The team behind Manhattan's popular Korean barbecue restaurant Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong is getting into the fast casual game — with poké bowls from chef Deuki Hong and Top Chef veteran Lee Anne Wong. Several of the poké restaurants — called Sweetcatch Poké Bar — are expected to open this year in Manhattan. "We genuinely like to eat this," Hong says. "We feel like New York needs this."
The Hawaiian poké bowl — where raw fish and veggies are served over a bowl of rice — is quickly becoming a fast-casual trend on the mainland in Los Angeles, and already, several poké restaurants have opened in New York in the last year. Hong says Circle Hospitality Group was looking to open new restaurants that are more accessible than Baekjong, where people often wait hours for a table. They fell for poké. "I actually love poké. Our whole group loves poké," Hong says. "Everyone expects us to do something Korean. I don't care. We're going to do whatever we like to eat." Poké, as Eater's Hillary Dixler reported earlier this year, is also a concept that's ripe for reproduction in the fast-casual market due to its customization potential and similarity to sushi flavor profiles.
Circle Hospitality Group partners have been trying to eat in as many poké restaurants in Los Angeles and Hawaii as possible for preparation, and the resulting menu at Sweetcatch will likely be a combination of the two styles. They found that in Hawaii, the raw fish often marinates a while before serving, and in LA, it's more popular for the marinade to be added right before putting the fish over rice, often with the customer choosing which sauce they want. "It's great because it caters to the 'have it your way' mentality," Hong says of the LA style. "But for me, I like that pure, raw, simple, clean way of the Hawaiians. I think at least for us, we're going to try to find a middle ground." It won't be a "Korean poké spot," but touches like Korean chili paste will make it slightly different from traditional Hawaiian poké, Hong adds.
Further details about the menu are still being worked out, and the team has not announced the exact locations yet, because they're still nailing down leases. The team wants to become a go-to hospitality group in the city, Hong says, and Sweetcatch is just one of several other projects happening this year. "All my friends are like, 'Why the hell are you doing poké?'" Hong says. "We're about what we feel New York wants. You won't see me do some $200-per-person tasting menu any time soon. We're about casual hospitality."