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VIDEO: Now Open: Pop Up Poke

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Thursday, April 29, 2021

There's something incredible about poke (pronounced po-kay), the unofficial dish of Hawaii. It takes a masterful person to transform raw fish (in this case, sushi-grade tuna and salmon), Japanese sushi rice, and vegetables into a satisfying bowl of deliciousness. At Pop Up Poke, located at the rear of Kaya Herb House on Lady Musgrave Road, award-winning, fine-dining trained, Jamaican-born, Miami-based chef Geoffrey Lee is a poke master.

Pop Up Poke, an iteration of The Pop Up Cartel, opened on Friday, April 23 and is Lee's first venture in his homeland. The big flavours he produces with his poke bowls belie the 300 square-foot space and watching him assemble each serving with infinitesimal detail almost feels intrusive. As if the cameras caught an artist during a personal moment.

At present, there are five bowls on the menu — Supa Spicy Tuna, Fire Salmon, OG Salmon or Tuna, Kimchi Salmon, and Kaya Blend, the eatery's vegetarian offering.

The base of each bowl comprises perfectly cooked sticky rice and premium furikake. A note about furikake: It is a unique Japanese seasoning made from toasted sesame seeds, nori (seaweed), salt, and sugar. It's made to sprinkle on top of rice and comes in various flavours. It's so good. Thursday Food has to agree with Chef Lee that the OG Salmon (or Tuna) will be the best seller. It tastes so amazing that the offer of a beverage was declined as we didn't want the flavours to be washed away.

Lee is deft at flavour combination and understands that various textures are integral to an excellent poke bowl. The freshness of the tuna, (when combined with the salinity of high-grade sesame soy sauce, the sweetness of mirin (Japanese rice wine), brightness of pickled vegetables (done daily in-house), the herbaceousness of baby spinach leaves, and umami flavour of a secret crunch blend and furikake), creates a dish that you'll crave repeatedly. In fact, Chef Lee's poke bowls won over our photographer, who doesn't like fish, and despises raw especially.

The Supa Spicy Tuna and Kimchi Salmon are, too, standouts. With such an edited menu, a chef has to ensure that each bowl is a star. And, Lee does just that.

There's no precise origin story for poke, except that it dates back to pre-colonial Polynesia and became a Hawaiian mainstay during the 1970s. Over the last five years, poke bowls have become so trendy that bandwagoning has resulted in the dish often being poorly executed. In some instances, what is called poke is quite far removed from what it is supposed to be. However, Lee exalts and reveres poke that each bowl seems almost sacred.