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H2O Seafood & Sushi review: East Islip restaurant takes crowd-pleasing approach to fish

H2O Seafood & Sushi

66 W. Main St., East Islip

631-277-4800, h2oseafoodsushi.com

COST: $$$-$$$$

SERVICE: Friendly waitstaff is long on personality, but short on attention to detail

AMBIENCE: Equal parts bustle and elegance

ESSENTIALS: Lunch, Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; brunch, Sunday 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday to Thursday 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m., Sunday to 9 p.m. Only first floor is wheelchair accessible, valet on weekends

What makes a great fish restaurant? Is it a great variety of seafood? Reliance on local species in season? The kitchen’s ability to showcase each fish’s unique qualities?

H2O Seafood & Sushi, the new East Islip branch of the Smithtown original, falls short on all of these counts.

Where it succeeds — in spades — is in delivering exactly the piscine preparations that its customers demand, and doing so in a gorgeous space.

“Since we opened the first H2O in Smithtown in 2001,” said co-owner Michael Bohlsen, “we’ve learned what kind of fish restaurant our customers are looking for.” They may say they value, variety and seasonality and want whole fish, he said, “but they order sushi and salmon and branzino.”

Bohlsen and his brother Kurt also own Tellers, Verace and Pizza Parm in Islip, Monsoon in Babylon and Prime in Huntington. All of their restaurants are big, beautiful affairs, and the bi-level H2O is no exception: With its tones of blue and cream, blond wood tables and exquisite tile work, it put me in mind of a vast, private yacht. The downstairs dining room, adjacent to the lively bar, can get loud. For a quieter meal, ask to be seated upstairs when you make your reservation.

There are six varieties of fin fish on chef Luis Polanco’s regular menu, and a “whole fish of the day” box urges diners to “ask about the fresh catch we’re serving whole today.” I got the same answer every time I asked: branzino, a farmed Mediterranean sea bass, which was completely deboned before being grilled. I like to perform my own fish surgery, but nevertheless it was sweet and tender and it came with a classy little salad of cress and red onion.

Another well-rendered classic was mussels steamed in a white wine-garlic broth. But the pan-seared wontons could have been made with chicken for all that I could taste of the shrimp and lobster in the filling. Despite being billed as “jumbo lump,” the crabcakes were limp, pink-hued patties made with shredded crab.

From the sushi bar, we sampled some of the more elaborate rolls, and with my eyes closed I could not taste the difference between the H2O roll (shrimp tempura, cucumber, spicy tuna, eel sauce and spicy mayo) and the Japanese cowboy roll (wagyu beef, lobster, avocado, eel sauce, yuzu mayo). Both were sweet and soft and enthusiastically sauced. Better was the tornado roll II, whose spicy tuna actually tasted like something and whose crisp, shredded-potato skin provided textural interest.

Among H2O’s cooked mains, I can recommend the swordfish, complemented by a hazelnut-Parmesan crust and resting on a bed of toasted couscous. Sesame-encrusted tuna, that old war sea horse, has been given an upgrade along with the bagel that inspired it — it’s now dredged in sesame, poppy and caraway seeds, but the crust lacked the coarse salt that gives “everything” its bite. And the accompanying spinach was so overcreamed, it obscured the wasabi mashed potatoes, resulting in a bed of mush.

Lack of salt also plagued the seared scallops, whose oddly autumnal garnish of roasted sweet potatoes and pumpkin seeds seemed to have wandered over from some nearby pork chop.

Millennium lobster, a Bohlsen-restaurant standard, was a $49 bust, overdone meat crusted with something vaguely garlicky and spicy. It’s the rare preparation that can improve a steamed lobster; this one made it worse.

H2O’s pastry department has some great ideas, but needs to work on execution. Popovers, served at the beginning of every meal, still had some uncooked batter inside, and the same problem afflicted the cinnamon doughnuts at meal’s end. For dessert, go for the teardrop, a triple-decker confection of chocolate crunch, almond sponge cake and chocolate-hazelnut mousse served with vanilla ice cream.

Both the front and back of the house still need to get their sea legs. Courses had a tendency to come out in fits and starts, and servers occasionally lost interest in our table’s progress. But these are understandable growing pains.

Michael Bohlsen said that once chef Polanco gets settled in, he’ll be serving more local fish. “We have more fishmongers on this stretch of Montauk Highway than in the whole Smithtown area,” he said. “We want to make local fish an integral part of the menu.”

I’m going to hold him to that.

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