All of Washington knows by now that poke is the hottest cold lunch in town. But mainland poke, as Hawaii residents call it derisively, is a departure from the traditional raw fish dish. Here, it’s covered in so many toppings, it’s beginning to resemble fro-yo. And there are so many poke shops, the trend is starting to feel like cupcake shops in 2011: a little stale.
Enter chirashi, an intricate bowl of rice and raw fish. But there’s an ocean of difference between Japanese chirashi and Hawaiian poke, even though the dishes have influenced one another. Poke bowls tend to be one or two types of fish — tuna and salmon, most frequently — marinated in one of several sauces and served on white rice — or, lately, brown rice or salad. Chirashi has no sauce and usually several types of fish, including tuna, salmon, yellowtail, eel, shrimp and roe. Other components might include pickled vegetables, tamago (a sweet omelet) and wasabi.
For those who love quality sushi but balk at the cost, chirashi is known as a good value.
“It’s cheaper than regular sushi, and it’s more variety of fish,” said Tetsuro Takanashi, chef-owner of Kintaro in Georgetown, where a chirashi bowl will set you back just $15 at lunch. Besides, he added, thanks to the rice and veggies, the bowls have “more volume,” meaning it’s easier to get full than on maki. The $22 bara chirashi at Sushi Taro is enough for two (you can also upgrade to a pricier chirashi with fancier fish).
What makes the dish a stunner is the way its ingredients are neatly arranged. The array of colors and textures — pink tuna, orange striped salmon, glistening roe and bright green wasabi — makes a chirashi bowl look like a treasure chest full of gems. At Sakerum, it’s presented as such: Your server will take the lid off a special bowl, revealing the trove inside, which is accented by a raw quail egg and edible flowers. The fish within are a selection of what the chef likes best that week: Hamachi, kampachi, salmon roe and several types of tuna are always present, and often joined by uni and other seafood.
Balance is key: “A little bit of oily fish, a little bit of light fish,” said Sakerum chef Khan Gayabazar. “The colors should match each other.”
The arrangement is important, too. “It’s kind of like building a house,” said Russell Smith, chef at The Source, which offers a $38 chirashi bowl.
Chikarashi, a poke-chirashi fusion restaurant with two locations in New York, takes inspiration from poke and chirashi, but also introduces cooked ingredients and untraditional flavors. And at Del Campo, the Latin American steakhouse in the District, there’s a chirashi influenced by the restaurant’s ceviches, with marinated tuna, scallops and smoked shoyu brown butter.
The appeal of chirashi is ultimately its beauty. It’s like a cubist masterpiece, except the fish seem to emit light from within. No wonder so many people Instagram their bowls.
777 I St. NW.
1039 33rd St. NW.
2204 14th St. NW.
575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.
1503 17th St. NW.
Multiple locations, New York.