The Half Shell at the corner of Mendenhall and Poplar has created a nice niche as a neighborhood restaurant. On two separate Friday nights, we found the place packed -- our fellow patrons clearly at home in the Half Shell's cozy, casual atmosphere.
The menu is welcoming too, with a variety of seafood, steak, sandwich, and salad choices. It is a good menu for entertaining when you are not sure what your guests will like.
For starters, we had the oysters Rockefeller, which came on a bed of rock salt and was topped with puréed seasoned spinach, bread crumbs, and creamy Parmesan cheese. It arrived bubbling hot, and the plump oysters were prepared perfectly. I liked the oysters Bienville even better. A spoonful of butter, minced onion, mushrooms, and shrimp blended with a Béchamel cream sauce, white wine, lemon juice, a dab of hot sauce, bread crumbs, and finely grated cheese made this dish irresistible. The shrimp and lobster tamales, however, were a little disappointing. The flavor of the masa and ancho chili sauce mixed well with the medium-size shrimp, but we could not locate any lobster meat.
Next up was the seafood gumbo, a rich copper-colored soup with large shrimp and Cajun sausage served with rice. I would definitely order it again. Ditto for the Caesar salad with our choice of blackened yellowfin tuna. Be warned: Both the gumbo and the salad are big enough for a meal.
The Half Shell combo I ordered for an entrée proved a bit frustrating. The spicy blackened catfish came perfectly prepared as did the three fried gulf shrimp, but the crabcakes were overly seasoned and breaded and then deep-fried, causing the meat to lose its texture and true taste. Many chefs broil the crabcakes so the oil from the fryer doesn't steal the flavors.
Things definitely got better. My dining companion complimented his filet mignon and Alaskan crab legs -- the steak cooked as requested and the crab legs succulent and sweet. The "voodoo" catfish and grilled amberjack were winners as well. The spicy catfish came over a fluffy shrimp stuffing with a side of steamed broccoli, and the juicy grilled amberjack came with rice pilaf and spinach sides.
On our second visit, we had the grilled salmon and grilled mahi mahi. The salmon came over three strategically placed fried green tomatoes. (These meals were offered in a lunch- or dinner-size portion, an excellent touch I thought.) The salmon, drizzled with a velvety hollandaise sauce, looked as if it came straight out of a culinary magazine. The succulent mahi mahi also came with fried green tomatoes and was surrounded by a chunky fresh tomato mixture and tiny pieces of green and yellow squash. Heavenly.
For dessert, the Half Shell's version of the Key lime pie had the perfect tang to it. The other dessert of note was the cräme brñlÇe -- a very rich custard topped with a delicate caramelized layer of brown sugar.
I have to say that the Half Shell exceeded my expectations on both visits -- nice atmosphere, a friendly staff, and a large variety of tasty cuisine. It's a good place to kick back and relax after a long week. Go see for yourself.
The Half Shell has two locations -- 688 South Mendenhall (682-3966) and 7825 Winchester (737-6755) -- and is open Monday through Friday 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m., and Sunday 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.
Guava offers Cordova a healthy alternative.
Meredith Yates, owner of Guava, the Healthy Gourmet in Cordova, knows a thing or two about healthy living. When she was 3 years old, her mother Anne opened Nature's Pantry, a health-food store in Knoxville. While other kids' moms were packing bologna sandwiches in their lunchboxes, Anne was filling Meredith's with tofu dogs. She was allowed only one natural soda and candy bar per week, and Anne relied on herbal cures to heal her daughter when she was sick.
Those 29 years of healthy living have given Meredith the experience to run the only natural-foods store in the Cordova area. Guava, which opened in November, specializes in products that contain no dyes, no hydrogenated oils, no aspartame, and "nothing artificial."
"There was recently a shortage of coconut oil, and a company called me and said they had some. So I placed an order," Yates recalls. "When it came in, the labels were all misspelled and you could tell it wasn't a quality product. People kept coming in wanting to buy some, but I wouldn't sell that. I sent it back."
Guava is located at 1890 Berryhill Rd. #104 (at Chimneyrock), 507-9033. -- Bianca Phillips