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Voracious: Fast and Fresh Hawaiian-Style Poke

Allan Reid’s monthly restaurant column
Located on Douglas Street, Island Poke was Victoria’s first poke restaurant when it opened in 2018. (Allan Reid)

Poke, pronounced Po-KAY, has been trending onto many Victoria menus for several years now, and has become the focus of several specialty restaurants. Poke is a Hawaiian word meaning chopped or sliced. As a dish, it is associated with fresh fish, as its origins lay with hungry Hawaiian fishermen in need of an immediately available and easily prepared snack. Though most commonly Ahi Tuna, any firm-fleshed fish will do, including pacific salmon. It is served raw, usually in a marinade of shoyu and sesame oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds. When accompanied with white rice, poke is classic comfort food among the Hawaiian people.

But it can be fancied up into what we know as a Poke Bowl: a wonder of culinary fusion, adding elements of edamame, avocado, fish row, wakame (seaweed), chili sauce and pineapple. Really, it’s open to anyone’s creative imagination, and most poke houses allow customers to build their own from a selection of ingredients on display. When well made, a poke bowl is a feast in a bowl, offering a rainbow of complimentary and contradictory flavours and colours pleasing to the palette and to the eye, with ingredients arranged artfully to showcase their array of colours and contrasting textures. For a more healthful option simply substitute brown basmati or another grain for the white rice.

The BC Bowl at Island Poke. (Allan Reid)

Island Poke is a fast-food-style establishment attuned to the needs of people working downtown. A simple, elegant website offers busy employees a good selection of designer bowls that can be ready in minutes for pickup, or for delivery within the downtown core. Little effort has been put into creating in-house dining ambience. Dim lighting does little to dispel the gloomy colour scheme of black and charcoal grey touched with a half-hearted surfboard motif. Spotlighting illuminates what’s important: the menu board, and the selection of ingredients from which walk-in customers may choose. These selections include a base (rice, salad or burrito), a protein (fish, shellfish or tofu), a selection of chopped vegetables, a selection of dressings, a wide variety of exotic toppings (this is the fun part, allowing diners to experiment with their own flavour combinations), and finally a choice of garnishes. Creations are served in paper bowls even when dining in, and the few wooden tables and chairs are not intended for long lingering comfort.

I chose to see what the experts behind the counter would create, ordering the BC Bowl ($17.95), which features sockeye salmon and tuna. These are not listed as being marinated, and the Build-Your-Own menu does list the tuna as available with or without marinade, however, all three classic marinade ingredients (see above) are present, along with kale, green onion, cilantro, pickled ginger, a dollop of crabmeat, seaweed salad, and onion flakes. I am offered a choice of base and my mood calls for salad, which is nothing more than torn romaine lettuce. I watched as the bowl was quickly put together, but not in a pleasing manner. There is no art here. But for the ginger, everything else is piled atop one another to look more like a tossed salad than an artfully designed bowl. But the fish is fresh and flavourful, and the other ingredients add character. I wish that the “salad” base had included other vegetables, maybe some cucumber or purple cabbage, both on the menu. Though not exceptional, the BC Bowl fulfilled its purpose: it came together quickly and kept me sated throughout the afternoon.

Island Poke - 1674 Douglas St.

@islandpokeca | (250) 590-0801 |