photographs by Justin Fox Burks
On a warm and breezy evening in June, I longed for the Alabama coast, so I threw on a summer shift and sandals, corralled my husband, and headed for Sharky’s Gulf Grill, where Executive Chef John Bragg took over the kitchen in February.
It was Saturday, when a standing promotion offered oysters on the half shell for 50 cents apiece. We promptly ordered 12, along with six more charbroiled with a Cajun twist. For cocktails, we stuck with our beach theme: skinny margaritas the color of amber sunsets dressed with salt and lime.
When the oysters arrived, fresh and briny, we worked quickly in tandem. I squeezed fresh lemon juice over the oyster tray, while Tony mixed a spoonful of horseradish into the ruby-red cocktail sauce. We smiled conspiratorially, polished off the dozen, and then shifted the warm chargrilled oysters to the center of the table. By now we were ready to talk, likening the oysters’ smoky fragrance to a lazy Memphis barbecue and checking each empty shell for bonus sips of Creole butter.
Our impromptu Sharky’s vacation was off to an excellent start.
Located on Poplar Avenue in East Memphis, Sharky’s Gulf Grill has promised “the freshest seafood in Memphis” since it opened in 2009. But despite catch from day-boat suppliers and a procession of head chefs, the restaurant’s classic coastal cuisine had stayed land-locked and oftentimes disappointing.
Bragg, whose impressive résumé includes a best chef win from readers of this magazine, is ready to fix the flaws. In fact, he already has by updating the entire menu with full flavors, pretty plating, and favorite dishes such as crawfish beignets from his former fine dining restaurant Circa.
“The food is more straightforward at Sharky’s than at Circa, but that doesn’t mean we need to sacrifice flavor,” Bragg explains. “Flavor is flavor, and seafood speaks for itself. You don’t have to overwork it.”
Like the coastal roadhouse restaurants it emulates, Sharky’s seafood-centric menu is far-flung, offering grilled grouper, snapper, salmon, pompano, and mahi mahi, along with fried shrimp, sautéed scallops, and two kinds of crab legs: Alaskan king and Opilio, a type of snow crab. Curious about the difference between the two, we ordered a split portion, pried open the shells, and dipped succulent chunks of crab into melted butter. My husband preferred the sweet and juicy king crab legs, but I favored Opilio’s firm texture and salty taste.
We followed our crab legs with generous pours of Oyster Bay Marlborough, a crisp and aromatic sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, and the restaurant’s iceberg wedge, a simple and satisfying salad draped with grape tomatoes, crispy bacon, creamy gorgonzola, and candied pecans made in house. The restaurant’s candied pecans showed up again sprinkled on our dessert, a warm chocolate tart, mysterious and delicious, and plated with two scoops of whisky pecan gelato. (Helpful hint: Sharky’s also sells its candied pecans to-go, so take some home for your own cooking.)
Over several visits in two weeks, we ate in the restaurant’s main dining room (nothing special); its covered patio with overhead fans (hot but upbeat); and its friendly, spacious bar with widescreen TVs and fun aquatic appointments like a tropical fish tank and a surfboard suspended from the ceiling. With all our meals, we were pleased to discover many house-made items in supporting roles, including croutons, condiments, remoulade, tartar sauce, pesto aioli, tortilla chips, and salad dressings such as sherry-shallot vinaigrette.
We also found side dishes unexpected in traditional seafood restaurants. Yes, Sharky’s serves hushpuppies, slaw, and fries, but don’t overlook the menu’s crawfish mac, a decadently rich combination of cream, crawfish, white cheddar cheese, and Bragg’s signature lobster crab bisque. Seasonal vegetables also offer more healthy choices. The restaurant’s edamame corn succotash is colorful and tasty, and the curly kale is prepared just right: steamed, sautéed in butter, and finished with a little vinegar.
As with many large restaurants (Sharky’s can seat 300 people), some problems do crop up. Serving lunch, dinner, brunch, sushi, and happy-hour specials, it’s hard to get it all right, all the time. For some meals, servers were efficient and informed; at other times, they were slow, and sometimes they confused courses. While our shellfish was consistently well prepared, our grilled mahi mahi sandwich was overcooked, and the crunchy crab roll we ordered was mediocre at best. To be fair, the restaurant’s sushi is very popular with customers, and we only tried one roll from the dozen or so offered during lunch.
Still, these concerns don’t dim my appreciation for an unpretentious restaurant shaping a seafood niche in a town dominated by barbecue, chains, and chef-driven dining. Add in Bragg’s prodigious skills and propensity for regional cooking, and I’m betting my Sharky’s vacation just might turn into a regular family night out.
Pamela Denney is food editor of Memphis magazine and writes the blog Memphis Stew at memphismagazine.com/blogs/memphis-stew.