Noreetuh Brings Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine to the Big Apple
A new, hot, haute Hawai‘i-inspired restaurant on the Lower East Side? That’s chutzpah, but works for us.
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THE SILKEN TOFU, $14.
Photos: Courtesy of Noreetuh
We’d changed our reservations three times due to plane delays and were lucky to even have a table at one of the newest restaurants hailed by The New York Times. Yet, when we realized we were seated between two exuberant celebrations that made it difficult to converse, our host, still smiling, found us a table in the front room. The New Yorkers in our party were delighted: “Did we just experience aloha?” they asked; we nodded, proud as new parents. And, just like that, Noreetuh felt like our baby.
An upscale, even haute Hawai‘i restaurant opening in New York City seemed like such a stretch when we first heard about it. Yet our Island hearts gave little leaps. We’re suckers that way; we root for Bruno, Marcus, Bette, anyone from here who tries to make it anywhere. Fortunately, we already had plans to visit the most intrepid young dining couple we know in Gotham. They hopped on the reservations, we hopped on the plane.
The black awning bore no name, just a street number: 128. The bright sun and sweltering funky-chic street scene vanished as we stepped inside, door swung open by a smiling greeter. Black squares edged in gold covered the walls, broken up by zig-zagging gold lozenges: like ‘opae in an anchialine pool in Kona. The mood was seriously chill.
Chef Chung Chow, 40, was born in Hong Kong, came to Hawai‘i at age seven, grew up on School Street and Pahoa Street, and graduated from Roosevelt. He started helping in the family noodle factory at age 10. “That’s where we spent most of our free time; I didn’t go to the beach," he recalled when we dropped by the following day. "My mom was always cooking, my sisters always cooked, I was always participating.”
He met his two partners, Gerald San Jose and Jin Ahn, when all three were working at Per Se, often called the best restaurant in New York City, in 2008. “Norteetuh reflects all of our personalities and background. Hawaii is such a melting pot of so many cultures and cuisines. Between Chinese, Hawaiian and Japanese from me, Filipino from Gerald and Jin being Korean, we've got almost everything covered.”
Indeed. Under “snacks” we were offered seaweed chips, truffle taro chips, spicy gobo (wood ear mushroom with bellflower root), crispy mushrooms, silken tofu and corned beef tongue musubi. Below that, “starters” doubled down on the pūpū: grass-fed beef tartare, octopus poke, hearts of palm salad with beets, fluke with hyacinth bulbs in a vincotto (grape-must paste), big-eye tuna poke, monkfish liver torchon scented with pear and passion fruit on a sweet bread disc, and kālua pork croquettes.
corned beef tongue musubi, $6.
Here we felt the pull of curiosity and the confusion of expectations. Taro chips with truffle shaved over them sounded too, well, “New York.” And yet, where were we? (Not in Kaimukī anymore, Toto.) The young couple helped prioritize: Working insane hours, they were too hungry for mere chips; veterans of Jean-Georges, Bouley, Per Se and other temples of cuisine, knowledgeable about Hawai‘i from family visits and summers, they wanted to see what our home-grown and Per Se-trained chef could do to bring Island style to The Big Show.
My partner ordered the tofu and happily let the rest of us order the poke ($17), the musubi ($6) and the croquettes ($11). Some ordered Badass Pear Cider ($6), from New York State, and the luscious sweetness lowered our thermostats; others opted for Tealeaves (ginger mango peach iced tea, $5). Local-style brews at local prices include $6 Longboard and Hite, the Bud Lite of K-bars.
The wine list is unfailingly refined, packed with mysteries you only wish you had time and money to explore. The drinks list, on the other hand, flashes a lot of boulevard attitude: a handful of top sakes; a premium soju (Hwayo, $39); sparkling, sweet and fortified wines (one of the latter, a Gaston Riviere Pineau des Charentes, is a drink you might sneak out behind the barn with your local contractor if you were in Gascony; $11/glass).
Waiting for the food, we discussed what we were in for. Was this a place for New Yorkers craving a taste of Hawai‘i and Asia, or a place for homesick ex-pats? Although it felt like a four-stage culinary rocket to the stars, the location was a complete 180 from Per Se. (For a recent review of Per Se, click here.)
Despite its haughty lineage, Noreetuh seems to wear its aspirations lightly and with humor, as the Hawaiian Sun POG and “Dole pineapple juice” on the menu ($3 each) hinted. And the musubi made an excellent first impression, the corned tongue a denser riff on our local favorite Spam. Although we missed the succulence of gelatinous fat, the corning spices made up for it, evoking our Lower East Side immigrant locale. (We can see corned beef musubi for St. Patrick’s Day at Katz’s Delicatessen.) Golden-crisp kālua croquettes were a satisfying take on several fried favorites: hot and savory, with a crackle to their crunch, accented by vinegar cabbage and katsu sauce.