by Rick Bostick
A choice dish at Sharky's: Cooper River salmon topped with fresh jumbo lump crabmeat and grilled asparagus in hollandaise sauce.
On occasion, I'll find myself caught up in a hazy, soothing reverie that's been culled from years of Florida tourism industry propaganda. I dream of secret, pristine beaches and just-caught seafood, silken sand cradling my feet, easy hours that spool out endlessly in front of me, my back magically devoid of its pinching stress knots.
Unfortunately, making my heady vacation daydream a reality calls for much more effort than simply sitting around imagining it. So I thought it was a plus that I could tool on down Poplar, pretend for an hour or so that I was far away, select just about any kind of seafood I craved, and then fall right back into my hectic but beloved routine. Overall, I found that Sharky's Gulf Grill offers straightforward seafood dishes along with a relaxing sense of escape.
I headed for my first visit to Sharky's on a drizzling, dreary Friday night around 7:30. The restaurant stands out on Poplar and Ridgeway due to its turquoise-and-lemon color scheme, silvery roof, and the cheeky addition of faux palm trees in the flower beds. We were greeted by complimentary valet service up front, and once we entered the restaurant, we were surprised by the vast crowd. I'd called ahead that day, but a hostess politely told me that Sharky's does not take reservations. It took about 30 minutes for us to be seated, so I was glad that I wasn't in a hurry. After being notified by text message that our table was ready, we were led past a glowing aquarium and a sushi bar to our booth in the back of the restaurant. The table setting was pleasing: a black napkin prettily folded over a white plate, the butter knives balanced blade-down on the tables. Inspired by a glimpse of oyster shells pressed into concrete on either side of the front door, I chose an oyster combo for an appetizer. I liked that this mix-and-match option was available, but also noted that the baked oysters and the chilled ones on the half shell were served on the same plate. Our server told us that they were Apalachicola oysters from Florida, generally smaller than the usual variety but known to be better-tasting and less gritty. Many interesting variations of baked oysters are on the menu; we opted for the crumbly bacon version with capers, bay scallops, and parmesan, and another version with lump crab, sherry, and Monterey Jack cheese. My friend, a seafood-crazed Los Angeles resident who was back in town for a couple of weeks, chose the Alabama red snapper. I held my breath. Would it meet very high expectations? It did. This fine piece of fish was plump and cooked perfectly with a side of fried grits cake and an abundance of smoky grilled asparagus. My entrée, the lobster tail, was a splurge, but I think it was worth it. It can be prepared fried, grilled, or, as I ordered it, steamed. A huge tail, curled and rosy, arrived, so tender that it wasn't a struggle to take it apart. There was a choice of buttery dipping sauces with our seafood, and we tried a Mediterranean version and one that was plain with a garlicky accent. I also selected garlic mashed potatoes and red beans and rice as my side dishes, two of which are included with each entrée.
We ordered white wine to go with our seafood, but a glass of sauvignon blanc arrived at the table warm. Once we let our server know, it was discreetly removed and quickly replaced. For dessert, we selected the key lime pie since that seemed to match the spirit of a meal so focused on regional seafood. The peanut butter pie was so sweet and so rich that we couldn't finish it, so the tart, zippy key lime with its savory, crumbly crust won out in that battle.
The atmosphere at Sharky's is choreographed to the last detail to make diners feel as though they are somewhere else, a place that's remote and relaxing. Walking into the restaurant, I noted that the entry seemed bathed in the muted bluish light of the sea, and during another visit a couple of weeks later, my lunch companion commented, "You know, this place actually does make me feel like I'm in Destin. It doesn't feel at all like Memphis." In addition, I noticed that the quiet reggae music in the background added to this effect, and the exposed beams, expansive dining room, and tall ceilings lend an airiness to the space.
During lunchtime at Sharky's on a Saturday afternoon, there was no wait. Our server was helpful because she knew the menu inside and out and responded to all of our questions and indecisiveness in an upbeat manner. I wanted to try items from sections of the menu that were not available at dinner, and I absolutely loved the red pepper and gouda soup. Creamy and slightly spicy, it had a serious depth of flavor that we raved about at length. My lunch companion chose the bacon-wrapped shrimp with remoulade dipping sauce, which she thought was acceptable in terms of crunch and spice.
There's a basic sushi roll menu at Sharky's; the sushi bar is right across the dining room and has its own seating available. I chose the Gecko roll, which featured blue crab and crawfish with cilantro and avocado. I wasn't sure what was cooked and what was raw on the sushi menu, so I suggest asking a server if you prefer one or the other when it comes to your sushi selection.
Once our salads were served, we realized that they were big enough to share. My lunch companion was excited to try the iceberg wedge, and I was curious about the Greek salad. The iceberg salad was composed of many small iceberg wedges and a blue cheese and oregano dressing. The Greek salad featured plenty of kalamata olives and a generous amount of feta.
Since lunch offers some very reasonably priced options for $10 or less, in addition to the same focus on traditionally prepared seafood I enjoyed earlier at dinner, we went high and low in terms of price. The grilled seafood platter, which featured shrimp, grouper, a smattering of bay scallops, and a good-sized crab cake, was impressive but a bit overwhelming. The fish tacos, which included mango salsa and cilantro sour cream, still seemed on the plain side.
Dessert was chocolate cake crisscrossed with chocolate and caramel sauces, which detracted from the flavor. Less of a focus on sugar would make for a more modern spin, but still, it was a dessert that we both enjoyed sharing in the moment.
It will cost a bit more to try the very best of the seafood that's been flown in that day — especially the dishes that are listed under the "fresh catch" and "gulf specialties" sections of the menu — but I found these dishes to be well worth the extra expense. Sharky's Gulf Grill offers a nice respite from everyday, landlocked Memphis life. In addition, the ever-changing variety of seafood is another good reason to check the website or call to see what's arriving on the day you need to escape for a little while into your own Gulf Coast daydream.