On The Back Of Dallas’ ‘Sushi Sameness’ Comes The Best Raw Bar In Town
When I moved to Dallas in the early 1980s, a poll in a (long since bankrupt) local newspaper reported that “80 percent of Dallas people won’t eat sushi.” Twenty years later, in post dotcom euphoria, it appeared that the whole town had been zoned for sushi. The trouble is, places that stand out from the crowd are hard to find. To that small list add a legit contender that opened in February in Uptown’s West Village area, recently revved up under its new director of marketing, Julius Pickenpack. Pōk the Raw Bar is a schizophrenic gourmet, uncompromising raw bar, and a poké street food counter all stuffed into 1,300 square feet and masterminded by a former Nobu chef Jimmy Park, who was the youngest man ever to be offered an executive chef position for the upscale chain. The offer was made three times to Park but never accepted. It was turned down twice due to family or career reasons, and the final ‘no’ was to become part owner and culinary leader of Pōk following a chance meeting with founders Brandon Cohanim and Francois Reihani at Nobu Dallas.
Cohanim and Reihani are somewhat high-flyers themselves, being restaurant entrepreneurs who double as sophomores at Southern Methodist University (SMU). Although, when I met Cohanim at Pōk’s media event (Reihani was laid low with flu), he was due to speak to an SMU MBA class the following day, so being the co-CEO of a functioning restaurant has already cast him with street cred. And far from being a Daddy Moneybags-funded folly, Pōk is planning expansion. Looking at the business they did on a Tuesday night, I would believe it was all funded from cash-flow.
That is where the split identity looms large. The poké bar is thoroughly transportable and replicable, right down to the Imagine X Inspire slogan, hip décor (by Reinaldo Diaz of Miami), staff outfits, and menu. However, chef Jimmy’s raw bar is Jimmy’s, and he will be hard to Xerox.
Arrive early for one of the five seats at the raw bar. (Service is also available at one of the half-dozen inside tables or on the dog-friendly patio, but the show is not.) Ask for the Trust Me, Park’s omakase, and sit back for a paced cavalcade of sushi, sashimi, and cooked small plates whose precision and provenance will wow you.
The Unforgettables: delicate sashimi with a hint of garlic purée, micro cilantro and serrano chilies, and a sauce of yuzu soy. As a pre-prandial step we were required to down a mountain berry to cleanse our plates. The sweet and sour yuzu soy had me wanting to drink it straight from the bowl. The tang of serrano was all but swallowed up in the gelatinous flesh of tuna and salmon.
Genuine wasabi is grated finely on a piece of shark skin. Its use is confined to specific parts of the menu. Even Park cannot afford to use the expensive stem as the routine wasabi.
The fat part of New Zealand king salmon, wild caught and fashioned into nigiri are topped with bubu arare (Lilliputian-scale rice crackers). The rice is shari, ‘salted’ with red wine vinegar rather than regular rice vinegar. It accounts for the rice looking a little on the browner side. The Japanese rice warmer, or shari warmer, keeps the rice at body temperature at all times. Park considers this sine qua non for good sushi. A touch of arashio salt ties a bow on the magic.
Yari Ika (spear squid) is just laid, as if to sleep, on mint leaf-wrapped rice, drizzled with lemon juice, and sprinkled with that arashio salt again.
Every sushi restaurant serves salmon eggs, but often straight from the box they are slimy and fishy. Park washes them in a salt water bath to get all the sliminess off and then marinates them in a sauce, the recipe for which we will have to wait until the next release of Wikileaks to know. All that he is conceding for now is that among the ingredients are soy sauce and sake.
Scuba diving with sea urchins gives one a ringside seat into their eating habits and a reticence about putting one anywhere close to one’s body, let alone ingesting one. I have to admit that Jimmy Park’s uni may be the best therapy yet for scuba divers who contract PUSD (post-urchin stress disorder). It is a rich mouthful of umami and earthiness.
Despite the cramped confines, Park expertly wields a blowtorch to scorch the skin of sea eel cooked in a sauce of its own broth. The result is an almost toasty edge to the distinctive flavor of the fish.
I was too well fed to manage desert but was given a mountain peach anyway. Like its mountain berry brethren earlier, it served a sterling role as a palate cleanser.
Of course, you could come in for the poké bowls. While we occupied the raw, bar dozens of punters did. Many, judging from the welcomes, were regulars. It is the familiar build-your-own-bowl model that seems to work so well with poké. Or you could come in for the matcha (tea) which comes in several vibes. On the beverage side there are four (mediocre) wines, four sakes, and three Japanese beers. If the raw bar splits off, the potential to match wine with sushi is huge.