If you think Austin’s poke fad is trending downward, Jon Alexis would like to change your mind. On November 15, the owner of TJ’s Seafood Market & Grill, is bringing his Dallas concept, Malibu Poke, to the Seaholm District with a new twist on the Hawaiian-born favorite.
The first difference from the Capital City’s many poke chains is the restaurant's menu. To create the offerings, Alexis worked with James Beard-nominated chef Matt McCallister of FT33 to create the mix-and-match menu using sustainable sashimi-grade seafood and produce sourced from local farms.
Although traditional bowls are offered, the team drew inspiration from other cuisines to make the offerings at this eatery — the brand's third — unique. “In today’s food culture where appropriation is a really serious conversation, we do not in any way want to present ourselves as serving Hawaiian-style authentic poke,” Alexis explains. “It’s more like The Clash covering ‘I Fought the Law.’ It doesn’t sound like the ’50s version; it’s the Clash’s version.”
That approach translates to a host of fusion flavors like smoked bonito aioli, coconut curry, and umami powder. Preparation of the ingredients also involves far more than just chopping. The seaweed salad is a custom blend of four different species, and cauliflower rice is seasoned in the same fashion as sushi rice. “We’re just stretching and pulling to see how much further we can go with it," says Alexis.
The innovations aren’t just relegated to the food. Malibu Poke features intuitive touchscreen ordering kiosks that allow guests to customize the bowls. The system — mirrored on an upcoming app — rewards repeat visits with facial recognition software tied to the customer’s ordering history. A cheat sheet also lists what is compatible with various diets from Whole 30 to paleo to vegan.
Alexis is quick to point out that the screens are not a substitute for service. Self-ordering allows customers to easily make a bowl that fits in with their diet, but employees will be stationed near the kiosks to help with the interface and explain unfamiliar ingredients like furikake or Japanese sancho pepper.
“We really want to be the restaurant that each person needs and I think that's a very different way of looking at restaurants,” Alexis says.
In keeping with its healthy bent, Malibu Poke also keeps the alcoholic offerings low ABV. On tap are local beers from Adelbert’s and Real Ale, wines, and sake, which will also be made into cocktails. Alexis is also bringing in fermented liquors, which creates a product that is low enough in alcohol to be served under a beer and wine permit.
Famed Austin architect Michael Hsu was trusted with the space, which blends au courant touches like millennial pink banquettes and bountiful plants with signatures like oversized rattan lighting fixtures.
“We wanted to be a part of what makes Austin so great ... so we went with what we thought was the premier Austin designer," Alexis says. "You’ll notice there’s not a single grass skirt, not a single luau pig with an apple in it.” A little cheese, however, is allowed in the soundtrack, a mix of deep cuts from the Yacht Rock-era of Christopher Cross and Hall and Oates.
The restaurant is certainly inspired by coastal California and island cuisine, but somehow it all adds up. Austin may be a landlocked city, but it just may be where Malibu Poke needed to dive.