If you live in New York and have yet to hear about Poke (pronounced POH-keh), well, we’d like to know if everything’s ok under that rock where you’ve been living. For those who are out of the loop, Poke bowls are taking the city by storm – a customizable mix including a base of brown rice, white rice, or greens; cubed raw fish; dressing; and toppings. Think of it as sushi’s answer to the burrito bowl.
While the mainland is just now catching on to this healthy, filling delicacy, the dish is a traditional staple in Hawaii, where Michelin-rated Chef Masashi Ito – a force behind FiDi’s newest Poke spot, Poke Chan – grew up. With Poke Chan set to open in FiDi next week, we caught up with Chef Masa to discuss the restaurant, the Poke craze, and the latest East Coast vs. West Coast battle. No, we’re not talking about rap – we’re talking about sushi.
When did you decide to start a Poke restaurant, and why? Poke has always been a part of my life, having spent my early childhood in Hawaii, so I always knew it was a great dish. When it started to take off in Los Angeles a few years ago, it gained a cult following for being a healthy, accessible and filling lunch option. I had been in New York to launch another restaurant, Sushi Zo, when it started to gain steam here, and that’s when I decided to open a Poke restaurant. The first Poke Chan location opened in December 2016 at 32nd Street and Fifth Avenue, and just four months later, we’re launching our second restaurant.
Poke is one of the hottest food trends in NYC. Why do you think it’s gained such a massive following? The general idea people have around raw fish – at least quality raw fish – is that it’s a much more expensive choice for a meal. Poke makes a healthy option more accessible and affordable to a wider audience, which goes a long way to establishing a following. Especially in a city like New York, where eating out is more the rule than the exception, people can get their take-out lunches and dinners without feeling guilty about the price or the calorie count.
The bonus is that Poke bowls are pretty – a huge plus for the Instagram generation.
Poke Chan’s FiDi location at 100 William Street will be the second outpost for the restaurant. Why the Financial District, specifically? Will there be any differences at this location from the first on Fifth Avenue? The Financial District is a dynamic neighborhood with a great mix of office workers and full-time residents, creating the perfect location for a restaurant like ours, which will appeal to all groups. For now, we are planning to launch the same menu as the one we’ve established at our Fifth Avenue location. That being said, we will adjust our menus and mix-ins based on demand in each location. We’re also looking into establishing a delivery service to make it even more convenient for people to get their Poke fix.
Are you planning further expansion of Poke Chan this year? We are currently in talks to establish a location at Chelsea Market, and we’re planning for further expansion throughout the balance of this year.
You received a Michelin star for your last restaurant, Sushi Zo, within a year of opening the NYC outpost of the LA-based restaurant. At the time, you discussed East Coast and West Coast sushi. So, what’s the difference? While both New York and LA qualify as foodie destinations, when it comes to sushi, LA is decidedly traditional. This is starting to change a bit now, but with a high concentration of Japanese residents, LA sushi has primarily stuck to the norms.
In New York, by contrast, chefs across cuisines are always looking for new ingredients and unique spins on traditional dishes. We’re always one-upping each other to try and blow people’s minds. For me, that translates to trying new sources, ingredients and fish to develop completely unique menu items, often blending with other cuisines to create truly special mashups that speak to New Yorkers’ desire for culinary innovation.