At the opening party for Stella Marris, Steve Cooper's new restaurant and lounge in Cordova, the menus were stacked in neat rows near the entrance. The dinner menu described 14 seafood entrées, plus 11 different steaks and chops. Next came the late-night fare: sliders, small plates, and a choice of deep-fried finger foods (alligator, oysters, fried green tomatoes, pepper jack cheese). Finally, the third menu listed desserts, including warm apple crisp and 23 cordials and cognacs priced from $7 to $225.
"Wow," I thought, before scooping up an ahi tuna carpaccio from a passing tray. "This is ambitious."
Thanks to executive chef Derk Meitzler, the food at Stella Marris — Latin for "star of the sea" — is a seamless match for the size and scope of the place, which offers 15,000 square feet of lavish décor, seating for over 300 customers, private dining rooms, two kitchens, and separate tanks for Maine and spiney lobsters.
In fact, the menu's mix of seafood and steaks has a nostalgic appeal, much like the restaurants favored in the 1950s when a side of potato au gratin could feed an entire table.
"I'm partial to big steaks and big sides," said Meitzler, who grew up near Chicago. "I have great memories of eating at restaurants like Win Schular's with my grandparents, where they would bring you those big crocks of cheese."
Add in Meitzler's love of Southern and Creole cooking, and the entrées at Stella Marris are an appealing mix of old and new. The wild salmon, for example, is broiled and finished with barbecue hollandaise sauce. "I throw in the Memphis dry rub," Meitzler said.
Side dishes are updated, as well. The crawfish mac-and-cheese is a crowd-pleaser (don't ask for the recipe; it's top-secret), and the sweet potatoes are combined with alligator sausage hash.
"We're Southern-driven with Northern influences," Meitzler said. "I play off the idea of Route 61: Start in New Orleans and go north."
The restaurant's late-night menu has similar influences but fewer, and less expensive, choices. Small plates such as fish tacos and hot wings run $8 to $10 and are served from 10 p.m. until the lounge closes at 2 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Stella Marris, 7955 Fischer Steel, Cordova (755-5553), stellamarris.net
You can order an 18-ounce rib-eye or a Buckhead filet mignon at Sharky's Gulf Grill in East Memphis, but the entrées are the only reminder of the building's longtime former tenant, Steak and Ale.
Under the direction of John Golon, the restaurant on Poplar Avenue opened last month with a Caribbean-style decor and a focus on coastal cuisine.
"We've taken the kind of seafood restaurant we love at the beach and moved it to Memphis," Golon said.
Sharky's started with dinner service seven days a week and added lunch two weeks ago. "We didn't want to open for lunch until we got our sea legs under us," Golon said. "I just love to say that!"
For lunch and dinner, seafood is the grill's mainstay and buying from day boats ensures a sustainable and fresh supply.
"Traditionally, fishermen go out for seven to 14 days depending on how long it takes to fill up the boat," Golon explained. "Day boats leave in the late afternoon, fish all night, and call in their catch to brokers. The fish is purchased before the boat gets back to the dock."
For Sharky's customers, day-boat suppliers mean "what's on your plate was swimming two days ago," Golon said. The restaurant's list of fresh catch also changes day to day. Last Thursday, choices priced from $19 to $23 included mahi-mahi, swordfish, salmon, and cobia, a coastal fish appreciated for its texture and flavor.
Thanks to head chef Lance Morton, a Gulf Coast influence directs the menu, from the Apalachicola oysters baked five ways to the grouper Pontchartrain, a grilled dish topped with soft-shell crab and béarnaise sauce. Sharky's also offers sushi and coastal cocktails like "Pineapple Martini" and "Miami Vice."