"In nature, lemon sharks don't just eat whatever is in front of their face — they only eat fish of a certain maturity and nutritional value," Adler says. "Basically they feed finely, hence our tagline, and they're one of the only sharks that roam in pools, which is why we're very much about the open space and community tables so that people can come in with friends, family, co-workers, and introduce them to the concept as well."
Based in California, LemonShark now boasts 17 locations nationwide, including the Clayton outpost, which is the first in Missouri. A St. Louis native, Adler was first inspired to open the poke (pronounced POH-kay) concept four years ago while living in California. Having eaten a pescatarian diet for years, Adler loves LemonShark's focus on fresh fish and seafood (although proteins of all stripes, including tofu, are served here).
"The franchise did a lot of due diligence to find the right vendors to make sure the food is fresh and meets our quality standards," Adler says. "We go with vendors that have the most ethical practices that we can; like our tuna, for instance, is line-caught by hand instead of net-caught so it can't harm other sea life. The various vendors that they've chosen have been nothing but positive; I have zero complaints."
Located in the Ceylon building in Clayton, LemonShark features a sleek and modern interior with decor and accents that reflect the poke focus in fun ways, including wall coverings in a scale pattern and coastal artwork.
"For some people it's almost too many options; they don't trust themselves to maybe make the best combination or they're a little overwhelmed, so that's why we have the signature creations," Adler says. "I think the fast-casual format with this particular cuisine is exciting to people because it's like more approachable sushi, and a better value for your money, and I think people wanted that."
House signatures include the Aloha Tuna, with ahi tuna, spicy tuna, edamame, cucumber and seaweed salad, red onion, ginger, crispy garlic, spicy mayo and eel sauce, and the Power Bowl, with spring mix salad, quinoa, ahi tuna, avocado edamame, cucumber salad, pineapple, green onion and spicy ponzu sauce.
"I always tell people that if raw fish isn't their thing, no worries: We have hot bowls with coconut curry chicken, teriyaki chicken, or hot plates with coconut shrimp or other chicken options," Adler says. "And then our small bites, like the Spam musubi and the spicy tuna crispy rice are good intros to poke to try and get you started."
To complement its quick and healthy eats, LemonShark introduced a menu of craft beer, wine and saki last Friday. Local options include Full-Life Lager and Incarnation IPA from 4 Hands Brewing Co., blueberry-lavender and Ace pineapple ciders from Brick River Cider and three canned cocktails from 1220 Artisan Spirits: Gin Boogie, cucumber-hibiscus and lavender-lemonade. Two canned wines are also offered (Ava Grace Pinot Grigio and rosé) as well as Nigori unfiltered sake and Zipang sparkling sake.
Although Adler freely admits that poke is no longer as uncommon in town, she believes that LemonShark offers an expanded and different kind of experience for diners.
"When I started this process there weren't any poke places in St. Louis," Adler says. "It's been fun to introduce people to something new that they haven't tried and give them something that's so customizable."To that end, Adler hopes to add a self-service tap option soon so that customers can pick and pour their own beers and ciders. LemonShark also serves a range of creative non-alcoholic drinks, including two flavored housemade lemonades — hibiscus and herbal mint — as well as craft sodas from Stubborn Soda in flavors like lemon-berry-açai and black cherry-tarragon.
"The lunch crowd [in Clayton] is so good, and it just seemed like something that was needed in the area," Adler says. "And the residents [of the Ceylon building] have been awesome; we can't ask for anything better than to be at the base of a residential building where people come see us all the time. We're very lucky that we've had so many great repeat customers, both residents and otherwise; we're at like a 50:50 return rate right now, and to have that in the first two months is awesome. It's been very exciting to see people come back and come back so frequently."
LemonShark Poke is open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
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