbs, citrus and other aromatics.
“We want to be a place that people who don’t normally have a place to go, feel like that they can go,” said Ivory, adding they hope Pantà will be a gathering spot for people of all backgrounds.
English, along with Quarles and the whole Pantà team, has worked hard to create a gathering spot space.
From the design elements to the various seating options and dining rooms, Pantà offers guests an option for when the restaurant is the destination for the night out, or just a place to stop in for a drink and a snack on the way to your plans.
“Pantà is reflective of the community and feels inclusive,” Quarles said. “Think of it as this could be my Cheers.”
Pantà will be open from 6 p.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday. Reservations can only be made from 6 to 7 p.m. or at the front window banquette.
On Sundays, Pantà will be open from 2 to 6 p.m. for a “Siesta Service.” “Think of it as brunch, but later,” said English, adding he hopes restaurant industry workers will come on Sundays after they finish their brunch shifts. Siesta Service begins Nov. 7.
English said he is most excited about the late-night dining. “I love a greasy burger, but there is definitely room for bright and light late night food,” he said.
“The people who have been dining with us for the past 13 years will recognize the tenets of our hospitality, but this is a big departure for us — in a good way.”
Jennifer Chandler is the Food & Dining reporter at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at [email protected] and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @cookwjennifer.
Where: 2146 Monroe Ave.
Hours: 6 p.m.-midnight Thursday-Saturday and 2-6 p.m. Sunday
Phone: (901) 590-2828