A tsunami of poke has crashed ashore on Long Island. Last year, the Hawaiian-inspired raw-fish dish was almost unknown here; now it’s riding the crest of an epic restaurant wave.
Trend-savvy Japanese restaurants have wasted no time switching gears from sashimi (slices of raw fish) to poke, cubes of raw fish tossed with onion and seasonings. But American eateries have also gotten in on the act, and this summer saw the opening of two poke specialists, Shiny Coffee Healthy Poke in Hicksville and Kai Poke in Huntington.
Poke (pronounced POH-kay) has been eaten for centuries in Hawaii. According to Martha Cheng, author of “The Poke Cookbook” (Potter, $16.99), long before Captain Cook landed on the islands in the 18th century, Hawaiians would season chopped fresh fish with salt, seaweed and roasted candlenut. “But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the dish really gained popularity and the word ‘poke,’ which simply means ‘to slice’ or ‘to cut crosswise into pieces,’ came to be associated with the preparation we know now.”
In Hawaii, poke is ubiquitous. “It’s not hip,” said the Honolulu-based writer. “Supermarkets sell it by the pound in plastic containers.” And it’s simple, consisting of little more than cubed raw fish tossed with sliced scallions or onions and some simple seasonings (soy sauce, hot sauce, and/or sesame oil, perhaps with some dried seaweed).
Here on the mainland, however, all bets are off. When poke landed in Los Angeles, it began its transformation into the “poke bowl” in which raw fish is heaped on a bed of rice or greens and then topped with a panoply of garnishes and sauces. That’s the model for poke on the East Coast, where poke bowls owe as much to Chipotle as to Waikiki. In 2015, New York’s first Pokeworks opened; the national chain now operates three shops in Manhattan, where it is joined by more than two dozen poke parlors, among them Poketeria, Wisefish poke and, inevitably, Hokey Poke.
One of the first Long Islanders to serve poke bowls was Dean Cirella, who started offering it about two years ago at his restaurant, now called Gastronomy Kitchen, in Saks Fifth Avenue at Walt Whitman Shops in Huntington Station. It’s now a staple at his Cirella’s in Melville and Surf’s Out, the restaurant he operates in Kismet, Fire Island. To Cirella, the dish marked the intersection of two powerful trends. “Everybody is putting everything in a bowl,” he said. “And people are still on that craze that it’s healthier to eat raw fish, but poke is even easier to eat than sushi because the sauce is already mixed in and you can use a fork.”
Eschewing raw fish is not, however, a bar to enjoying a poke bowl. Besides raw tuna and salmon, most poke outlets give customers the option of choosing tofu or cooked shrimp. Jolin Wang, one of the owners of Shiny Coffee Healthy Poke, said that when the restaurant opened, customers requested cooked, cubed chicken for their poke bowls and she obliged them.
Chicken may be a meat too far for Martha Cheng, but she’s heard of Hawaiian chefs making poke with seared steak. “People might say that these bowls are not real poke,” she said. “But I think about poke the way I think about pizza: A lot of pizzas in America don’t resemble pizzas in Italy, but it’s still pizza.”
Here are eight places on Long Island to get a bowlful of poke.
ToA Asian Fusion
ToA Asian Fusion (122 Secatogue Ave., Farmingdale): Lunch is poke bowl time at ToA, which opened in August across from the LIRR station in Farmingdale. The lavishly decorated restaurant serves Thai, Chinese, Japanese and other cuisines, and from the large sushi bar issues bowl after bowl of poke. Six signature bowls range from $7.95 to $12.95, or create your own with a base (white or brown rice, salad, soba noodles or zucchini “noodles”), protein (raw tuna or salmon, tofu, cooked chicken, scallops, snow crab or shimp) and dozens of mix-ins, sauces and toppings. The ToA “signature bowl” (salmon, tuna, shrimp, scallops, seaweed salad, mango, onions, edamame, avocado sriracha aioli and rice crisps, $12.95) is always on the menu; otherwise poke bowls are available only at lunch and all day on Monday. ToA in Huntington Village (369 New York, Ave.) has the same menu, prices and restrictions. More info: 516-777-8888, toaasianfusion.com
Beginnings (1986 Park St., Atlantic Beach): When Ben and Heather Freiser, owners of this literary-themed gastropub, became intrigued by Manhattan’s influx of poke bars, they suggested that chef David Bryer add poke to his global menu. Bryer started out with a poke appetizer, “but people kept ordering double portions so we made it a main dish.” As Long Island pokes go, it’s fairly traditional: marinated raw tuna over rice with avocado, edamame, pickled red onion, tofu, seaweed salad, scallion and furikake (a Japanese seasoning of dried seaweed and fish, sesame seeds, sugar and salt). Customers can also request salmon, cooked shrimp or chicken. Price: $28. More info: 516-239-7483, beginningsrestaurant.com
Shiny Coffee Healthy Poke
Shiny Coffee Healthy Poke (1040 S. Broadway, Hicksville): Partner Jolin Wang was inspired by her California cousins’ poke shops to open one on Long Island, and this location, which opened in July in the same shopping center as Planet Fitness, struck her as providential. “The same healthy people from the gym like the poke,” she said. Working with a “poke-ista” behind the counter, customers fashion their own bowls, choosing a base (white or brown rice, greens or a flour tortilla), a protein (tuna, salmon, shrimp, spicy tuna, spicy salmon, red snapper or chicken) and more than a dozen mix-ins, sauces and toppings. Take out or eat in the sleek and spacious dining room. There’s also specialty coffee and free Wi-Fi for lingering. Prices range from $8.99 to $13.49. More info: 516-605-1666, shinycoffeehealthypoke.com
Cirella's (14 Broadhollow Rd., Melville): Dean Cirella started serving sushi at his Walt Whitman Shops cafe more than 10 years ago, and when he added it to the menu at his flagship Melville restaurant, “everybody thought we were crazy to serve sushi at an Italian restaurant.” Likewise, poke bowls started at the mall (last year the cafe transformed into the much grander Gastronomy Kitchen inside Saks Fifth Avenue) but they now have their own section of the menu in Melville as well. “It’s just the next level of crazy,” he observed. Start with a base of salad, rice or rice and salad; add tuna, salmon or tuna and salmon; top with edamame, avocado, tempura crunch, lettuce and sesame and sauce with sriracha aioli, lemon-infused soy or sweet poke sauce. For an extra few dollars, add crab salad, seaweed salad, masago (smelt eggs) or shrimp tempura. The same poke bowls are available at both locations starting at $19. More info: 631-385-7380, cirellasrestaurant.com
The Tavern by George Martin
The Tavern by George Martin (13 N. Park Ave., Rockville Centre): The eclectic menu at this casual American bistro features steaks, meatloaf, tacos and po’boys. On the opening menu, an elaborate poke bowl (raw tuna backed by brown rice, avocado, kale, quinoa, poached pears and vegetables) was so popular that George Martin’s corporate chef, Frank Greco, fashioned a “pick-a-poke” program. Customers have their choice of tuna or salmon (raw or seared), grilled shrimp or grilled chicken. Heap that on either brown rice and kale, Southwestern rice and beans, sesame soba noodles or mixed greens. Everything gets topped with sesame tamari dressing, avocado, pineapple, cucumber, edamame, seaweed salad and/or sriracha aioli. Depending on protein, bowls are $19 to $24. More info: 516-678-1290, gmtavern.com
Kai Poke (328 Main St., Huntington): Since it opened on Main Street in July, Kai Poke has fulfilled a need that Huntington Village didn’t even know it had. The small storefront with a handful of tables has been inundated with customers since Day 1. Brothers Jacob and Coleman Meier were inspired by a trip they took to San Diego five years ago when they “instantly fell in love with poke.” Kai (“ocean” in Hawaiian) offers five signature bowls, or customers can create their own from the Chipotle-style poke bar using rice (white or brown), quinoa or greens; marinated or naked tuna, marinated or naked salmon, tofu or shrimp; one of nine sauces and more than 20 toppings and mix-ins. Regular bowls are $10.95; large are $13.95. More info: 631-888-3188
Koi Kokoro (501 Main St., Islip): Don Im, the Japanese-Korean chef-owner of Koi Kokoro, is a traditionalist at heart. His appetizer menu boasts an authentic Hawaiian poke of marinated diced tuna, scallions and onions. When his customers clamored for larger, more elaborate American-style bowls, however, he could not bring himself to call them poke, so he dubbed them “yutari bowls.” “Yutari” means “enough” in Japanese, and the locution gave him cover to offer a wide range of proteins: raw tuna and salmon, but also barbecued eel, grilled bulgogi beef, braised pork belly and more. These get heaped on rice or salad; topped with crab and seaweed salads, lettuce, avocado, edamame and tempura crunch; supplemented, for an extra charge, with shrimp tempura or masago (smelt roe). Also extra: brown or purple rice. Bowls range from $13 to $16. More info: 631-650-0307, thekoikokoro.com
Sasa Hibachi (2119 Broadhollow Rd., Farmingdale): This enormous Japanese restaurant was designed to accommodate both a sushi bar and, in a separate room, hibachi tables. Adding poke bowls to the mix was relatively easy. They are served at lunch only (11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and come in seven varieties. The vegetarian bowl (at $8.95, the least expensive) features tofu, shiitake mushrooms, avocado, mango, seaweed salad, lotus chips and sesame-ginger sauce. The most expensive ($12.95) features tuna, salmon, yellowtail, crab and hijiki (seaweed) salads, cilantro, scallions, avocado, mango, onion crisps and wasabi-soy sauce. All bowls come on a choice of white or brown rice, or salad. More info: 631-465-0346, sasahibachi.com