When invited to media events, I like going in with a little background information, some knowledge on what I will be walking in to. It gives me the ability to ask questions and to probe at a higher level. Typically this is through a restaurant’s website or with reading their press release sent from a marketing personality. If done right, you get a good sense of what a restaurant is about, and an appreciation of what they are offering. However, today there was a large discrepancy between “Poke Shop’s” online and in store persona.
Walking in, I was disappointed that their website’s menu didn’t match up with their in-store listing, and neither to extent of what they actual served. This was especially the case for the variety in their ingredients and the lack of desserts. However, given that this was their soft opening, and that they had yet to work out all the kinks, this inconsistency made sense. They would be opened to the public the day after and had yet to iron out their operations and their offerings. Something that most businesses do within the first month of launching. None-the-less they were still very impressive today.
As a disclaimer, when it comes to a media tasting: plating and portion size may be gussied up and/or paired down, and the service will usually be top notch. Though I can at least paint you the most accurate image when it comes to the food and the setting, as how I interpret it. But as always, these are my opinions and you need not take them as fact. Unless you have my exact background, have lived my exact experiences, and we possess the same tongue. No one can truly taste and appreciate as you do.
This story actually starts with local food blogger “DustBunny077” of “Constant Cravings”. She invited myself, “Foodgressing” and “Foodology” to this event today. This was a friends and family soft opening, with us four representing media with our food blogs. We were here to assess the latest “poke shop” (figuratively and literally) to pop up in the Vancouver food landscape. Where we four were here clicking away on our cameras, friends and family came to show support and provide feedback for the food they were enjoying.
Located in Gastown, kitty corner from the steam clock landmark, it is easy to get to by transit, and convenient to stop at when in the area. Although finding it may be tricky. They are the basement suite to an art gallery. If you aren’t looking, you may miss them and their iron barred windows at your feet. Especially with their small sidewalk sandwich board being eclipse by a larger representation. To enter, a walk down a few steps and a right turn is required.
A lot of work has been put into the decor, in order to keep their cohesive Hawaiian-like theme. Their mascot is a little poke bowl with round anime eyes and a flower lei. Its likeness brands their sandwich board, and walls as back lit signs. It has also made its way on to each cardboard bowl’s lid and every drink cup’s label. They continue to bring the tropical to you with murals of foaming surf waves, gradient sunsets, and palm trees silhouettes. A similar wave pattern, but with more spirals graces the counter. Their washroom logo was even dressed for the occasion. A women stick figure in a grass skirt and a man with a surf board under his arm. It was a unisex one stall.
It is also unintentionally balmy in the restaurant, a few found it too warm, but I found that it worked for their tropical vibe. Everything together with the bouncy pop and top 40 music playing, gave the restaurant a fun energy. This is definitely a place to come with friends and stay for longer then intended. That was the case with us. We had long finish our food, but remained to sip on our drinks.
For those who aren’t familiar with “poke”, their website explains it the best, “Poke is a Hawaiian specialty that first began with fishermen seasoning the cut-offs from their catch to serve as a snack”. The word “Poke” means “to cut into pieces”, and refers to the raw fish being chopped up into bite sized cubes. They are usually marinated in citrus and salt, with traditional seasonings heavily influenced by Japanese and other Asian flavours.
This Hawaiian specialty has since become the latest food trend in Vancouver. And it makes perfect sense, given how many Vancouverites value a healthy and green lifestyle, and this poke covers those who are gluten free and trying to go carb free. There are also vegetarian and vegan options to this dish, but they really defeat the purpose, given that the highlight is the raw and fresh fish in each.
The traditional way to eat this is in a bowl. “Poke bowls typically feature seasoned sushi-grade fish and seafood on top of rice, garnished with various ingredients…” And here you can customize your own with a bevy of bases, proteins, toppings, and signature sauces to choose your own adventure with. Their pricing is pretty simple. All poke bowls include two proteins and all the toppings you want. The only limitation is how much your bowl can hold and how much shame you possess. A large bowl is 26 oz and filled as full as the lid can shut. It goes for $12.95. The “super large” is a 40oz bowl at $3 more.
We were given the opportunity to meet with the chef and brains behind the menu. We chatted him up and persuaded him to craft us a “photogenic” version of the “super large” bowl. He agreed and even bared with us when we took photos of him making it and then presenting it to us in cupped hands. He joked saying that it was necessary to also capture his face in our photos. This would be after we ate our fill, so I was the lucky one to be able to take it home. Although when it came time to eat it, I was sad to discover that it was prepared without any of their delicious sauces. This was in ordered to maintain its “photogenic” look, so in hindsight: worth it.
Each bowl begins with either rice or greens as its base. Sushi rice, purple rice, mixed greens, spinach leaves, or “Zoodles”; which is zucchini spun to form the length and stringy nature of noodles. The latter was quite creative, and a favourite of our group for both its look and taste.
Next comes your choice of proteins. You have the ability to choose any two of the following: ahi tuna, albacore tuna, Atlantic salmon, wild sockeye salmon, baby scallop, barbecue eel, and oven roasted or grilled chicken breast. It was great of them to accommodate those who didn’t like seafood in the trend with, not one, but two chicken options. As well as some cooked fish for those who don’t like their meat raw.
After choosing your two proteins comes the fun part: the toppings. With the ability to pick and choose as many and as much as you want, this gives “Poke Shop” an edge over other poke place who limit you to just two or three toppings. There are over 24 different ingredients in metal containers and 8 sauces in squeeze bottles, and it is all included in the price. All except for the organic avocado and free range egg that are considered “premium” ingredients and required an additional cost. And like the sandwich chain “Subway”, they make it your way, before your very eyes, on the other side of the sneeze proof glass. A few of the various toppings include flying fish roe, imitation crab, black and white sesame seeds, green onion, fried shallots, marinaded seaweed salad, pineapple chunks, mango pieces, Mandarin oranges segments, cucumber slices, corn kernels, radish slices, pomegranate seeds, pea shoots, lime wedges, red onion, and cilantro; to name a few.
After customizing your perfect combination it is finished off with your choice of sauce or dressing. This too comes without any limitations. A few of them include their signature sauce, which is orange from the carrots they use; a more traditional tangy ponzu, spicy mayo, a miso dressing, and a pink poppy seed mix. Not that any sauce was needed to flavour the fish, all the seafood was well marinaded and plenty flavourful. The sauce was however helpful with the vegetable and was used to dress them like a salad.
Although if all this choice is too much for you, they do have pre-curated bowls that take the guess work out of things. As well as a legend that allows the highlighting of their staff’s picks for ease of choosing.
Each bowl will vary in taste, depending on how you fill it. We tasted from one another’s and we all came to a consensus that each bowl was tasty, each protein was well seasoned, and each sauce is worth revisiting. The purple and white rice were both well steamed, they weren’t over cooked or dry as I have had with other rice bowls. The vegetables added some freshness, and the likes of dried seaweed and popping fish roe added some unique texture profiles. I liked the inclusion of fruit the most, it made things more exotic and gave more depth to the bowls, which is another feature unique to “Poke Shop”. I only wished I noticed the crispy fried onions, in order to get some crunch in there as well. But all jumbled up like this, the flavour reminded me of any specialty house roll, at any Vancouver sushi restaurant. The rolls that are over filled with too much in the middle and excess on top. But in this format as a deconstructed sushi roll it works. It ate like a salad, and had you finishing guilt free like one too.
My bowl with with albacore tuna, wild sockeye salmon, baby scallop, white rice, zucchini noodles, radish, mango, pineapple, pomegranate, seaweed salad, Mandarin orange, imitation crab, fish roe, and avocado. All covered in their orange signature sauce and their pink poppy seed dressing.
“Dust Bunny’s” bowl with ahi tuna, barbecue eel, purple rice, spinach leaves, cucumber, beans, corn, seaweed, mango, macaroni salad, imitation crab, avocado, and three different sauces in including a dark BBQ one.
“Foodology” too piled hers high like mine. With spicy tuna, salmon, purple rice, mango, radish, pea shoots, shredded carrot and beets, avocado, and fried onions.
“Foodgressing” was disappointed in herself for not being able to craft a more appetizing looking bowl. Hers had no rice but plenty of greens, tuna, salmon, cucumber, avocado, corn, crab, and a drowning of their signature sauce.
And to accompany our main they offer various island inspired drinks. The “Roasted Macadamia Nut Infused Milk Tea” used actual Macadamia nuts blended and mixed in. Where “Foodology” liked the grainy texture of the chopped nuts and had it grow on her the more she drank, I would have preferred the nut as a syrup flavouring without the grind. This wasn’t my favourite, it had a strong milk tea finish to it, and wasn’t sweet enough for my tooth. The “Chocolate & Kona Coffee Milk Tea” was similar, but a lot sweet with the inclusion of a chocolate sauce at the bottom of the cup, and a chocolate cookie crumb on the top. It was like a grown up chocolate milk with a crunchy texture. I found that the “Plantation Iced Tea” made with pineapple chunks the best. It also perfectly paired with the food. It was refreshing like ice tea that was not too sweet or too overpowering, a nice twist on a flavour I already like. It also helped to cool when there was extra spice. They also had a triple berry soda that was a deep reddish purple colour, and an agave drink with cucumber and lemon slices bobbing with ice.
As I mentioned, I was sad that the desserts promoted on their website didn’t make it in house. They were to have the “Dole Whip”, pineapple soft serve that other poke places offered. But what I was more interested in was the “Hawaiian Shaved Ice” and the Hawaiian Shortbread Cookies. I believe the cookies were the pineapple shaped ones from “The Honolulu Cookie Company”. They are so good, and unfortunately you can only get them when in Hawaii, or online if you pay a hefty price for shipping and handling. I would come back often just to purchase those cookies at a fair and convenient price.
As a group, we were impressed by the speed of their operation this evening. With five employees behind the counter stacking bowls and shaking drinks, they didn’t keep anyone waiting for too long. And this is with a non-stop rotation of friends and families coming in and going out. If this was how they did on dry run with a more than full house, I can only imagine the efficiency during regular business hours.
Would I come back? – Yes.
Would I line up for it? – Yes.
Would I recommend it? – Yes.
Would I suggest this to someone visiting from out of town? – No.
I haven’t had too many of the poke offerings that popped up in Vancouver this past year; but given the value here, I can safety deem them as the top on my poke pick list. Delicious fish and the variety to quell a greedy person like myself. Don’t deny your cravings.