Anthony Bourdain, perhaps the world's most recognizable gastronome after the Michelin Man, said the following about Hawaii on a recent episode of CNN's Parts Unknown: "It's not a particularly welcoming or friendly part of the world, contrary to the aloha myth." Geographically speaking, there's a lot of truth to that statement. Hawaii, located in the middle of nowhere in the North Pacific, is 2,500 miles from the U.S. mainland. It's so far South it makes Alabama feel like a Yankee state. Its official motto is Ua Mau ke Ea o ka Aina i ka Pono, which I like to roughly translate as "Amazon Prime shipping costs more here." And it's an indisputable fact that there are more daily nonstop flights from JFK to China than there are to Honolulu; a Brooklynite could even fly to Moscow more quickly. The state is, by its very nature, inaccessible, which perhaps explains why only a handful of New York establishments commit themselves to Hawaiian cuisine.
It's therefore a boon to Big Apple diners that three young restaurateurs – chef Chung Chow, Gerald San Jose, and Jin Ahn – have opened the 56-seat Noreetuh in Manhattan's East Village, a promising work-in-progress that seeks to interpret the Global East (and beyond) through a distinctly American lens. If Hawaii's melting pot cuisine has historically fused itself along the lines of its Polynesian, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Chinese residents, many of whom immigrated to the archipelago long before Uncle Sam annexed it at the turn of the 20th century, Noreetuh takes things even further, mixing in influences from France, New York, and elsewhere.
Things stay fairly traditional with the poke, a seafood salad that typically comprises raw fish, soy sauce, sesame oil, and chiles. Noreetuh's version is a grade-A classic, mixing in bigeye tuna and Chinese spicy miso along with tosaka and oga seaweeds, plants whose gelatinous chew mimics the snap of beef tendon.
But since Noreetuh is in Manhattan, and since fine dining acolytes are at the helm here, diners can expect adaptations and refinements. Take the musubi, a Hawaiian "national" snack that involves wrapping up sushi rice with nori and Spam, that famous luncheon meat whose consumption by World War II GI's would eventually help it become a staple of Pacific cuisine. Noreetuh takes the smart step of omitting that industrial pork product and replacing it with something one might find at Katz's a few blocks away: corned beef tongue. The meat is supremely flavorful by itself, but Chung tosses on a layer of chimichurri-like cilantro puree to brighten up the affair.
You consume these delicacies in a small, shouty room, while sitting on metal chairs or backless bar stools, and while listening to a soundtrack that ranges from mainstream (Lady Gaga, Hawaii's own Bruno Mars) to retro (lesser-known Notorious B.I.G. tracks). No cocktails at Noreetuh, just a smart list of beer, sake, wines, and something quite rare for an affordable, a la carte restaurant: beverage pairings. For $35 or more, Ahn, the general manager, will match your meal with three pours or thereabouts. Such a policy, at such a low price, should encourage more oenophilic novices to think of ordering wine as a conversation with a beverage director, rather than a random walk down an unfamiliar list.
The sensibilities of this dish are more like a French chef's dream of the Pacific.
Prices are low all around, with mains topping out at $25; a stellar monkfish liver torchon is just $13. Chung divorces himself even further from his native Hawaii with that oceanic charcuterie. The flavor is vaguely saline, while the texture is closer to an airy ile flottante than the foie gras it aspires to be. A dollop of passionfruit gelee and slices of Portuguese-style sweet bread nominally evoke the islands, but the sensibilities of this dish are more like a French chef's dream of the Pacific. It all recalls the kind of creative elegance one might've encountered in the early aughts back at Thomas Keller's Per Se, a fine dining establishment that once employed all three of Noreetuh's principals. And here it's worth noting that while Per Se's alumni populate a wonderfully heterogeneous group restaurants throughout the city (and the world), they've been particularly active on the Asian front in NYC, giving birth to such capable institutions as Uncle Boons, Mu Ramen, and Fung Tu.
Noreetuh, at about three months old, is an esteemed member of that group, albeit one whose kitchen is still finding its sea legs. Take the pork croquettes, which aim to be the Asian equivalent of salt cod fritters, a poor man's preparation wherein humble potatoes are used to extend more expensive bits of swine. Too bad there's little pork flavor – the meat itself, which you dip into a very run-of-the-mill barbecue sauce, is bland. The spicy gobi, a preparation that's about as incendiary and complex as a bowl of breakfast cereal, is a skip too. Kimchi-spiked octopus poke could pass for a mayonnaise-heavy seafood salad at any fine gourmet market. And white asparagus, with bits of Chinese ham, doesn't rise above the level of refinement one might encounter at Whole Foods.
Certain dishes could do with a bit of editing here and there. Does a cut of Wagyu sirloin, packing a hefty chew and a clean, concentrated beefiness, really need an assortment of cold, mealy, cherry tomatoes? Do toothsome chow noodles, paired with heady morels, and pickled jalapeños, really need a week's worth of asparagus and pea tendrils in the same bowl? And given the four-course style of the a la carte menu, do portions really need to be as big as they are? Snacks are often sized like appetizers, while appetizers could often pass themselves off as mains. Mains are enough to feed two or more, and desserts can easily nourish three.
So order wisely. Try the pineapple-braised pork belly with sweet potatoes, an essay in restrained sugars and expertly rendered fats. Or go old school with the garlic shrimp, bursting with intoxicating allium and crustacean aromas.
Pro Tip: take a pass on the ho-hum sweets, from the bread pudding, indistinguishable from any other average version, to the bruleed pineapple, where caramelized sugar, lime zest and sea salt somehow fail to make the creation taste noticeably different from a cheaper, supermarket fruit. Better to wait for the petits fours: Japanese-style gummy candies presented in a sleek mignardise server that's almost exactly like the ones used at Per Se. Right on. Noreetuh has the right pedigree, the right intentions. It will likely get better with time.
Cost: All dishes at $25 or under.
Sample dishes: Big-eye tuna poke, monkfish liver torchon, beef tongue musubi, pineapple braised pork belly, mochi waffles with peanut butter.
Bonus tip: Noreetuh is now serving ramen-style Hawaiian noodle soup on Fridays and Saturdays after 11pm.