Just over the Intracoastal Waterway bridge lies a hidden gem specializing in Eastern Shore seafood. The popular former TacoLu spot (complete with valet parking) has been redone and the coastal vibe is casual yet slightly upscale, perfect for a date night or appetizers and cocktails with co-workers.
Owner and executive chef Gary Beach brought Marlin Moon Grille of Ocean City, Md., to Northeast Florida less than a year ago. The recipes are his. He credits his Cajun grandmother for his informal culinary training, in addition to practical experience he picked up along the way in restaurants from Maryland to Florida.
Beach describes his restaurant as a "happy-go-lucky, sport-fishing themed bar with no pretense that serves simple, fresh eclectic fare at a fair price." I couldn't agree more.
Start with tuna nachos. Crunchy fried wontons are nicely plated and piled with tangy seaweed salad, a spicy cucumber wasabi mayo, vibrant sesame-crusted ahi tuna, finished with a sprinkling of scallions and a drizzle of sweet teriyaki.
The Greek kadaif-wrapped jumbo Mayport shrimp appetizer (served with a sweet red chile dipping sauce) was a delightful blend of crunchy, spicy and sweet. Kadaif is shredded phyllo dough that's light and crunchy, with a unique texture.
Everything is noticeably fresh. Even the basket of bread was perfection. Marlin Moon's daily fish specials are created from the fresh catch from nearby Safe Harbor Seafood in Mayport. And if you're a crabcake snob, do yourself a favor and order them. Definitely some of the best in town I've found. Plump, juicy and hardly any fillers in these jumbo lump crab cakes, paired with a homemade island aioli.
My entrée, the Eggplant Boat, earned an A+ for creativity. Oversized slabs of breaded and lightly fried eggplant cradle perfectly cooked scallops, shrimp and crawfish tails. A savory shiitake crab butter sauce tops the dish.
The baked mixed-berry bumbleberry pie was a tad too sweet for my liking, but the warm waffle sandwich, filled with generous scoops of Neopolitan (strawberry, vanilla and chocolate) Blue Bell ice cream, is a fun way to end the meal.
With happy hour pricing on food and drinks from 4 to 6 p.m. daily, add one of Marlin Moon's signature Crushes to your must-imbibe list. Originally created by Beach and two of his pals in their Ocean City bar, these fresh-squeezed drinks are sure to please.
"They're refreshing, light and a great way to fight scurvy. And they sneak up on you," Beach said.
Not wanting to chance getting scurvy, I enjoyed the original Orange Crush with Pearl orange vodka, triple sec, Sprite and OJ, but the Paloma (with charro blanco, lime juice and freshly squeezed grapefruit) was a close second.