America’s tiki infatuation began in the 1930s, peaked after World War II, and enjoyed a mild local resurgence a few years ago. As a result of that recent revival, most New Yorkers’ idea of Hawaiian cuisine has been limited to kitschy perversions of luau fare. (Not that this is a bad thing.) At Williamsburg’s two-year-old Onomea, for example, the owners serve Hawaiian home cooking and share their affinity for Spam musubi, plate lunches, and “loco moco,” a mountain of rice, hamburger, and fried egg doused in thick brown gravy. But now there’s Noreetuh (128 First Avenue, 646-892-3050), a two-week-old East Village restaurant that offers an affordable, experimental menu that shows Hawaiian cuisine through a prism of Asian culinary influences.
Helmed by Chung Chow, who worked as a sous chef under Thomas Keller at Per Se and followed Keller’s protégé Jonathan Benno to Lincoln Ristorante, the restaurant occupies a modest, forked space near St. Marks Place — far away from uptown glam. Yet the restaurant is plenty sleek, dressed in dark wood surfaces and shades of gray accented with honeycomb motifs, and backlit by soft, golden lighting. It’s a chic space for Chow’s gently priced menu (dishes top out at $22), separated neatly into snacks, starters, and mains.
Noreetuh’s musubi, a cute and efficient package of rice, meat, and nori seaweed, eschews Spam for corned beef tongue. That and other snacks — kombu or truffle taro root chips, mushroom tempura to dip into sweet miso — make nice pairings with general manager Jin Ahn’s notable beverage portfolio, which highlights craft sakes and beers. Oenophiles with cash to burn can sift through hundreds of esoteric bottles. This is a far cry from the umbrella-festooned, tulip-glassed concoctions most people associate with tropical boozing.
Chow’s food also forgoes kitsch in favor of prim plates. Silken tofu layered with sea urchin and salmon roe features clean and briny flavors against earthy, finely diced mushrooms and the herbaceous zest of shiso leaf. Creamy monkfish liver comes foie gras–style over a compote of pear and passion fruit, a bowl of toasted, eggy Hawaiian sweet bread to the side. There’s remarkably faithful tuna poke (pronounced like “okay”) with crunchy macadamia nuts, and nicely gummy rice cakes sauced with chiles and served with supple braised tripe.
The four available desserts range from $8 to $10 and include Hawaiian sweet bread pudding and crisp mochi waffles. Try the baby pineapple halved and brûléed, the fruit dusted in lime zest and sea salt. It’s the kind of breezy ending that should serve Noreetuh well once the weather catches up with the climate inside.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 3, 2015