Every once in a while, a food writer comes across a restaurant concept that seems to have all of the intangibles necessary to be a mega-hit. It is a glimpse into the future. I won’t be the least bit surprised if in a few years, there are fast-casual poké chains in every neighborhood in L.A. and expanding across the country. And, to some degree, those restaurateurs can thank the team at Sweetfin Poké for breaking ground.
There are other poké restaurants in town, even in Santa Monica, where Alan Nathan, Seth Cohen and Brett Nestadt (USC alums) have set up shop. But what this joint appears to have going for it is a same model that seems to meet the demands of the modern consumer — a simple menu with customizable options, a tasty, health-conscious product and white-collar business district locations (yes, more are already planned, including a San Vicente spot in Brentwood).
Poké seems to be gaining popularity, as evidenced by its ubiquity on menus throughout the city. The Hawaiian dish, a raw fish salad of sorts, has its fairly recent albeit inexact origins in Japanese sushi. Sweetfin serves bite-sized chunks of albacore, tuna, salmon and snapper (as well as tofu or veggies) in bowls, over bamboo rice, kale salad or kelp noodles. A handful of sauces — ponzu-lime, creamy togarashi, yuzu koshu, etc. — spice it up, while a wide variety of add-ons allow for a unique experience (these include fruits and veggies, herbs and spices, crunchies, etc.).
But the modern diner is quite sophisticated and there is more to lunch than something quick and yummy. Chef Dakota Weiss understands this. A graduate of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute (now Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School), Weiss makes everything in-house. And the fish? From pole to bowl.
“We go through fish so fast, it’s crazy,” Cohen tells me. The line out the door of the nine-day-old restaurant near the corner of Broadway and Lincoln seems to confirm this.
The chef has worked in some of the finer kitchens in the country. In 2006, Angeleno magazine named Dakota a “Best New Chef” and Los Angeles Times food critic, S. Irene Virbila paid tribute to the chef, writing, “A little bit of whimsy and a lot of good cooking put this marina-side dining room [Jer-ne] on the map.”
Of course, another necessary component of a hit mini-chain is design. This space on Broadway is not large in terms of square-footage, although there is a sidewalk patio, but the naturally lit dining room has a stylish minimalism created by Santa Monica-based Studio Collective, renowned for other local hot spots, such as The Bungalow, Spare Room, Chi Lin, Rivabella, Library Bar, SLS and Sofitel hotels and more.
Synergy is clearly at work at Sweetfin Poké, with every element working in conjunction with the others. I’m giving you the heads-up now so that you’ll know what your mother means when you read on her Facebook page that she really likes “pokey.”
Santa Monica, California
Scott Bridges is an L.A.-based journalist who has worked as a police-beat reporter, a community newspaper editor, and a food and travel writer. He currently works as a freelance writer, contributing to The Huffington Post and Bizjournals.com, among other sites. He is a native Californian who lives on the Westside.
All photos courtesy of Scott Bridges.