As I sat in the parking lot of the East Islip H2O eagerly waiting for my scheduled interview with the Head Chef, Luis Polanco, I saw at least four different groups of people attempt to enter the restaurant for a Saturday lunch. Unfortunately for them, the restaurant is not open for lunch on Saturdays. All parties disappeared through the door excitedly chatting only to soon exit with a copy of the menu in hand and disappointed expressions. I immediately took this as a good sign. H2O must be doing something right.
Open for a little over four months now, the new H2O is rather popular with the South Shore seafood-eating diners. The sunny, warm, and modern interior is reflective of their menu which uses the classics as a guideline to innovate with fresh, local fish. I was excited to sit down with Chef Luis and chat about how he approaches the dishes.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Chef Luis Polanco has lived on Long Island for over 16 years. “Food,” he said, “has always been a focal point in my life.” His family functions constantly revolved around food, with his mother volunteering to be at the center with lovingly-prepared dishes. That family style has greatly influenced his approach to cooking as he’s risen through the ranks of the Bohlsen Restaurant Group. His commitment to the diner’s experience with his food was immediately apparent as he explained the decisions he makes about the menu to me.
As a food scientist, however, I was most curious about Chef Luis’s approach to creating balanced dishes with fish as the focus at H2O. A chef that creates consistent, successful fish dishes is often viewed as great due to the difficulty and restraint required to prepare and create a menu around fish as compared to beef or pork. The science behind the legendary hurdle of mastering fish technique is rather interesting and has a lot to do with the uniqueness of the fish anatomy, particularly muscles.
Broadly, fish muscles are made up of three different types of proteins. The first type, least important for us, is sarcoplasmic—the active class of proteins. Made up of enzymes and proteins carrying blood throughout the body, the sarcoplasmic proteins are very similar to land animal muscle. They give the fish power to swim.
The second group of proteins present in fish muscle is myofibrillar, also called contractile proteins. These are the most abundant proteins in the muscles. The group contains some of the same functional proteins as land animals such as myosin, actin, tropomyosin, and troponin. The similarities end there, however, as they are arranged differently by connective tissue. As the name suggests, these proteins are responsible for the function of muscle contraction. They also make up the bulk structure of the muscles.
The third and final class of proteins in fish muscle is the connective tissue. The two main proteins in this group are collagen and elastin. The connective tissue is extremely important for the poissonnier (fish chef) for several reasons.
The amount of connective tissue is lower in fish than in land animals. This is because less structural support is needed in fish. For example, a muscle filament in a piece of beef has connective tissue all along its length tying it to other filaments creating a strong foundation for, well, beefy muscles. Fish muscle fibers are primarily tied together at the ends in a zig zag arrangement. While this creates an overall less stable muscle system, it is incredibly interesting and functional for the properties of fish cookery. The lower quantity of connective tissue and relatively minimal interconnectedness within the muscles creates an extremely tender texture. Additionally, the zig zag arrangement of the fibers creates that flakiness we all search for in a perfectly-cooked piece of fish when the connective tissue between them gelatinizes.
Which brings us to collagen specifically. The proportion of collagen to other connective tissue proteins is extraordinary in fish. When exposed to heat, collagen gelatinizes softening the muscle’s texture. Compare this to elastin, another prominent connective tissue protein, particularly in mammals, which is less affected by heat and much more elastic in nature (as you’d guess from the name). Furthermore, collagen in fish as compared to land animals is much more sensitive to heat. The “shrinkage temperature” or temperature at which the collagen begins to break down in most fish is at 45⁰C or 113⁰F. Mammalian collagen’s shrinkage temperature is about 60-65⁰C or 140-149⁰F. That more sensitive fish tissue is one of the reasons that fish requires more advanced technique and experience to pull off consistently. Poaching, for example, is such a successful cooking method for fish because it uses indirect heat to gently cook and soften the fish. Controlling the degree of cooking in a steak using powerful heat has much more wiggle room than in a piece of halibut. That is why you’ll hear Gordon Ramsey screaming about an overcooked, dry piece of fish just as often as an undercooked piece of fish.
The technique required to create a more tender piece of fish does not end in the kitchen. It introduces a texture challenge for the diner. Soft food is rather off-putting on its own. Luis tackles this opportunity using contrast. He expressed to me that “how something feels” is just as important as how something tastes and looks. It increases the entire experience of the dish so that the diner truly enjoys the meal and feels it has substance. For example, a piece of sushi may feature a stalk of asparagus or julienne of cucumber rolled into the center to add a crisp snap to the bite. Tempura crunchies may accompany a sushi roll to further break up the soft textural components without adding too much flavor. A crust on the outside of a swordfish steak will add crunch and some dryness to the juicy, soft interior.
Of course, muscle is only part of the equation. Fat is very important to a diner’s perception of a piece of fish. Compare in your mind how a piece of Bluefin tuna feels in your mouth as opposed to a piece of cod, and you’ll understand right away how important fat can be to the eating quality of fish. It is also rather important for the choices that a chef makes when preparing a meal.
That more sumptuous mouthfeel in fattier fish is generally accompanied by a more robust flavor of the fish itself. As such, Chef Luis aims to add complimentary flavors to raw, fatty fish. He pairs sesame and avocado with that tuna you’ve got in your mind, for instance. A lean, white fish, is more delicate and can take on any flavor the chef chooses. That freedom of flavor creates a unique challenge in which the chef must have restraint to prevent wiping out all characteristics of the fish from the dish. As an example, Chef Luis declared that a classic steakhouse side of garlic mashed potatoes would not be appropriate for a pan-seared piece of cod.
The exceptional challenges that fish presents to a chef are many. However, Chef Luis has proven that he understands how to navigate them with each full dining room of guests he brings to H2O. Be sure to book a reservation or catch a small plate at the bar this weekend to experience his expertise yourself.
Belitz, H.D., Grosch, W., Schieberle, P. Food Chemistry. 4th Ed. 2009.
Hui, Y.H. Food Chemistry: Principles and Applications. 3rd Ed. 2012.
Rehbein, H., Oehlenschläger, J. Fishery Products: Quality, Safety, and Authenticity. 2009.