Back in January, the improbable happened: The trendiest dish of winter wasn’t a hot cocktail or comfort fare but raw fish bowls.
Restaurants serving poké — a Hawaiian dish of raw fish over rice and veggies — have been popping up all over NYC since but have little in common with the real thing, according to Bobby Kwak, who’s promising authenticity with Sweetcatch Poké Bar, a new fast-casual shop whose first location (of three) opens Nov. 21 at 642 Lexington Ave.
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“I was walking around trying to find pizza, and all I see is people walking around with these little bowls,” recalls Kwak of a trip to Hawaii several years ago. “This is the equivalent of a hamburger or hot dog or pizza for Hawaiians, and it’s healthy.”
Kwak is already known in NYC for his wildly popular Korean barbecue spot Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong — which hasn’t exactly prepared him to serve poké. So he recruited a friend and fellow New Yorker, chef Lee Anne Wong, a Season 1 “Top Chef” finalist who moved to Honolulu a few years ago and heads up the Asian-influenced all-day brunch spot Koko Head Cafe.
“I needed somebody who truly understood the integrity of this product,” says Kwak. “I’m not gonna go and take a Hawaiian staple and try to recreate it myself because I wouldn’t be able to perfect it.
Neither were any of the poké spots he tried in NYC. There are two main reasons for that, according to Kwak, beginning with a technique he understands well. The marinated short ribs at Baekjeong are what earned the restaurant raves, but NYC’s current poke spots are trading off that depth of flavor for total customization.
“That 40-45 minutes that it soaks in the marinade, the meat is absorbing the sauce and flavors, whereas if you drizzle it at the end you’re essentially eating a sashimi salad,” he explains.
The fish at Sweetcatch will be served by weight (about $8 per quarter pound), the same as at Hawaii’s deli-style counters, with four available daily in “intuitive pairings” of marinades that will rotate. Some will be flown in from Hawaii, supplemented by local catch from as close as Long Island that could include lobster and other shellfish. The seafood will be served chilled over warm rice. (Noodles and salad are also offered as bases.) The shop itself features Hawaiian touches, including beer, wine and sweets from the islands.
The second issue is what that fish is, exactly, that’s being served up. The other major member of the Sweetcatch team is chef Kohei Kishida, who apprenticed with Eiji Ishimura at the two-Michelin-starred sushi restaurant Brushstroke. “We brought him onboard because we wanted people to know we're not serving low-grade fish,” says Kwak. “We’re going to educate people where we’re getting the fish from, which local, sustainable fisheries,” says Kwak. They’ll never be frozen, a process that involves using carbon monoxide gas that canhide its ageby enhancing its color.
Besides serving only sushi-grade fish, Sweetcatch traces its product down to the boat when possible, sourced responsibly. This keeps fish populations healthy — and ensures they’re not coming from contaminated water.
“Because it’s a raw product,” says Kwak, “people need to understand and be educated about it even more.”