Poke is New York City’s newest fast-casual trend, and I’ve been wanting to get in on it for a while now. It doesn’t seem like a dish that’d be filled with nuts, but most of the poke joints I’ve come across offer some pretty nutty toppings, so until now, I’ve had to stay away. The brute force method seems to be serving me well, though, because I’ve finally found a safe option: Chikarashi, a new Canal Street spot that offers chirashi-inspired poke bowls.
Chikarashi isn’t your average counter-service restaurant, though. To start, you won’t be customizing much of anything; they pride themselves on their “curated” poke bowls, so you’ll just have to pick one. It’s headed by an actual chef (Michael Jong Lim of Neta) whose goal is to strike a balance between fine-dining and fast-casual, and he seems to have done just that. Chikarashi’s food is high-quality—their fish arrives fresh daily, all their seasonings and sauces are made in-house, and they have actual specials that vary by the day—but it’s quick, easy, and (relatively!) inexpensive, too. The food’s great, the prices are reasonable, and…well, I’m a fan.
Before I get started, I should probably explain a few things. Poke (which rhymes with “okay,” though it’s correctly spelled without the frustratingly common acute accent on the e) is basically a Hawaiian (raw) fish salad, usually made with tuna. In its base form, the dish has heavy Japanese influences, but Chikarashi’s spin on it is especially Japanese. I’m not sure I’d even classify their bowls as poke—but they do, so I suppose that’s the term I’ll have to use.
With regard to allergens, Chikarashi seems to be pretty safe. Their menu’s small and simple, and though they do offer a rotating cast of off-menu specials, they’ve assured me (both via email and in person) that they don’t use any tree nuts in their food. It’d be wise, perhaps, to double-check on that—especially given how often their menu changes—but in general, I feel safe eating there. (Also, as a bonus: Chikarashi serves Dole Whips—which are nut-free, as far as I know—for dessert.)
Anyway. Like I said, Chikarashi isn’t Chipotle—the menu doesn’t leave much up to you. That’s for the best, though, because whoever designed (sorry, curated) their bowls clearly knows what’s up. The first time I went, I ordered the Ponzu Salmon (a bowl made with salmon, wasabi ponzu, shiso, avocado, tobiko, and shichimi—pictured below, under some really yellow lighting). The smaller size cost me $12.99, and I probably would’ve minded, had it not been so good. The salmon was fresh, the avocado was ripe, and the shiso and tobiko were plentiful, which I appreciated. (Everyone’s so stingy with their tobiko. It’s awful.) I didn’t taste and wasabi, but I certainly tasted ponzu—and everyone knows I love ponzu.
That day, I only had one complaint, and it was that someone in the kitchen seemed to have no idea that it’s standard to trim the less-pretty bits off the salmon. Many of my salmon chunks had purple-gray edges to them, and though those edges didn’t taste bad, they were strange to see. (I’m used to that kind of thing when I trim my own salmon, but that’s just because my knife skills are terrible. I’m not used to that kind of thing in an otherwise-perfect dish of food that was prepared by someone who’s otherwise rather competent.) Small potatoes, though.
Since then, I’ve eaten the Ponzu Salmon a few more times, and it’s been great (though a little different) each time. Sometimes, there are sesame seeds. Sometimes, there are scallions. But the dish isn’t inconsistent in a hit-or-miss sort of way; rather, it’s exciting, and it can’t seem to let me down.
As good as the Ponzu Salmon is, though, I think I might prefer the Wasabi Mayo Tuna (made with bluefin tuna, wasabi mayonnaise, shichimi, shoyu daikon, and whatever else they happen to have thrown in that day). It sounds iffy, I know—mayo on raw fish usually sends me running—but this bowl is absurdly good. The tuna, though lean, tastes rather fatty, and the mayo adds a lovely creaminess to the dish. There’s usually nori, pickled ginger, and a whole bunch of crunchy stuff I can’t identify, too—and the bites that involve a little of everything are actually somewhat orgasmic. As a whole, the dish is a just hot enough (for me, a huge spice-coward), and I love it.
What I really want to talk about, though, is Chikarashi’s specials. Like I said, this place is way more of a restaurant than your average fast-casual lunch (or dinner) spot, and their crazy-good daily specials are part of the reason why that’s so. Earlier this month, I paid $34.99 for an unnamed large poke bowl made with seared otoro (pictured at the top of this post). There I was, ready to order my $12.99 Ponzu Salmon—but when the cashier told me there was otoro in the back, my plans had to change.
I wanted to hate it. I really did. I wanted to not spend the next few weeks of my life having to repeatedly talk myself out of dropping another $35 on bowl of fish and rice. For my wallet’s sake, I needed Chikarashi to disappoint me. But there was nothing disappointing about that dish. The otoro, well-seasoned and perfectly seared, actually melted in my mouth. I usually hate garlic chips, but these were actually good—and I usually can’t choke down more than a bite of cucumber, but I liked this bowl’s sesame-heavy slices. I always love ginger and I always love scallions, so those two were a no-brainer—but seriously: everything in that bowl was great.
The Roasted Salmon Kama, another off-menu special, is almost as good as the seared otoro, and at $16.99 for a large, it’s certainly a little more wallet-friendly. The portion of salmon is (of course) much larger than the otoro bowl’s portion of tuna, and you get to choose your sauce, too, which is nice. The cashier recommended ponzu, so ponzu it was, and boy, was I pleased. The salmon itself was great—the skin was crispy and the flesh was oh-so-soft—and the rest of the ingredients (scallions, cucumber slices, pickled something…) complemented it nicely. In all: Great. So great. (I didn’t get a photo, but here’s one from an Instagram account I like to drool at, and here’s one from Chikarashi’s own Instagram page.)
But enough about poke bowls. (By now, I think I’ve made it clear that Chikarashi’s are kick-ass.) Let’s talk about Dole Whips, mankind’s creamiest dairy-free creation to date. According to Dole’s website, their Whips are also gluten-free, fat-free, cholesterol-free, and vegan. There’s no mention of their being nut-free, but they certainly seem to be, and the nut-allergic community loves to sing their praises, so…I figured I’d give them a try.
Chikarashi sells pineapple Whips (and floats) as well as a rotating selection of other flavors (raspberry, on the day in question). I went with a pineapple Whip, and honestly, I was a little shocked at how good that thing was. It was dense and creamy, with an unmistakable real-pineapple flavor, and even at $4, I was happy to have sprung for it. (After all, it’s incredibly rare that I can buy a dessert that isn’t packaged. Not only are Dole Whips safe—they’re good, too.)
Honestly, Chikarashi is strange, paradoxical. The experience is fast-casual, but the food just isn’t. The prices are annoying, but they’re undeniably reasonable. And the whole place is a little pretentious, but it sort of has reason to be. Odd as it is, though, I really like it—and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone into poke. Or Japanese food. (Or soft serve!)
Find Chikarashi at 227 Canal Street, between Centre and Baxter.