190620POKE

Gazette restaurant reviewer Bill Livick and a guest enjoyed their Zen, left, and Mango Tango poke bowls during a recent visit to Freshfin Poke on University Avenue in Madison. The Zen bowl, a vegan dish, featured shiitake mushrooms, sweet potatoe, avocado, carrots, cucumbers, daikon, cilantro lime and sauce, while Mango Tango includes rice, sushi-grade Atlantic salmon, mango, edamame, avocado, cilantro, Thai chili ginger, crispy onion, scallions and black sesame seeds.

MADISON

Fast, healthy and delicious. That pretty much describes the fare at Freshfin Poke, one of a half-dozen poke restaurants that have opened in Madison in the last few years.

Poke, for the uninitiated, is a raw-fish salad that originated in Hawaii and has been all the rage on the American culinary scene recently, evolving along the way to encompass a range of ingredients and moving beyond simply raw fish for protein.

Imagine a big bowl of white or brown rice (or mixed greens or kohlrabi noodles) loaded with sushi-grade Atlantic salmon, mango, edamame, avocado, cilantro, Thai chili ginger, crispy onion, scallions and black sesame seeds. That describes one of Freshfin’s signature dishes, Mango Tango, which is definitely all the food I could eat in a single sitting for $14.95 (or $10.95 for a regular, which is the size that most diners tend to order, according to a Freshfin staff member).

Business partners Nate Arkush and Andrew Foster launched Freshfin in the Milwaukee area in 2017, opening restaurants at three locations—the Third Ward, inside the Milwaukee Bucks Fiserv Forum and in Brookfield—before tackling the Madison market last September. Their Madison eatery, in The James apartment building at the corner of Gorham Street and University Avenue, has become a popular place for a quick lunch or casual dinner.

The bright space has floor-to-ceiling windows and a nautical-themed design that includes rope and decorative fish hanging from the ceiling. The vibe is minimalist and contemporary.

Customers place orders at a counter and can dine in or take their meals to go. Orders are prepared in a separate kitchen and are quickly delivered to your table when ready.

Freshfin offers several signature bowls with fresh toppings, including the classic spicy tuna bowl and the coconut curry shrimp bowl (both $10.95 for a regular size). The former features yellowfin ahi tuna with edamame, jalapeno, cucumber, sriracha aioli, sweet soy sauce, onion and tobiko (flying fish roe). The latter combines shrimp with mango, cilantro, carrots, toasted coconut, curry aioli and crispy onion. Both pile the toppings over rice, greens or kohlrabi “noodles.”

There are also nonfish signature options. Cilantro and chicken are the stars of a bowl that includes carrots, kale, edamame and onion, while the vegan Zen bowl ($7.95 for regular; $11.95 for large) features shiitake mushrooms, sweet potato, avocado, carrots, cucumbers, daikon, cilantro lime and a classic sauce.

I’m a big fan of Freshfin’s Kailani bowl ($10.95/$14.95), which manages to fit chicken, shrimp and avocado in a bowl with edamame, jalapeno, daikon, pineapple, cilantro lime, sriracha aioli, onion, crispy garlic and pickled ginger. It is a terrific balance of flavors and textures in a single bowl.

There is even a bowl for pork lovers. Kalua pork ($11.95/$14.95) features slow-cooked pork with mango, daikon, cilantro lime, sriracha aioli, sweet shoyu, garlic, pickled carrots and onions.

Customers who want to “build their own” bowls can choose a base (white or brown rice, mixed greens or kohlrabi noodles) and a protein (yellowfin ahi tuna, salmon, shrimp, pork or chicken) and then pick from a long list of toppings—some already mentioned and others such as seaweed salad, blanched kale, cucumbers, radish, toasted coconut, mango, pineapple and tobiko.

Vegans can replace the protein choices with shiitake mushrooms, sweet potato or avocado.

Every salad can use a good dressing, and Freshfin’s house-made sauces definitely hit the mark with garlic ponzu, Thai chili ginger, cilantro lime and sriracha aioli. Freshfin is all about healthy and tasty food, and the only missteps we encountered involved dry chicken in the cilantro chicken bowl (perhaps it had been cooked too long) and pork that was a bit too chewy.

For sides, there is a truffle crab salad ($1.95 for small; $3.95 for large) or a standard seaweed salad ($1.45/$2.95). We sampled both and weren’t impressed, but another side, edamame hummus, won us over with its rich flavors. The dish was served with goat cheese, smoked salmon and a few rice crackers.

Freshfin doesn’t serve beverages with alcohol, but a line of cold-pressed juices is available along with kombucha and various sparkling waters.

With a friendly staff and a super clean and sleek dining room, Freshfin Poke could represent the latest trend in healthy dining. But with great-tasting food served in generous portions, this place is likely to have staying power long after the trend has passed.

Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.

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