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Restaurant review: Catch some wild poké at Food Fight's new fish-friendly spot

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The concept at Miko Poké is simple and streamlined. Here, Jeff Thompson adds veggies and sauces to Banzai Shrimp, one of six "House Favorites." 

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

If the dice-size chunks of salmon, ahi tuna and albacore at Miko Poké were cheese curds, they would squeak.

At Food Fight’s newest restaurant is a sleek counter service spot on Monroe Street where Bluephie’s Vodkatorium used to be. Open daily since Aug. 25, Miko Poké built on the simple poké bowl: fresh raw fish, often lean tuna, seasoned with soy sauce, sesame and scallions. There are a zillion variations, and the dish is so ubiquitous in Honolulu that one food writer called it “the hamburger of Hawaii.”

One doesn't have to be paleo to get why poké is now trending — it’s healthy, easily customizable and super fast. In Los Angeles, it’s a “craze.” A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported that poké is also having a moment in Manhattan, where fast casual spots have paved the way for Sweetcatch and “poké by the pound.”

Madison, earlier to the party than usual this time, will likely embrace these infinite variations on fish, rice and crunchy-spicy toppings. Miko Poké has a steely design and a straightforward concept in which poké packers take the place of sandwich artists, building bowls to diner specifications.

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Banzai Shrimp with brown rice at Miko Poké tastes like a deconstructed sushi roll. 

There are three options for the "base" — white rice, brown rice or greens — and three sizes, all in plastic deli containers. General manager Ben Brady said real bowls weren’t part of the original plan, but feedback from customers has him pricing out reusable dinnerware.

The smallest size, 8 ounces ($7.50), was enough for a snack and, frankly, too small for the number of ingredients in most of these bowls.

I found the 16-ounce regular ($10.50) to be a decent lunch, and a few 24-ounce ($14.50) containers of poké and some Hawaiian shave ice would make a fine family dinner.

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Black and white photos of employees' dogs and some from Instagram accounts are on the wall at Miko Poké in Madison.

Chef Scott Harrell, recently of Tru, Gilt Bar and Maude’s Liquor Bar in Chicago, has assembled six House Favorites with each available protein.

Best of the bunch was not, as I expected, the Hawaii-style with avocado, edamame and cucumbers, despite a soy-based poké sauce with sesame, ginger and garlic that improved everything I put it on. Because Miko Poké is based on assembly rather than composed cooking, a little too much aioli, as happened here, could make the bowl gloppy. Not enough left it dry.

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Stephanie Cline makes Cali Salmon, one of six "House Favorites" at Miko Poké. Diners have the option to start with white rice, brown rice or greens. 

That happened with a colorful vegan Coco Curry bowl, tossed seasonal vegetables, cantaloupe and a half dozen crispy and herby toppings. An aggressively healthy bowl of food, it had a good mix of textures but tasted mostly like coconut, and the whole thing was under-sauced. (Easy fix: “Can I get that with extra tahini/ coconut curry/ vinaigrette?”)

Instead, the best of the "favorites" was the Banzai Shrimp, with one of two cooked Miko Poké proteins, the other being chicken. Sautéed rock shrimp the size of fifty cent pieces swam with crunchy veggies, chili-spiced oranges and “volcano sauce” (chilies, rice wine vinegar and honey).

Made with brown rice, it tasted like a deconstructed sushi roll. Of all the “favorites,” that was the one I most wanted to recreate at home.

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Jars for the house made sauces sit on the tables at Miko Poké in Madison.

With each bowl holding, at minimum, a dozen ingredients, one or two flavors usually soared above the others. Zesty citrus and chili heat played that part in the case of the Spicy Albacore bowl, likely from the yuzu, spicy aioli and garlic chili oil.

Yet mixing each poké bowl didn’t eliminate gaps and variations: pockets of cool smashed avocado on top of warm brown rice, corners of serrano peppers, clusters of starchy soybeans.

It’s probably a metaphor for something — let’s say food trends in flux — how each bowl changed as we ate, the dressing pooling at the bottom, differences of spice and sauce in each bite. Trying each poké variation felt not only virtuous but consistently interesting, with no two bites the same.

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The large Cali Salmon at Miko Poké is made with avocado, cilantro, radish, cashews, yuzu, avocado lime aioli and fried shallots.

The list of toppings at Miko Poké is long, covering sweet (teriyaki pineapple), spicy (garlic chili oil), crunchy (fried shallots, snap peas) and pickled (ginger).

Options like teriyaki, ponzu and curry sauce gave me a nostalgic flashback to the Mongolian barbecue place we used to like after college football games.

With all those options, building your own bowl feels overwhelming. Try it anyway. Mix up ahi and salmon, or teriyaki chicken and shrimp. An extra $2.50 buys another one-ounce scoop of protein. And keep an eye on your poké architect — twice when we tried to BYO, the scooper got mixed up and had to start over.

Beyond poké itself, the rest of Miko Poké's menu is pretty brief. There are “sweet” potato chips ($2.50) that look cool but taste like regular kettle chips. There’s a seaweed cucumber salad ($5), a couple of Kona tap beers and Underwood wine in cans.

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Miko Poké's Hawaiian shave ice, shown here in caramelized pineapple and mango chile, tastes like a syrupy snow ball. 

Miko’s limeade ($3/ 16 ounces) was citrusy and sweet, but the sparkling Honolulu iced tea is my new favorite thing ($3). Slightly bubbly, it tasted like barely sweet pineapple tea, but apparently there’s cinnamon, lemongrass and mint in it too. If I felt confident enough to hack my SodaStream, I’d beg for the recipe.

And of course, the shave ice ($3.50)! President Obama’s favorite. This stuff is so good. Unlike pebbly snow cones where the syrup dives to the bottom, the flaked, snowball texture of a shave ice keeps tart ginger lime and bold purple-red agave hibiscus syrups from sinking.

Two flavors come per shave ice. Caramelized pineapple and passionfruit, mango chile and matcha green tea? Yes, and yes please. If Miko Poké had had a buzzy opening in June instead of the end of summer, the restaurant might have needed another machine to keep up with demand.

Next door, where the rest of Bluephie’s used to be, a New American restaurant called Everly is under construction. Brady said Food Fight hopes to open it by the end of October.

Meanwhile, lunch or dinner at Miko Poké is so quick and customizable, it would be no surprise to see a similar concept open downtown. Capitol workers could pick up a poké and a Pokémon on their lunch break.

Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.