All the delicious things to look forward to at Poké Poké
My belly gets tied up in knots whenever Kel Zaguirre sends an invite for a meal. The first time was in Locavore. Quite unacquainted with the chef’s style back then, it felt like regular Filipino hospitality when he presented to a group of eight a table most of see during a piyesta. This happened two more times. When he invited for Empingao!, he had already fed us five dishes—including sandwiches—when he conveniently added that we were about to start on the main courses. When he invited for Carnivale, he brought out so much stuff that we were surprised he didn’t make us eat the actual menu. Looking at our staggered faces, he pleaded “one more dish.” Five times.
This heavy feeling is a mix of anticipation, hunger, plus the traces of his last unapologetic lunch weighing down our stomachs, as if to remind us that we haven’t fully recovered. When he called about his latest project, Poké Poké, with old friends from Locavore, I silently sent praise to the heavens. Finally, a meal with the chef without wanting to roll ourselves out the door in the aftermath.
Traditionally made with raw seafood, poké originated in Hawaii, light, salad-like, and served usually as an appetizer. Ahi tuna is a popular choice, but the dish has been flexible to other main ingredients. It’s similar to ceviche, kinilaw, carpaccio, and tartare. From New York to Manila, poké is one of 2016’s most celebrated dishes.
Two days later, I received a text message of warning from the chef. There was going to be a lot of food. The knots tightening to an impermeable sailor’s knot; I couldn’t tell if it was excitement or nerves or famishment.
Poké Poké will open late in November, the highlight beautiful poké assembled over Japanese rice—kind of like a chirashi. “There are 12 bowls for now, all inspired by flavors apart from the traditional poké,” explains Kel. As if the fluffy Japanese rice wasn't enough to stimulate our appetite, Chef Kel fuels things with a special soy sauce. The final bowls—each a stunning display of bibimbap-reminiscent colors—are fortified with vinaigrettes and dressing, sometimes up to four.
Salmon and tuna feature prominently on the menu, from the Samurai to the Unaju. They're fresh, sashimi-grade, and, amid the containers of toppings, it takes a huge amount of will power not to just dash away with it and the bottle of soy sauce. It's amazing what he can do with such similar ingredients, shifting flavors with a few extra splashes of chili flakes or an extra crown of uni or an extra pinch of this special pink sushi salt that teeters between candy sweetness and seafood-y saltiness. He even resorts to pineapple, iconically Hawaiian, but an element he's not particularly fond of for savory food. What's important is how he makes us like it—something that pizza chains have been attempting for years. Maybe because he pairs it with a crumbly feta instead of the usual mozzarella.
Chef Kel borrows elements from other cuisines: Sriracha mingles with kani, unagi fools around with shawarma sauce. Poké may be Hawaiian, but the menu blurs the lines of geography. Whichever flavor you get, the bowls showcase equal levels of carbo-loaded complexities, separated only by customer preferences. A personal favorite is the Only for the Rich. It's steak, chopped up and freshly fired, with crispy bacon, half an ajitama egg, tobiko, chimichurri, and truffle oil. You could almost consider it a regular rice bowl, but I probably won't get those flavors elsewhere. Not everyone can use truffle oil and make it actually matter.
Chef Kel hasn't backed away from his style. He is still bold, brazen, almost shameless in the way he goes beyond locality and theme for the sake of producing flavor. But these little additions, seeming excesses take a bowl of rice to something spectacular. The crispy chicken skin in his Korea-inspired Gangnam Style with mangoes and sashimi, the grapes that burst life into the combination of sashimi (try the Tako for good measure. You're welcome), the quinoa in the Hawaiian that adds a texure more fitting with the cauliflower rice.
One of the more classic offerings, Cali features a nice mango mayonnaise with avocado, kani, raw fish.
Samurai: three peppers, salmon, tuna, radish, onions, sea urchin, ebiko, kimchi aioili, roasted sesame dressing
Dragon: poached shrimp, salmon, unagi, shoyu, and tare
Gamberetti: shrimo, garlic shawarma sauce, peppers, uni
Unaju: eel with tare and shoyu
Taku: chimichurri and Dijon vinaigrette, walnuts, grapes, octopus
Gangnam Style: sashimi, kani, mangoes, chicken skin, shoyu, and Sriracha
For the Rich: steak, bacon, uni, egg, tokibo, shoyu, chimichurri, and truffle oil
The Hawaiian: quinoa with cauliflower rice, pineapples, feta, and Sriracha
The food at Poké Poké is calculated, methodic, each speck of seasoning working over time to make that bowl of carb worth it. He pickles the onions to find an appealing middleground between the traditional bite of the raw variety and the sweetness of cooked ones; chicken will be available to kids—as well those who need a bit of a gateway to raw fish salads; bowls can customizable because that's really part of the fun when it comes to this dish. There was never an issue with Chef Kel's cooking. In fact, he's been so effective that my experiences at any of his restaurants have never really left, but Poké Poké shows a different side. A lightness and restraint that only the more mature folks in the kitchen can pull off ever so elegantly.
Eight bowls of rice later, and I'm already counting down the days to when the first branch opens in Estancia.
A second branch in SM Aura Premier, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City is also underway. Most of the photos were taken without the final dressing for better detail.