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Wong ready to share real deal with poke-hungry New York

Erika Engle
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STAR-ADVERTISER / MAY 29,2014

Chef Lee Anne Wong

Chef Lee Anne Wong’s work as consultant for a new poke restaurant will be revealed Monday in New York.

The first of three Sweetcatch Poke restaurants planned for Manhattan will open at 642 Lexington Ave. — or 54th and Lex, as Wong describes it — and she will be on hand to gauge reactions.

Wong, chef at Koko Head Cafe and an alumna of the “Top Chef” TV cooking competition, said Sweetcatch isn’t just “another business hopping on the poke bandwagon. We are doing Hawaiian-style poke … authentic poke.”

Mainlanders who don’t know better have published recipes for poke that include ingredients such as pineapple that are not found in authentic, Hawaiian- style poke or in the Asian-influenced versions familiar in Hawaii.

Not only is Wong concerned about such aberrations, she’s also focused on improving the quality of the fish used. This means Sweetcatch, owned by Bobby Kwak, credited with elevating Korean barbecue with his Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong restaurants, will charge premium prices, but Wong says it’s time consumers understand the cost of quality.

The New York Times described poke as “New York’s latest craving,” generating long lines at restaurants around the city, but Wong says few of them are doing it right.

“All these poke places are using low-quality fish,” and what they’re serving isn’t really poke as we understand it, Wong said.

The fish she sees commonly used has been previously frozen and gassed with carbon monoxide to help preserve color and to potentially mask an aging piece of fish. While doing market research in New York, Wong consented to taste poke that she had reservations about and got food poisoning, she said.

Help-wanted advertising for the new Sweetcatch emphasized that any prep-cook applicant must be a “CLEAN worker.”

The restaurant will import sustainably caught ahi from Hawaii as well as other types of fish and seafood from the islands and from the Atlantic Ocean as well, Wong said.

Sweetcatch Poke will sell poke by the pound, primarily to go, but also will offer New Yorkers some chef-driven, signature poke bowls in a potential pau hana hang, serving other Hawaii treats like taro chips, arare, spicy garlic edamame and seaweed salad, alongside Hawaii-made beers.

“This poke restaurant is going to be so different from what’s out there,” she said.

She wants to change consumers’ tastes by educating them about sustainable, quality ingredients, Wong said, adding that she doesn’t want customers who are only looking for the cheapest way possible to get a poke fix.

The expectation among mainlanders that they can have a serving of raw fish for under $10 needs to be corrected, she said.

“Seafood is precious,” and most people have no idea about the path food takes to get to their plates, said Wong.

The chef was neither born nor raised here, but has family in Hawaii. She maintains homes in both New York and on Oahu and, despite her East Coast upbringing, has largely been claimed by the Hawaii culinary community as one of its own.

Sweetcatch’s poke offerings will be market-priced, and because Hawaiian ahi is already a premium fish, the poke won’t come cheap. A pound of premium ahi poke with ogo, also imported from the islands, could run $20, she said, depending on food costs, though a customer also could order a 4-ounce serving.


Send restaurant news and notes to erika@staradvertiser.com or call 529-4303. Follow her on Twitter @eriKaengle


7 responses to “Wong ready to share real deal with poke-hungry New York”

  1. justmyview371 says:

    Previously frozen and gassed ahi — that’s what I eat. Fresh poke is not much better and the previously frozen and gassed poke is significantly cheaper but still expensive. You can buy it at Safeway, Times, etc.

    • DemBones says:

      I often shop at Marukai where they post information about their previously-frozen ahi poke. It say that it is previously frozen, treated with carbon monoxide gas to make the flesh red rather than grey, and imported from the Philippines. Nothing about that says “delicious.” Note that our current hepatitis-A outbreak was traced back to frozen raw scallops from the Philippines. I had eaten raw scallops purchased in a sashimi bento from Marukai during the peak of the infection, I called them and asked them about the origin of the scallops, they told me Japan, Whew!

  2. plaba says:

    Hawaii claims Wong as one of our own? I never heard that. She doesn’t seem local to me; just another mainland chef.

  3. Workingrl says:

    You can get poke bowls in Hawaii for less than $10.

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