Poké is new enough to our area that several of my dinner invitees had to ask, "What's that?" But it's ensconced enough now to be offered not only at sushi restaurants but at, say, a Birmingham steakhouse and at downtown's over-the-top Townhouse Detroit (with jalapeño and fried plantains in the former case; let fusion roll).
Owner Kaku Usui had rolled sushi at spots like Sharaku, Oslo, and Ronin, and opened his new place as chef-owner Sept. 7. While working at sushi bars, his wife Maikue explains, he'd "always found customers wanting to customize their rolls. He wanted a way to customize sushi, and then we discovered poké in California. A light turned on."
It's usual to explain poké, which originated in Hawaii, as "deconstructed sushi" — the rice, fish, and other ingredients are piled into a bowl rather than rolled into a roll. At Kaku Sushi & Poké, those other elements are numerous: five possible garnishes, like tiny arugula sprouts or chopped ginger; seven "mix-ins" (like Baskin-Robbins?) such as edamame, pineapple, or two types of seaweed; seven sauces, including ponzu, Sriracha — and garlic mayo!; and six toppings such as sesame seeds, wasabi, and scallions.
With the base of brown or white rice or arugula, and the protein, that's six steps you take to design your own poké. Avocado, tobiko (roe), or crab salad cost extra.
The ingredients are laid out salad-bar-style, well-labeled, and the rules are permissive. You can mix arugula and rice for your base and choose more than one kind of protein. Once all of the ingredients are in the bowl your server tosses them with the sauce.
Maikue Usui says most first-timers choose a bowl already designed by the chef, but on their next visit venture into customizing their own. If you want the pro to do it, there are five options. Usui has chosen arugula, shiso leaves, scallions, edamame, sesame seeds, crisp garlic, and two seaweeds to accompany ahi tuna, for example, along with a soy-based sauce. It's got a lot going on, but not too much to be delectable.
Somewhat spicier is his salmon ponzu bowl — with a citrus soy sauce, cucumber and jalapeño — or, even hotter, the spicy tuna bowl. Here, the tuna loses its beautiful ruby-burgundy color and its silky texture, as it has been minced super-fine and blended with a variety of spices and sauces. The result is a paste that's Halloween-orange but the just-right heat, combined with crisp onions and soy sauce, is worth the loss of texture.
Shrimp, scallops, and marinated tofu are the other protein possibilities. In all bowls, the fish is added with a liberal hand.
If you're old-school and want your raw fish tightly wrapped in nori, that's on the menu, too. You can order very reasonably priced eight-piece sushi rolls — not just the usual suspects. And when available, you can order toro, from the bluefin tuna's fat belly, for $12. In Japan it's the most valuable part for its rich and tender qualities.
Eight kinds of nigiri are also possible, including large scallops. My favorite was eel, which to my taste buds has as much umami as any food out there. If I have any squeamish readers still following here — yes, there are people who won't eat raw fish — it may help to know that eel is served cooked.
Again, if you're a ditherer, Usui makes your life easier by suggesting his own selection of rolls and nigiri: the Sushi Lite group of 12 pieces or the Sushi Just-Right of 16.
We found the tuna at Kaku blander than we preferred, and the poké bowls higher priced than at some other places, but there was only one dish I disliked: a seaweed salad that tasted canned, though I'm sure it wasn't.
Beverages are teas from the cooler and fancy waters such as "coconut antioxidant infusion."
The place is small, with just four four-person tables. Decor is Japanese-minimal, with wood floors, white walls, and four charcoal-gray circles on the walls. Everything is very clearly explained, so it's welcoming to the uninitiated or the maven alike, and it was doing a brisk business within a month of opening.
As more Detroiters grow to love poké, perhaps we'll become as ultra-discerning as the L.A. resident I dined with, who said Kaku was fine but he preferred "Venice Beach-style."