It’s a sunny Friday morning in Victoria as our photographer Francis and I wander down Douglas St. towards Island Poké (pronounced poh-keh) – a brand-new restaurant we’ve been seeing all over social media lately. Situated just south of Fisgard a few doors down from everyone’s favourite Korean BBQ restaurant Sura, owners David and Mel Lee have finally brought the very first dedicated Poké restaurant to Vancouver Island.
For those that are unfamiliar with poké (Hawaiian for “to section” or “to slice or cut”), it’s basically a raw fish salad consisting of tuna, salmon, octopus, or shellfish marinated in traditional Asian seasonings like soy sauce, scallion, sesame oil, and seaweed, and served either by itself or in bowl format (on a bed of rice with a variety of other toppings).
As we enter the restaurant, the first thing we notice is how airy and modern the interior is. With ultra high ceilings, clean lines, ocean blue walls, and wooden accents everywhere, the space instantly relaxes you and brings you right into the moment, which makes sense because with the murals of surfboards and deep-sea fish adorning the walls, the aim is to transport you straight to the Hawaiian Islands – a place with a slower pace of life (and we thought we were chill on Vancouver Island, right?).
After visiting Victoria last summer on a holiday from Vancouver, David fell in love with the city. Like most of us who aren’t from here, he liked Victoria so much he decided to stay permanently.
With his dad being the owner of a line of franchise restaurants in his home country of Malaysia, David naturally had an interest in cooking from a young age, working in his dad’s kitchens and helping to open many restaurants. Although he doesn’t have any formal culinary training, the experiences he gained as a kid growing up in the restaurant industry eventually led David to becoming a sushi chef, which he focused on passionately for several years before going to BCIT to study carpentry.
After first moving here, David realized that the thing he missed most about Vancouver were all the delicious poké restaurants, and thus, he concluded that he should start one himself here in Victoria. With his training as a sushi chef/carpenter, and Mel’s background as a graphic designer, the two had all the skills they needed to start a seafood restaurant, creating the logo, menu design, tables, benches, service counter, and menu all from scratch. Talk about the dream team, right?
Anyways, as we take our seats at one of the beautiful tables David hand-crafted out of a slab of Douglas Fir, Mel brings us our first dish for the day – the Ohana Bowl. Atlantic salmon, crab, and albacore tuna sit atop a bed of cucumber, green onion, sweet onion, purple cabbage, cilantro, seaweed salad, sweet corn, tangerine, roasted sesame, sesame seeds, and rice, topped with a colourful burst of crushed nacho crisps. With so many things going on, it’s hard to pick out each individual component, but the seafood itself is rich, tender, and fresh. The rest of the ingredients contribute elements of sweet, sour, and savoury, but mostly serve to add textural contrast and colour. Overall, this bowl is everything you could possibly want it to be – refreshing, filling, and exciting with every bite.
The second dish she brings out is the Crunchii Bowl – very similar to the Ohana Bowl but with the addition of edamame, onion flakes, and a pastel green wasabi aioli artfully latticed across the top. All the same textural components and flavours are there, but with the wasabi aioli, the taste is sharper, more vivid, and unsurprisingly, more Japanese. If you’re a sucker for spicy foods and strong flavours like me, this will be your go-to for sure.
Next up is the Island Bowl. Ahi tuna and marinated tuna are piled gracefully on top of rice with spring onion, red radish, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeno, avocado, mayo, ponzu, nori, sesame seeds, onion flakes, and bread crumbs. Seemingly simpler than the other two we’ve had so far, do not be deceived by the delicate appearance, as this bowl packs a ton of subtle but complex flavour into each bite. If you take the succulent ahi tuna with a piece of avocado for creaminess and a slice of radish for crunch, you’ll soon find yourself smiling with each bite as the fatty fish melts in your mouth and dissolves into nothing but pure bliss. For those who are more interested in savouring the essence of the fish without all the other distractions, this one is for you.
With all that fresh fish in our bellies and the spirit of Hawaii in our souls, we are ready to tackle the day ahead of us with intention and purpose. As a business owner, David’s philosophy is to satisfy all customers who walk through the door with fresh delicious food, positive vibes, friendly service, and a reasonable price range. After enjoying such an amazing meal at the hands of David and Mel, it is safe to say that they tick off all those boxes with ease.
So, what are you waiting for? Make your way down to Island Poké today and grab a bowl for yourself – you’ll be hooked – line AND sinker 😉.