Friday night in Islip. You're weaving your way from the parking lot to the front of Maxwell's. The bar is packed six deep. True, the place has undergone a recent expansion, but there doesn't seem to be an inch to spare.
That is, until you reach the dining area in the older wing, where several booths are vacant. Despite the blare from the bar, conversation here flows surprisingly well. You kick back with a glass of Malbec and a plate of meltingly good mini Reuben sandwiches, served with zingy whole grain mustard. Fish tacos, upgraded from an earlier visit, are now a must-order: soft corn tortillas crammed with cubes of seared mahi-mahi, black beans, slaw, a spicy-creamy mayonnaise and just a touch of mango.
But the ride soon becomes bumpy. Batter-fried Thai calamari drenched in a sweet chili glaze come off as sticky squid candy. And there's no perceptible dressing on the generous chopped salad, which goes mostly uneaten. Yet pepper-seared tuna with wasabi cream is a rare, velvety treat.
So, too, is a marinated sliced hanger steak sandwich -- juicy meat dripping with melted mozzarella, topped with crisp, fried onions on garlic bread. Falling short of potential is a bistro burger topped with arugula, blue cheese and bacon. It's lukewarm, more well-done than requested and overwhelmed by its thick, dry roll. Still, it has a nice, smoky, beefy flavor. Fish and chips feature pleasant batter-fried cod, but accompanying waffle fries are a pre-frozen letdown. Overcooking mars bow-tie pasta with grilled chicken, andouille sausage, portobello mushrooms, spinach and roasted tomatoes in a savory garlic-wine sauce.
For dessert, an apple crisp overdoses on cinnamon, and banana empanadas are curiously dry.
Clearly, there's much potential here. If it's ever realized, a dining room booth at Maxwell's might become as hot a commodity as a stool at the bar.