The Hawaiian raw fish salad that isn’t sushi
Every now and again newspapers and blogs alike fall over themselves to breathlessly pant over and extoll the latest food trend imported from the US. Restaurants, street food stalls and supper clubs serving up the trend are listed and thus implicitly recommended, irrespective of the actual quality of the dish or the specific eateries.
The latest subject of such shallow reporting is poke, a salad (for lack of a better term) of cubed and seasoned raw fish from Hawaii. It comes in a wide variety of forms back in the US, but over here it tends to draw heavily from Japanese cuisine and comes on a bed of rice and seasoned with some form of furikake. Poke has quickly become available from a diverse array of eateries across London – enough to pique my interest.
Although this isn’t one of my exhaustive and enthusiastic-from-the-start best and worst group tests, I’m still not content to merely list a random selection of poke restaurants – I’ve systematically appraised each one to see whether any of them could overcome my scepticism and convince me to love poke.
The results were interesting.
The unimaginatively named Ahi Poke is a bright and airy Fitzrovia eatery that closes early enough to render it suitable only for lunches and early dinners. This is just as well as the fast food-style ordering and bain marie construction line gives the place all the appeal of a franchised salad bar.
Things didn’t improve when it came to the poke dishes themselves. The Tuna Oahu was dominated by the crisp and sharp vegetables – radishes, spring onions and red onions. So much so, that it was difficult to appreciate either the taste or the texture of the small tuna cubes. The soy sauce was only modestly umami, but a far bigger problem was the poor quality rice – the small grained white rice was not only too hard, but cold to boot.
Most of Ahi Poke’s preset poke (you can customise your own if you wish) substitute rice with other grain or vegetable bases which is probably just as well given the poor quality of the rice included with the Tuna Oahu. The Heat Wave uses quinoa, but the excessively firm grains here were still enough to drown out the salmon which was only modestly buttery. With the pickled cucumber wilting like a wallflower in the background and the coriander and spicy mayo missing in action, the sharp red onions ended up taking centre stage. The Heat Wave was more like a drought of skill and good taste.
Matters didn’t improve with the kale-based Sweet Green. The firm kale, which was a little too hard on the teeth, and sweet carrots drowned out the only modestly earthy mushrooms and tame pickled ginger.
I ordered the Venice with rice instead of the usual kale to see if Ahi Poke had finally managed to cook up a quality batch of rice. No such luck – although the use of brown rice this time around imparted a nutty toast-like flavour to the salad, it was too chewy as well as firm. Flaccidly cooked prawns let the lightly spiced and chewy cashews and mediocre radishes dominate this odd poke. It’s always a bad sign when the best part of a salad is the sweet and sharp grapefruit garnish.
If you’re easily impressed and have money to burn, then you’ll love Ahi Poke. Otherwise, take your good sense and cents elsewhere.
Average cost per poke: £9-10
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆
Despite always trying to approach every restaurant I review with an open mind, I was fully primed to hate Black Roe. The requirement of a credit card guarantee for bookings (of any size, not just groups) and an initially throbbing sound track both smacked of the obnoxiousness that only Mayfair can pull off with such style. But I was eventually won over, both by the graciously efficient service (which turned down the music upon seeing my tinnitus-induced frown) and by the surprisingly good quality Classic Ahi Poke.
Soft and fluffy soft grain rice is always a good basis for a poke. Plus, the cubes of tuna were sufficiently large enough for me to appreciate the meaty texture and the umami soy glaze. Nutty sesame seeds, sharp spring onions, sweet and sharp pear and a crisp yet starchy fried lotus root slice were well-chosen garnishes that didn’t obscure the tuna, but complimented it.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. The taste of the small slices of scallop in the scallop poke were easily diminished and obscured by the yuzu glaze, despite its limited strength, and all the toppings. The latter were identical to those included with the tuna, but with the addition of a small grained, vaguely salty fish roe.
An even less distinctive and distinguished roe graced the sea bass poke. Its weakness turned out to be a partial strength though, as neither it nor the sesame seeds or any of the other garnishes obscured the meatiness of the sea bass chunks. On the other hand, none of the garnishes really added anything either, other than a bit of colour.
It would’ve been a similar story with the salmon poke, but for the ikura or salmon roe. It rich oiliness partially made up for the weak butteriness of the salmon which was flaccid enough to be obscured by the tame chilli sauce. Only partially though – there wasn’t quite enough salmon roe to go around. At least the small grain rice was fluffy and soft.
Although a little unbalanced, there’s still enough to enjoy in Black Roe’s poke, especially the tuna and salmon variants, to make this Mayfair restaurant worth seeking out instead of the competition if you want a light yet filling meal.
Average cost per poke: £7-9 (excluding service)
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
If there’s one poke eatery in London with an even less imaginative name than Fitzrovia’s Ahi Poke, then it has to be the simply titled Eat Poke street food stand (sometimes simply branded as ‘Poke’). Commonly found at the Kerb street food markets at both King’s Cross and West India Quay, Poke’s salad bowls were smaller than all the others here but were also commensurately cheaper.
All of Eat Poke’s salads used small grain rice that was a touch too firm, although it wasn’t bad as Ahi Poke in this regard. The garnishes and toppings shared between all the poke were moderately crisp and tart, with only the moderately umami seaweed/kelp standing out.
Even so, there was enough to overwhelm the fish in both the salmon and tuna pokes to the extent that I had trouble telling them apart – a klaxon of an alarm bell if there ever was one.
The tuna poke had the addition of crunchy macadamias, creamy avocado and a mild kick from the chilli-mayo which took the tuna’s place as the centre of attention. All of this reduced the tuna to the position of blank slate protein provider, rather than the star of the show.
Despite the non-presence of the titular fish in the salmon poke, this salad was hardly a complete loss. This was largely due to the presence of the pleasingly rich and oily ikura salmon roe, mildly tart pickled cucumber, crunchy wasabi peas and the moderately umami soy sauce. The small grained black rice may have been a touch too firm, but it did at least add a touch of nuttiness to the poke.
The vegetarian poke was, surprisingly, the most well-rounded one out of the three. The vaguely flavoured ponzu sauce was a blessing in disguise, allowing the milkiness of the soft and squidgy yet structurally robust tofu to shine through – even against the creaminess of the avocado and the firmness of the edamame.
Eat Poke’s salad bowls make for a light and refreshing change to the stereotypical meat-in-a-bun that characterises a disproportionate amount of London’s street food. It’s hardly an exemplar of its genre, but you could do a lot, lot worse.
Average cost per poke: £5
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Granger and Co (Clerkenwell branch)
Granger and Co is a small chain of café-restaurants filled to the brim with people eating brunch, one of the most contrived and overhyped meals to ever exist, on weekends. Granger and Co’s lone poke, made with tuna, is the most expensive one in this entire round-up at just under £16.
Unfortunately for Granger and Co, the quality of its poke doesn’t justify this high price. Although sizable, the chunks of tuna were a little too chilled for my liking, while the sesame seeds added little. There was also no soy sauce, chilli or any other kind of seasoning to speak of, as far as I could tell. Adding cherry tomatoes and samphire isn’t a bad idea, but if you’re going to use delicately tame samphire then it’d be best not to flavour the rice with ginger. At least the small-grained brown rice was soft and fluffy.
Granger and Co’s premises are bright, airy and comfortable, while service was efficient. I can’t vouch for the rest of the expansive menu, but if you still want to eat here (tip: the Farringdon branch is unsurprisingly less busy and crowded at weekends than the King’s Cross branch) then you’re best off skipping the poke.
Cost per poke: £15.50
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆
Tombo (Soho branch)
Poke is an Hawaiian dish, but you wouldn’t know it from Tombo’s décor and matcha-based desserts which overemphasise the Japanese influences on this dish. Like Ahi Poke, Tombo closes early at night, making it best suited for lunch or for a light and early dinner.
Although the salmon poke used small cubes of unremarkable fish, this poke was still relatively pleasing thanks to the soft, malty rice, firm edamame and the double umami punch of seaweed and soy sauce. This poke really would’ve been half the dish it was without the soy sauce.
You can order the salmon poke with added avocado, although this does mean that the buttery, creamy avocado draws even more attention away from the tame butteriness of the fish. Even discounting the avocado, this poke wasn’t a carbon clone of the first – the rice wasn’t warm but served at room temperature instead and was also less malty. Strips of nori added extra umami and should really be present across all of Tombo’s generously sized poke. This poke wasn’t bad, but it’s clearly designed to appeal to avocado-loving freaks.
Tuna poke was much the same as the salmon, but without the edamame and, of course, big meaty cubes of tuna taking the place of the salmon. The crisp puffed rice was neither here nor there, but the meaty tuna and umami soy sauce nonetheless made for a fine combination.
Although the prawns in the spicy prawn poke weren’t raw, they were at least reasonably fresh – or they were once I had excavated them from underneath all the edamame and crispy shallots. Surprisingly, the spicy mayo did have some chilli kick – albeit a very modest one. The small grained rice was warm, soft and fluffy once again. Even so, this is still clearly a second-class poke for those unwilling or unable to eat raw fish.
Tombo gives its matcha drinks and desserts equal billing alongside the poke. The iced matcha latte was consistently decent – moderately thick. bracingly cold and refreshing with a gentle matcha taste that didn’t devolve into the oily tang that blights so many cold matcha-based drinks.
Soft serve matcha ice cream was similarly inoffensive and moderately pleasing in taste. Although very smooth and creamy, it was also uncomfortably cold in places.
The matcha tonako sees the soft serve ice cream sandwiched in between a pair of thin, excessively soft biscuits. Even less impressive was the dry, muted tasting matcha cake, leaving it to the ice cream and the chunky, moreish fermented bean paste to rescue this dessert.
The matcha sundae was, unsurprisingly, a rearrangement of many of the same elements that made up the tonako. Alternating layers of soft serve, bean paste and matcha cake were remarkable for their portion size if nothing else. The bean paste was just as pleasing as it was before, if an acquired taste, while the matcha cake still needed to try harder. The soft serve was unexpectedly icy in places and weaker in flavour and consistency compared to before. Although still refreshing overall, this sundae wasn’t nearly as pleasing as it could’ve been.
Although Tombo’s poke salads were a bit unbalanced and uneven, even at their worst they were still better than most of the other pokes in this round up.
Average cost per poke: £7-8
Star rating: ★★★★☆
The London outpost of American restaurant chain Trader Vic’s lies in the basement of the Park Lane Hilton. While the rest of the hotel is predictably polished to a glossy degree of inoffensive corporate blandness, the restaurant isn’t so lucky. Festooned with vaguely Hawaiian kitsch, the dark and musty dining room is stuffier than a GP’s waiting room or a windowless municipal library with a gently deceased old person in the corner. I can’t think of anywhere less Hawaiian.
Trader Vic’s tuna poke is the second most expensive poke in this round up and is also easily the worst. Chunks of bland tuna and avocado were arranged into a tower-like construction, but were just a little too chilled and thus tasteless. The promised soy and chilli dressing was nowhere to be found, with salt the only seasoning present. You get crunchy taro crisps instead of rice. It’s a damning indictment indeed when these starchy fried discs were the least insulting parts of this poke.
Don’t be tempted to bulk out your almost carb-free poke with the pake noodles – although filling, these stodgy, oily and otherwise undressed chop suey-style noodles need to be escorted back to the take away that they escaped from.
Unsurprisingly, the ‘Polynesian snowball’ had all the charm of black ice – uncomfortably icy and vaguely flavoured coconut ice cream covered in coconut shavings and a chocolate sauce that tasted of nothing other than a sudden onset of my own nihilistic sense of despair.
Even for a Park Lane hotel restaurant serving as a tourist trap, Trader Vic’s abjectly debased poke and other dishes are grotesquely overpriced. If this isn’t one of the most appallingly bad value restaurants in London, then I don’t know what is.
Cost per poke: £11 (excluding service charge)
Star rating: ★☆☆☆☆
I started this round-up sceptical of poke’s appeal. My conclusion is that poke, in London at least, is one of the most overrated and overhyped dishes that I’ve encountered while writing about the capital’s restaurants. But that doesn’t mean it’s without merit.
Poke, in its current London form at least, is light, undemanding, familiar yet exotically different and, apart from its truly terrible incarnations at some eateries such as Trader Vic’s, is still a step-up from the drab, unfulfilling salads that mark most al desko and fast-casual lunches. Tombo and Eat Poke are the best choices for a quick or informal poke, while Black Roe is the only real choice for a sit down evening poke. In an alternate universe, the salads and rice bowls from Chop’d, Eat, Abokdao et al. would be of the same standard as a respectable poke from Tombo, Eat Poke and Black Roe.
But those qualities also make poke prime fodder for weaponised buzzword marketing bullshit. The most egregious example of such nonsense, but also the most instructive, is to equate poke with sushi. This is not only a cultural misnomer, but a disservice both to poke and to sushi. A disservice to just how much better the very best sushi is in its focussed simplicity compared to the muddled complexity and smothered tastes textures of most London poke. And a disservice to how good poke could be, if kitchens over here didn’t botch the fish involved through hasty selection, poorly chosen toppings and inadequate, misjudged knife work.