Fatfish on the Water
28 Cottage Ave., Bay Shore
SERVICE: Watchful, polished and always taking care of you
AMBIENCE: A covered deck perched on the Great South Bay, with killer views and salty breezes, plus an outdoor bar and interior dining room
ESSENTIALS: Open from May to October, Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday noon to 7 p.m. Live music Thursday to Sunday, and daily in July. Limited parking outside the restaurant, with paid town parking a short walk away. Credit cards accepted; wheelchair accessible.
When I met my Dad for dinner at Fatfish one recent Friday, he was already seated on the deck, which seemed to float over the Great South Bay. “I’ve been here before,” he announced as he watched the Fire Island ferries crossing.
Fatfish is as tucked away a place as it gets, and I had texted to make sure he didn't get lost. “Wait, when?”
Not here, he said, but here, on this cove. In the 1970s, he and my mom would come down here for steamers and pitchers of beer. “It was a dive,” he added, though a jumping one, judging from the glimmer in his eye.
Turns out, this spot the end of Cottage Avenue in Bay Shore has been a bar, in one form or another, for over a century. In 2004, when chef Brian Valdini popped back to his native Long Island for a vacation, he fully intended to return to Europe afterward, where he worked for an Italian-foods importer. But there was this restaurant called Porky and Glenn’s for sale, and, well, Valdini never went back.
That was 15 seasons ago, a valiant run for a waterfront place, especially one battered by superstorm Sandy that doesn't rest on its laurels when it comes to food. Valdini leads a staff of 70 between May and October, and still touches every tuna, salmon, scallop, shrimp, oyster, monkfish, blackfish, fluke fillet that passes through the kitchen. These, he fuses with Mediterranean touches he absorbed during his time in Europe.
Back at our table, my father, older now than his 20-something self, sipped a dirty martini. I nursed Hendricks, St. Germain, and cucumber, tartly turned out over ice — though the wine list was tempting, too. Our server delivered Fatfish’s menus, lengthy seafood devotionals that start at tapas and end pages later with 19 entrees, including a whole lobster.
There’s also plenty of meat, cheese, and things such as eggplant Parm. With the band twanging in the outdoor bar and a breeze sweeping the deck, though, throwing your lot in with anything other than seafood seems like a wasted opportunity.
Fatfish’s servers have an intuitive sense of when to circle and when to strike, always making you feel looked after. Their boss seems to care for presentation just as equally. The daily crudo, on this night flaps of tuna fanned between oranges and showered with hazelnuts, was racy and superfresh. Seared tuna reappears over an inventive salad of arugula with slivered fennel, artichokes and pea shoots, bits of crisped Serrano ham crunching between your teeth. The dressing could have used more oomph, but salads on the whole are well turned out, not a wilted green between them.
The raw bar offers well-shucked oysters (served with mignonette and cocktail sauce), clams, and their brethren; clams oreganata, though, suffocated under too-thick breading. Littlenecks steamed in chorizo-flecked white wine fared better, though the broth was tepidly spiced.
Bold flavors don’t seem like an organizing principle here — easy seafood is. A perfect grilled calamari salad, nestled into romesco and kissed with lemon. Puffy pillows of beer-battered shrimp with aioli. A joyous lobster risotto (a starter) shot through with butter, herbs and winking wedges of orange, a claw waving from the top.
Entrees hold their own, though slightly more unevenly. Scallops meunière carry the barest sear and a sauce that teeters between richness and tang. A roasted hunk of halibut gets a more autumnal treatment of roasted shiitakes and chewy sweet potatoes; the latter distracted from a fillet primped with herbs and glistening with juices.
A recent addition to Fatfish’s menu is whole roasted fish — one night, a deeply charred blackfish with flaky innards and luscious pockets of fat (mmm, cheeks). Sauteed shrimp draped across the top were superfluous, as was a side of bone-dry gnocchi draped with asparagus — a puzzler. Falling with a soft thud, too, were cod and chips; the batter rubbery rather than crisp, the hand-cut steak fries undercooked.
Desserts here include multiple spins on pastry and brown-butter from a deft crepe wrapped around vanilla ice cream to a sublime apple tarte Tatin that won’t earn you a bikini body, but who cares?
Most everyone has suffered through a waterfront meal at a place that thinks killer views trump flavor.
Fatfish is the opposite: It could easily dial it in, but doesn't, and you feel its heart at every turn. Despite occasional shortcomings, it’s now the memory maker.