Let's Eat

Doing the hokey poke

Step aside sushi, there is a new raw fish in town


In Hawaii you can find it in every surf shack and grocery store, while in New York and Los Angeles it's become a cult among Instagramming foodies. Now a nice Jewish boy has elevated the raw fish dish which is an everyday snack in Honolulu to a gourmet appetiser for Mayfair's well-heeled diners.

Poke (pronounced poke-ay) is the new sushi. Imagine finest-grade tuna or salmon cut in tiny cubes instead of strips, lightly marinated in soy and spices, mixed with fruit or avocado and sprinkled with herbs before being served in a bowl over seasoned sushi rice.

"We've made a real feature of poke with a dedicated bar which attracts loads of attention in the front of the restaurant," says Jordan Sclare, executive chef of Black Roe Poke Bar and Grill, the latest offering from entrepreneur Kurt Zdesar.

It was Zdesar, who famously brought Nobu to London, and who also backed Alan Yau of Hakkasan; so it's no surprise that the new restaurant embracing Pacific Rim cuisine is dedicated foremost to the worship of fresh fish. So fresh that their supplier picks up a catch at midnight from some of Britain's finest fishermen. The weathered faces of those fishermen have been endowed with movie star status by Zdesar, appearing in huge portraits on the walls of the restaurant's stark black-walled dining room.

A blackboard lists the fresh catch of the day, a haul laid out on ice the front window, which resembles a fishmonger's slab. It does actually serve as a fishmonger's slab, as Black Roe unusually offers customers anything they fancy to take home and cook at half the restaurant price. 

"Locals have really embraced the opportunity to buy the best quality fish direct from us," says Sclare. "We have regulars that come by every week, and numbers are growing steadily."

Behind the slab sits the poke bar, where a chef cuts and dresses the fish, assembling them into beautiful little bowls garnished with slices of crisp-cooked lotus root. They are served as part of a menu that includes tataki from Japan - the fish briefly seared after marinating in vinegar, then served in thin slices - and an impossibly gooey and over-the-top ice cream sundae listed as "Shake and Bake", which is inspired by California, on the other side of the Pacific. The giant ice cream confection has itself garnered its own Instagram following.

It is the poke that is the star of the show, with an ahi tuna version glistening red against golden cubes of fresh pineapple, and a salmon-based dish, sitting pretty in pink against its dressing of pale green nashi pear and yellow chilli. Both are a feast for the eyes and for the tastebuds.

"We can't serve enough poke - it's ideal for customers who want to eat a gourmet lunch but be out in 20 minutes," says Sclare, a former basketball star for Maccabi before giving up shooting hoops for catering.

At popular Chotto Matte in Soho, of which he is also group executive chef, Sclare gained a big following of Jewish diners with his ceviche, the popular Peruvian treatment for raw fish. "But the big difference between ceviche's Nikkei relative tiradito [in which the fish is sliced thinly like sashimi and not diced] and poke, is that they're marinated in citrus, whilst poke marinade is about soy and sesame," he explains.

Nikkei is the name for the Japanese twist brought to Peruvian fare by a large immigrant population, a particular and delicate cuisine which distinguishes Chotto Matte from London's more mainstream Peruvian restaurants.

In fact Jordan and his co-head chef at Chotto Matte, Michael Paul, call themselves the Nikkei Boys and have hopes of gaining television exposure in the future. "Michael, with whom I went to catering college, and I make videos of ourselves cooking which we post at YouTube, and often go to celebrities' homes to teach them our style of cooking," he says, noting a coming collaboration with the Hairy Bikers.

The good news for lovers of raw fish is that poke is so easy to make at home, with plentiful sources of the top-grade raw ingredient - which is essential - available at north London shops serving the Japanese community.

As with any new trend which goes mainstream, there will be a variety of imitators. Pret a Manger has introduced its own "poke-inspired" salad, with food developer Hannah Dolan explaining: "The poke trend has been on our radar for a while; these salads are bright, fresh and vibrant, and we're sure they'll be a big hit with our customers."

However, perhaps because of the expense, Pret has chosen to leave out the fish and substitute marinated mushrooms instead. 

At Eat Poke, a pop-up in some of London's trendier street markets, you will find fish in its salads but they substitute black rice for the traditional sticky white, and have added pickled vegetables. For purists, Waitrose will be trialling authentic fish poke in 50 branches this summer, according to sushi buyer Shaun Birrell, who says: "We're always keen to offer customers the latest food trends."    

Poke, in one form or another, is certainly set to become a "thing" this summer - even if we can't replicate the surfboards and Hawaiian palms of Honolulu as a scenic backdrop.

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