Chef Michelle McRaney’s cooking is like jazz: it has the allure of improvisation, an inspired harmony that teases the imagination, and the staying power of tradition. McRaney is one of the few female executive chefs in New Orleans and she has created quite a following at Mr. B’s Bistro, which reopened April 16 after a post-Katrina hiatus that was mourned by long-time patrons who missed their regular power lunches at this French Quarter hot spot.
Although Mr. B’s is known for its regional Creole classics, there is always something new and interesting on the menu that the talented Chef McRaney is creating. Her repertoire stretches from a traditional, earthy gumbo ya-ya with a deep, dark roux to duck confit spring rolls kissed with goat cheese and ginger-garlic dipping sauce, and wood-grilled tournedos enveloped by crisply fried oysters and garlic wilted spinach. Soft pillows of jumbo lump crabmeat are nestled inside free-form ravioli flecked with Vidalia onions, while pan-seared sea scallops are glossed with white truffle oil in a brush with luxury. Order the bulbous chocolate molten cupcake if you dare, topped with a rich vanilla bean ice cream and raspberry coulis, and you will have a passionate moment with the fork.
Cindy Brennan, co-owner and managing partner of Mr. B’s, is a major player in the renowned Brennan family of restaurateurs; she launched the popular French Quarter restaurant in 1979. Since then, she has performed an active role as board member in both local and national organizations. Taken together, these two dynamic culinary women provide a dining experience that continues to dazzle the regulars while enticing newcomers.
The beloved bistro, with its power lunch crowd, live piano evenings, and jazzy weekend brunch, suffered catastrophic damage in the wake of hurricane Katrina, and had to be rebuilt. The basement and offices flooded with several feet of water, and the dining room suffered water damage through the ceiling and parking garage.
“I tried to continue with the look that we had,” says Brennan, who re-hired her employees after the storm (ninety percent of the management staff has stayed intact post-Katrina). “We tried to enhance Mr. B’s and make it better. It still has that warm, clubby feel. I thought people needed familiarity and comfort after the storm. We have gotten great responses,” she says.
Not far from the Monteleone hotel, Mr. B’s resides at the intersection of Royal Street and Iberville, which is one of the city’s most celebrated food corners. In 1868, Solari’s Market opened here. People used to come from all over town to visit the lunch counter and soda fountain, while purchasing out of season fruits and vegetables, elegant candies and cookies, and rare liquors. Solari’s closed in 1965. Fourteen years later, Ella, Dick, John, Dottie, and Adelaide Brennan resurrected the corner and created Mr. B’s. Cindy Brennan joined the opening team to launch the bistro after working in several of her family’s operations. With so many new restaurants struggling to stay open in New Orleans, it is good to see a familiar institution like Mr. B’s bouncing back strong. People who love New Orleans are passionate about such a restaurant where they can experience comfort food at its best while sampling something new and sassy. Like a timeless beauty queen, it continues to enamor. Mr. B’s Bistro has never looked better; Cindy Brennan continues to charm patrons, and Chef McRaney is at the top of her game. The legacy continues.
You cannot visit Mr. B’s Bistro without sampling their legendary barbecued shrimp. If you try to make this at home-and it is fairly simple-just remember to get plenty of French bread for sopping up the sauce. Do not be shy: season generously, because it takes a lot of spice to absorb flavor through the shells. You will lose some of the liquid during cooking (it evaporates), so the trick is to work fast, and do not let the shrimp stay in the pan for more than a couple of minutes before you add the butter; shrimp become mushy when overcooked. Just keep adding that butter and stir. And get the biggest, fattest, freshest (never frozen) shrimp you can find. The smaller ones do not yield the same result at all.
Chef McRaney says, “Don’t break out your grill for this dish. Here in New Orleans, barbecued shrimp means sautéed shrimp in Worcestershire-spiked butter sauce. We serve these shrimp with heads and tails on, so you need to dig in to enjoy. I highly recommend a bib.” She continues, “We are famous for our barbecued shrimp and with reason. The biggest trick to making this taste like ours is to not hold back on the butter. The three sticks called for are enough to scare you into cholesterol shock, but are key to the flavor and consistency of the sauce. Another tip to keep in mind: to emulsify the sauce, be sure to add a little butter at a time while stirring rapidly. And don’t overcook the shrimp or they’ll become tough and hard to peel.”
- 16 jumbo shrimp (12 per pound, about 11/2 pounds) with heads, unpeeled
- 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
- 2 tsp. ground black pepper
- 2 tsp. cracked black pepper
- 2 tsp. Creole seasoning
- 1 tsp. minced garlic
- 11/2 cups (3 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cubed
- French bread as accompaniment
In a large skillet combine shrimp, Worcestershire, lemon juice, black pepper, Creole seasoning, and garlic and cook over moderately high heat until shrimp turn pink, about 1 minute on each side. Reduce heat to moderate and stir in butter, a few cubes at a time, stirring constantly and adding more only when butter is melted. Remove skillet from heat. Place shrimp in a bowl and pour sauce over top. Serve with French bread for dipping.