Big Shirley's has teetered on the edge of almost-there since its opening in February. There's great need for a neighborhood restaurant on this careworn but hopeful edge of the Treme, and for Big Shirley's first few months the crush of eager diners overpowered the capabilities of its new kitchen and waitstaff. Food arrived at the table cold to lukewarm, and side dishes promised on the menu were as difficult to come by as a sno-ball in January. Then, shortly after an unassailable meal in June indicated that the operation had finally caught its breath, a second-floor fire and the simultaneous departure of the ever-present general manager led to a brief closing and a major management shuffle.
The grand reopening sign still flapped above a few sidewalk tables during my most recent visits, in August, and several hiccups in service and food availability warned that the new-restaurant syndrome still hadn't abated. But the building's classy renovation, several noteworthy signature dishes, the improved service and the supportive clientele refuse to be ignored. If the past seven months are any indication, Big Shirley's is a survivor.
Thanks to one fortunate constant, Chef Robert Holmes, the cooking at Big Shirley's has solidified rather than suffered through the restaurant's other trials. He made the local kitchen rounds before opening this one -- including stints at Cafe Degas, Emeril's, Mr. B's Bistro and Treasure Chest Casino -- and his most outstanding dishes are strictly regional.
If there were a tour of the best New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp preparations, Holmes' would fit in nicely -- both stylistically and geographically -- between the deep, dark version at Mr. B's and the butter-logged po-boy at Liuzza's by the Track. Just-done, head-on shrimp soak in an emulsified butter bath the color of pale ale, battered with black pepper and rosemary, and stinging with garlic. A twist of angel hair pasta also marinating in the sauce is a welcome variation; there are Parmesan-crusted toasts, too, if you can abide another layer of richness.
The nature of gumbo is too dynamic for any two gumbos ever to be identical, even when they're made by the same chef and with the same basic ingredients. I tried Holmes' gumbo three times, and each one was a destination dish in its own right. An early menu labeled his handiwork "Seafood Gumbo," while the current one calls it "Creole," a change you can taste in the Creole-specific addition of untamed, soft chaurice sausage. All three gumbos otherwise contained bites of shrimp, remnants of okra, parts of a cracked crab and an innocent, medium-bodied, brown broth. Contributing a barely noticeable, superfine web of distinctive texture, a pinch of file powder revealed itself further in a murky ring after I drained the most recent bowl.
Barbecue no longer enjoys celebrity status here, as it did last February when jazz musician and neighbor Kermit Ruffins inspired Kermit's Swinging B.B.Q. Platter, but tender, roasted pork ribs dunked into a sticky-sweet barbecue sauce remain a minor specialty. Swap out the side of benign toothpick fries for the cheesy, baked elbow macaroni.
While I've heard much hullabaloo about Big Shirley's amazing crabcakes, none were available on my last two visits. Neither was the stewed chicken, and neither was the roasted chicken, which is how I learned that the available fried shrimp platter is not destined to become a signature. The shrimp's blond batter went limp at the first inkling of a breeze, and fried odds and ends -- those benign fries, over-battered onion rings, underdone hush puppies -- filled out the rest of the platter. I remembered while settling the tab to ask for the side of potato salad promised on the menu. "Oh, you wanted that?" the server asked.
Big, block letters insisting "Life is too short to skip dessert" close the menu. Agreed. How about a comeback of that yam cheesecake I tried in February, the last time in this short life that dessert was an option at Big Shirley's?
It's somehow easy to have a good time here, anyway. R&B reverberates between the glossy brick walls, though not as loudly as it once did, and white paper draped over white linen tablecloths lends the room a fashionable, bistro look. Louis Armstrong assesses the scene from a portrait hung over one of two ornamental fireplaces, and broad windows converging on the corner entrance treat the space to natural light.
It's especially pleasant during weekend brunches, when the menu is compact and the food is competent. The pancakes are light and tangy, characteristic of buttermilk, and the soft, souffle-like French toast illustrates how local cooks make the most of leftover bread. Colorado, which traditionally limits itself to salt and pepper, would wonder at the Denver omelette, which is seasoned in the same no-holds-barred manner that New Orleanians season most everything -- as if seasoning were a food group. Families eat together post-church in their best nip and tucker, rumpled couples wander in fresh from the pillow, and single diners keep company with the Sunday New York Times. All sorts of people are pulling for the Treme's only full-service restaurant. Here's hoping it pulls through.
- Located on the edge of the Treme, BIG SHIRLEY'S hopes its recent improvements mean a long, healthy life for the only full-service restaurant in the historic neighborhood.