Wanting a splash of Hawaii to brighten a drab day, a friend and I stopped into Little Bear, a fast-casual poke restaurant that opened on Bellevue Avenue in Montclair in May. Poke (pronounced poh-kay) is gluten free, sushi-related and served in 2018’s culinary must, a bowl.
Modern it’s not: poke is a traditional Hawaiian preparation of seasoned raw seafood served over rice or vegetables. Owners Noelle Hozumi and her sister, Bridget Placek, and Bridget’s husband, David Placek, developed the menu with help from a Hawaiian chef they know, John Adams, a culinary veteran who does breakfast and lunch at his Anuenue Café on Kauai.
The space has that freshness-meets-efficiency sparkle of a Chipotle. It’s clean and open, mostly off-white, with bright blue plastic chairs and lots of windows to let in light.
There are small tables plus a communal table facing Bellevue Avenue. Apart from the chairs, the biggest concession to color was the wall-mounted Lego “canvas” where kids can assemble a picture in plastic bricks.
The menu is, in fact, kid-friendly. Little Bear recommends its onigiri (Japanese rice balls filled with seasoning, fish or pickled plum, $2.50-$3.50 each). Or try the $9 Baby Bear Special, a mini poke bowl topped with cooked fish or your choice of topping, plus a “sweet treat” and a drink.
We started with the appetizer special, avocado crisp, like avocado toast for the sushi set: avocado mash with edamame for textural contrast, spread on a small toasted rice cake that had a nutty, slightly too chewy crunch.
The poke bowls come in two categories: Signature (five composed choices, $15-$16.50) and Build Your Own (choose a base, a protein, a sauce, mix-ins and toppings, $15).
We both chose Signature bowls. My friend’s Bear-i-Yaki was fairly traditional—a mound of sticky rice topped with cubes of seasoned raw tuna, pineapple chunks and crunchy shreds of roasted kale. There was a surprising harmony between the kale’s delicate roasted flavor and the ultra-tender tuna. My fish-wary friend had considered ordering seamed tuna—Little Bear always has a cooked protein—but he wolfed this down, reveling in the lusciousness and light touch of sweet, house-made teriyaki sauce.
My bowl, the Midori, showcased scallop done as lightly acidic ceviche, with minced red bell pepper and subtly spicy radish sprouts. Instead of rice, this came on baby greens, which were a little dry but did give the dish a virtuous lightness. Kudos to Little Bear for sourcing its fish locally and sustainably with help from companies like Asbury Park’s Local 130.
Little Bear’s shaved ice is worth trying. A big machine shaves a cylinder of crystal-clear ice into a flurry of snowflake-light crystals. You choose from a roster of house-made fruit syrups, with optional toppings like chewy azuki red beans, a “snow cap” of sweetened condensed milk, or house-made fruit compote.
We went for the seasonal mango-ginger shaved ice, generously drizzled with sticky, sweetened condensed milk. And just like that, it didn’t seem so drab out.
Little Bear Poke, 254 Bellevue Avenue, Montclair; 973-337-5151