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.
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.
GARLIC SHRIMP OVER RICE, $22.
Photo: Courtesy of Noreetuh
Like the all-black jumper worn by our waitress, paired with a palaka shirt tied at her midriff, both dishes played a successful, if safe, high-low game. Not so the sleeper snack, the silken tofu ($14): A swirl of gold uni, red-gold ikura and tofu, it was unctuous and custardy, salty and delicate. It also was the kind of dish that, four spoons notwithstanding, lasted a long, long time, as everyone paused to savor their mouthfuls. This, the New Yorkers agreed, was more like it.
The poke, of both bigeye and yellowfin, was made with a subtle hand as shoyu and seasoning goes, and showed off the freshness of the fish. The mix of crunchy seaweed and nuts, onion and an odd jalapeno ring reproduced a briny tide pool in the mouth. I hesitate to say better, but would I take it over Tamura’s or Da Poke Shack in Kona? Yeah. (Great, my partner mutters. Now we’ve got to go all anonymous.)
By now the Badass was pau and we consulted the wine list. There was no $22 pinot grigio; in fact, no bottle under $43. A white burgundy, a 2014 Piuze Chablis, Terroir de Chichee, was worth the $49. Its mineral, almost gris, undertone kept the lush floral Chardonnay notes in hand, unlike too-sweet American counterparts. This one had the moxie to stand up to Asian spicing.
For the “mains,” my partner ordered Chow Noodles, the vegetarian entrée. It turns out that the noodles are the chef’s homage to the family’s Chow Noodle Factory on South King Street, and far from an afterthought. Chewy, seething with heat, they were so addictive we started calling them “crack noodles” in the spirit of the famous “crack pie” at Momofuku Noodle Bar, only a block away. At $17, they are the lowest priced entrée, so good that next time we’d order a couple of bowls for the table. Their surprising heat, combined with tofu, lily flower, jalapeño and sprouts, is irresistible.
Having tried one processed meat substitute, we passed on the Spam agnolotti ($18) with yu choy, honshimeji, bonito flakes and green almond. But it’s worth mentioning that The New York Times reviewer loved it. When you think about it, this is not really so strange a marriage of tastes: You just know Spam and pasta first met during the 442nd Regimental Combat Team’s service in Italy.
Autumn being the season for game and hearty proteins, I pounced on the duck breast ($25). The seared medallions came sliced and arrayed as simply as steak. The duck (from D’Artagnan) had a rich, meaty heft, no fat except for a thin ring, and minimal seasoning—except for a charred dusting of li hing mui, which worked magic on the taste buds and in the memory banks.
Our young lawyer, straight from a grueling deposition in Trenton, New Jersey, went straight for the pork belly ($21). It arrived as a stacked cube in a white bowl, lacking only a trumpet fanfare. We in Hawai‘i have seen an awful lot of pork belly lately. This monumental example was smoked to a fine bacon shell and redolent of pineapple, pooled in swiss chard and half-dollars of yellow-gold yams. The lawyer soon was sated and made no attempt to fight off my fork. She’ll have to toughen up.
“Well, I have to order the garlic shrimp,” said the New Yorker who’d grown up spending Christmases and summers with his Korean tutu; for him, no North Shore or Lā‘ie trip was complete without Giovanni’s. The shrimp ($22) were a cleaned-up version arrayed on a log of rice, but the intense, sloppy butter-and-garlic flavor conjured exactly what you get standing in clouds of smoke in the hot sun. And, hey, no Handi-Wipes needed!
Other entrées include mentaiko spaghetti ($20, with smoked butterfish, aonori, chili), mochi-crusted halibut ($22, with pole beans, Chinese bacon, fermented black bean) and a teriyaki venison rack for two ($75). The mentaiko has been singled out in reviews, as has the monkfish liver torchon starter, which I should’ve ordered over the visible shudder of my partner. Side-stepping ethical concerns about foie gras, monkfish liver in a classic torchon like Noreetuh’s makes virtue sexy (then again, we’d all look better on a bed of liliko‘i gelee).
Pork belly with pineapple, swiss chard and yams, $21.
Photo: Courtesy of Noreetuh
Dessert is an area where Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine has always been intriguing and lately excelled. Noreetuh confines its ambitions to simple pleasures and nostalgia, however, choosing not to go head to head with the lapidary creations of Alan Wong’s, Roy’s and James Beard-winning Michelle Karr-Ueoka of MW. We ordered the King’s Hawaiian bread pudding ($8, with rum raisins and pineapple ice cream) and the crispy mochi waffles ($8, with whipped peanut butter and honey). The first was quickly gone. The second required a slower approach, due to the incredibly resilient and flavorful waffles, spun as thin and as translucent as ice crystals; the simplicity of peanut butter and honey was a homey touch, evocative of old-time days when dipping and licking a knife in a jar of Skippy’s, with a drizzle of Karo, was enough. The other two offerings, a macadamia nut brownie ($9, with coconut ice cream) and brûléed Hawaiian pineapple ($10, lime zest, ‘alaea salt) are similarly homey—and local.
We left Noreetuh more than satisfied and with a hometown booster’s pride that the room was so full and the crowd so relaxed. Three months in, it was drawing the kind of diverse faces we’d expect to see at home. But there were also a lot of the typical Manhattan upper echelon restaurant types—young professionals, deal-making types (jackets thrown off, gesticulating), working couples meeting after a long day. The vibe and noise level was relaxed; the small bar doesn’t allow for a scene to develop that might distract diners. The waitstaff was full of aloha and smiles. Our young and beautiful couple was definitely won over, especially after they saw the completely different brunch menu—which features a mochiko chicken loco moco, among other delicacies.
It’s telling, and certainly no accident, that Noreetuh is a block away from the original Momofuku and around the corner from Momofuku Ssam Bar, the cornerstones of David Chang’s funky, fun, resolutely low-key restaurant empire. Chang’s were arguably the most influential restaurant openings in the past decade—more so than Per Se, which opened the same year, 2004. Chef Chung Chow, and partners Gerald San Jose and wine master Jin Ahn, seem to have intuited that what Hawai‘i has to offer, when prepared with flair and imagination, is an ideal and intriguing combination of the two. And, as it turns out, just what the neighborhood needed.
On a food level, Noreetuh is confident of a dining truth that should be self-evident everywhere except perhaps in Hawai‘i: Intensity of flavor makes up for portion size. Nobody left hungry. But, when I go back, I’ll order a second bowl of chef Chow’s family noodles and try to hog it all to myself.
128 First Ave., New York, (646) 892-3050, noreetuh.com