Restaurant Review

Where the Wild Things Are: H2Ocean in Cedar Knolls

Scrupulous about freshness and favoring wild-caught over farmed, the owners have made their restaurant a seafood magnet.

Seared ahi tuna, sprinkled with Maldon sea salt and topped with julienned snowpeas and spiced macadamias. Hidden beneath the tuna is the coconut jasmine rice that completes the dish.
Seared ahi tuna, sprinkled with Maldon sea salt and topped with julienned snowpeas and spiced macadamias. Hidden beneath the tuna is the coconut jasmine rice that completes the dish.
Photo by Christopher Villano

Four days a week, Michael Frodella leaves his house in Bergen County at 3 am, shoots down Route 208 and crosses the George Washington Bridge to the Fulton Fish Market at Hunts Point in the Bronx. For his Cedar Knolls restaurant, H2Ocean, “I buy the dayboat catch of that morning from guys I’ve known forever,” he says. “Our customers never get a piece of fish that is more than one day old.”

High-quality seafood is the baseline attraction at H2Ocean, which Frodella, the executive chef, co-owns with his wife, Sylvia Lasalandra-Frodella. As she puts it, “We are freaks about freshness. Before my dad emigrated, he was a fisherman in Taranto in Southern Italy.”

With one exception—salmon farmed without antibiotics or hormones off the coast of Denmark’s Faroe Islands—all the fin fish served at H2Ocean “is caught on hook and line,” Frodella says. Only octopus and Gulf shrimp are bought frozen.

Frodella buys his scallops exclusively from dayboats shipping out of Viking Village at Barnegat Light. “I used to think New Bedford scallops were the best,” he says, “but they tend to get a gassy smell fairly quick.” He is less keen on Jersey clams and oysters, preferring “the salinity, flavor and texture” of specimens from colder waters farther north.

From this baseline, Frodella presents engaging, well-balanced dishes in a space he and his wife have made modern, comfortable and attractive. Frodella’s Asian-style tuna entrée is one of the best I’ve had. He pan-sears ahi tuna, brushes it with a soy-honey-sesame glaze, and plates it with crumbled, toasted macadamias over jasmine rice enriched with grated fresh coconut.

He serves his Faroe Islands salmon, with crispy skin, on what he calls falafel rice, made from deliciously garlicky, coarsely ground chickpeas. Grilled swordfish comes with earthy root vegetables and a silky leek fondue made from braised, puréed leeks and a touch of olive oil or butter.

The menu is big—about four dozen items divided between appetizers and entrées, not counting specials. In addition to raw-bar selections, diners often start with tender grilled octopus enlivened with garlic chives, smoked paprika and espelette pepper. Frito misto (fried calamari and shrimp) is intriguingly seasoned with muhumarra, an aromatic Egyptian spice suggesting toasted almonds and cumin.

One of the most satisfying starters is the plump crab cake in a crisp panko crust over a novel beet-jicama slaw. New England clam chowder and lobster bisque were each rich and well-endowed with their namesake shellfish. A crab cocktail delivered a mound of lump crabmeat but its spicy aioli tasted mostly like lemony mayo.

The Frodellas, who opened H2Ocean in 2014, each have restaurants virtually in their DNA. Sylvia grew up in Ringwood. “We owned 11 pizzerias in the area,” she says. “I made my first pie at 15 and started managing at 19.”

Michael, 52, grew up in Maywood, the seventh of eight children of parents who emigrated from Naples. “Mealtime was sacred,” he says. “We opened our first of three pizzerias in Clifton in 1971, when I was six.” All the children worked in the restaurants and helped with cooking at home. Michael, who loved kitchen tasks, is the only one who went into the business.

Sylvia and Michael were introduced to each other in 1990 by mutual friends in the restaurant business and married in 1993. They opened their first restaurant, Bruschetta, in Fairfield in 1997 and bought Bacchus, a nearby steakhouse and wine bar, in ’99. In 2004, when their daughter, Melina, was four, they sold both restaurants. Sylvia published a book that year, A Daughter’s Touch, about her descent into and recovery from severe postpartum depression. She later became an outspoken advocate for women suffering from the condition.

Michael spent the next several years as executive director of the private Park Avenue Club in Florham Park and taught as an adjunct in the food and beverage program at Montclair State.

The next chapter dawned in March 2014. “On one of our Thursday dinner dates,” Sylvia relates, “we went to Il Giardino in Cedar Knolls. It was for sale, and it just felt right.” They bought the restaurant and reopened it that August as H2Ocean.

For awhile, Michael held onto his job at the Park Avenue Club. “But the menu was all over the place, and there was no consistency,” he says. “When I realized it wasn’t going as planned, I left the club and came aboard and took over the kitchen.”

That’s when he renewed acquaintance with one of the seafood merchants he had known when the fish market was on Fulton Street in Manhattan and began his predawn forays to Hunts Point.

“I don’t cover the fish with a lot of sauces and condiments,” Michael says. “I want the flavor and texture forward. And I try to incorporate as many local vegetables as possible. I try for balance and a contrast of flavors and textures.”

A good example is a recent scallop entrée, in which the six plump specimens were enhanced rather than entombed by a vivacious parsnip purée and marmalade of corn and smoked bacon. Seafood linguine, which crept onto the menu after debuting as a Christmas Eve special, sports gently cooked scallops, mussels and clams with Iberian accents of chorizo and saffron. The pasta, however, was cooked noticeably past al dente.

You needn’t cross H2Ocean off your list if you like land-based proteins. USDA prime Black Angus short ribs were velvety, marinated and braised for six hours. “Sylvia and I did own a steakhouse,” Michael reminded me. “Our executive chef [at Bacchus] is now my beef purveyor at Wotiz Meat in Passaic.”

Desserts were not as commendable as the savories, with the exception of a pistachio New York-style cheesecake and a satisfying chocolate pot de crème.

One of the admirable things about H2Ocean is that the owners give a portion of their proceeds to a range of charities. Last May, they began sending out what they call the Shuck-It Truck to provide free cooked seafood at fundraisers and at schools and hospitals.

Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    American - Modern - Seafood
  • Price Range:
  • Price Details:
    Appetizers, $7-$22; raw bar, $1.50-$39; sides, $6-$8; entrées, $21-$36; desserts, $9
  • Ambience:
    Casual yet nattily nautical.
  • Service:
    Thoughtful and polished.
  • Wine list:
    Full bar; 50 wines by the glass; eclectic bottle list.
  • H2Ocean
    41 Ridgedale Ave
    Cedar Knolls, NJ 07927
  • Hours:
    Monday - Thursday 11:30am - 10:00pm;
    Friday 11:30am - 11:00pm;
    Saturday 5:00pm - 11:00pm;
    Serving lunch Monday - Friday;
    Serving Dinner Monday - Saturday

    Closed Sundays except for private parties
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