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Poke for the People 

Whether in a bowl or a roll, it’s all about the sushi at Fighting Fish

click to enlarge The sushi donut is one of several appetizers available at Fighting Fish.

Scott Elmquist

The sushi donut is one of several appetizers available at Fighting Fish.  

If you love sushi, you've probably already tried poke — that Hawaiian version of raw fish served atop a rice bowl and garnished with flavorful bits that usually include various pickles, avocado and a spicy sauce. Poke — pronounced poh-keh: do not ask for poh-kee — has essentially become sushi 2.0 over the past few years, and several spots have popped up in Richmond recently.

Fighting Fish, a cozy neighborhood restaurant that opened in April in Jackson Ward, is all in on poke. In fact, unless you're fully aboard the train, this probably isn't your restaurant. The poke is bright and inviting, but there's little else on the menu.

The dining room has a warm vibe, with 28 seats, three of those at the tiny bar. It can fill up quickly at lunchtime, so you might consider midday takeout. The service, while friendly, has a few gaps.

The sake mojito is a refreshing start to a raw fish meal, with the drink's funk cutting through the sugar and lime. It pairs well with the poke flight — three dishes of raw tuna or salmon pieces, each marinated in a different sauce. This tasting option is a smart choice for those who might be new to poke and looking for some flavor context before ordering more.

Please order the sushi donut. It's an absolutely beautiful arrangement of colorful fish, avocado, tobiko and salty sesame seed blend atop a round scoop of rice. With each bite comes a new combination of tastes and textures, and if you can hold off diving in long enough to snap a photo, your Instagram followers will love it.

The main course menu is divided into poke bowls, sushi burritos, salads and sushi rolls. There's not much here for vegetarians or vegans apart from a tofu bowl, a veggie roll and a side salad. For meat eaters, there is a Don Carnivore bowl, topped with sirloin and a tangy house chimichurri. I order my sirloin medium rare, but sadly the beef is more poached than seared. Stick with the fish.

The poke bowl concept is similar to a Korean bibimbap, or a Japanese donburi. Toppings are arranged in small clumps next to each other. The diner gets to choose what to mix — maybe one bite of rich, soft unagi with tangy, crispy pickled daikon and a little salty tobiko, then another of crunchy shrimp tempura with spicy pops of pickled jalapeño and ginger. Each bite is an opportunity to experiment, and you really can't go wrong.

The barbecue unagi bowl is a lovely arrangement of barbecued eel alongside bright bits of house-pickled onion, cucumber and jalapeño. Pickled ginger and daikon, fresh mango, seaweed salad and tobiko (flying fish roe) add pops of color and texture. The bowl arrives topped with two tempura shrimp and a piece of surimi (crab stick). I end up with white rice by default, because I forgot to ask about the brown rice or salad options and the server didn't prompt me. But carb-fearing diners needn't worry — there are far more toppings here than rice, and the whole thing makes for a party in your mouth.

For those who'd prefer not to play mix-and-match games with their food, the sushi burritos may be more satisfying. The large uncut sushi rolls are stuffed with fish, vegetables and pickles, with a slightly spicy, creamy dipping sauce on the side. I'm not a fan of this concept because the filling tends to squish out as you eat it. I'd rather just have the bite-sized pieces of a traditional sushi roll.

The Tiger Tempura roll is stuffed with tiger shrimp, lump crab, avocado, spicy tuna and tobiko. The tiger theme extends via a striped garnish of tangy orange mayo. It's a hefty roll and I'm not sure whether each piece warranted one bite or two. I go with one, and bulging cheeks. The tempura coating adds a welcome crunch.

The menu doesn't alert you, and our servers neglect to mention, that all main courses seem to come with miso soup and edamame for the table. We find some consistency issues here. On one visit, the edamame has much more of a salt garnish. The soups vary in strength — thick and cloudy with miso paste one night, and a bit more watered-down on another.

At one meal, after we order appetizers, the server invites us to put in our main course order before the apps arrived. We do, but then the apps and mains arrive all at once, along with the side soups and soybeans. The table is overflowing, and we're overwhelmed with too many options at one time.

Overall, the flavors at Fighting Fish are fresh and strong, and each dish offers a thoughtful mix of textures with an artistic eye to color. The various homemade pickles are well balanced between acid and sweetness. For sushi lovers who can overlook the small service and consistency issues, Fighting Fish is a great find. S

Fighting Fish
317 N. Second St.
308-1729
fightingfishrva.com
Wednesdays and Thursdays 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. and 5 - 9 p.m.
Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. and 5 - 10 p.m.
Sundays 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. and 5 - 9 p.m.

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