Saturday, April 18, 2015

Noreetuh: A Playground for Your Mouth

Not too long ago, a headline from The Village Voice online included the phrase "Hawaiian food." I was intrigued, and clicked to find images of bright yet minimalist presentations of the creations from Noreetuh, a new restaurant in the East Village. Always excited about food that veers away from the ordinary, I added it to a mental list of places to try.

Last week I had the pleasure of being able to partake in an evening at Noreetuh with SJT. I was excited that the menu appealed to him and we made our way there. The restaurant opened last month at 128 First Avenue, between St. Mark's and 7th Streets. It defines itself as "casual Hawaiian," and features a menu created by Chef Chung Chow, a former sous chef at the legendary Per Se, who grew up in Hawaii and spent time in Japan. Chow and his partners Gerald San Jose and Jin Ahn all co-own Noreetuh, which means "playground" in Korean, and which SJT and I would learn fits the cuisine so, so well.

We were welcomed by the host (who I'd later find out was San Jose himself) at the door with a warmth that carried through with the rest of the staff the entire evening. I felt like I was talking to an old friend! Interestingly, that made me even more excited about the food. SJT and I sat down at a sleek wooden table for two and began casting our eyes about the menu. We resolved to share all of our courses, but we had some questions for our waiter (food appreciators though we are, we are not experts). What is musubi? What is a torchon? He answered knowledgeably and kindly: musubi is sushi-like, in that it involves rice wrapped with seaweed, but their version is more of a handroll. I've since learned that Spam musubi is a common Hawaiian snack, though at Noreetuh they prepare it with brined corned beef tongue, cilantro, and peanuts. We will have that please! And torchon, it turns out, is a kind of pate; in this case, made from the liver of a monkfish, served with pear, cilantro, and passionfruit with toasted King's Hawaiian roll slices for spreading. We will also have that, please! For our main course, we decided on the mochi-crusted fluke served with bok choy, kabocha squash, and black bean.

The corned beef musubi was salty, but in a fantastic way--the blend of the seaweed, the brine and the natural meat flavor with the cilantro was killer, and that extra crunch of those slightly sweet crushed peanuts took it to a more thoughtful level and broke up the salt. In the order there were two pieces--I don't know about SJT but I may or may not have actually licked my fingers when I was finished.

The queen of my heart this evening was far and away our next course, the monkfish liver torchon. And to think, at the beginning of dinner I didn't even know what torchon was! The pate was smooth and, to use the waiter's words, "oceanic," in that it tasted slightly of ocean water, but wasn't at all fishy. The buttery King's Hawaiian bread, even as an inside joke of sorts, was a perfect compliment, as were the acidic sweetness of the pear and passion fruit. I had visions of SJT and I popping in there on an evening after work to have glasses of wine (from their extensive wine list curated by General Manager Jin Ahn) and monkfish liver torchon as if we were ladies who lunch having caviar and champagne. But really, the former was just as good as the latter, and at least the torchon had a sense of humor! I found myself carving the plate with my fork so none of it would be left uneaten. Thankfully SJT didn't judge me.

The mochi-crusted fluke was light and slightly crunchy, and it was lively dipped into the subtle squash and black bean drizzles. All of that together on a fork with the tangy bok choy, though, was the best--loud and quiet flavors (and sounds! Ha!) all in one mouthful. "Come to me, bok choy!" SJT said as he scooted a stalk to his plate.

We didn't know if maybe we'd have another savory dish after the fluke, but we decided on something sweet instead, in the form of a brûléed Hawaiian pineapple. Served in a quarter of the fruit, leaves and all, the flesh was scored and topped with lime zest and 'alaea salt. 'Alaea salt is often referred to as Hawaiian salt, and is unrefined sea salt mixed with red alae volcanic clay. We cracked into the top with spoons as if it were creme brûlée--sour, sweet, and fun!

If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend checking out Noreetuh. I love how they take Hawaiian traditions and the cuisine's Japanese, Korean, and Filipino influences and make them their own--for example, there's aformentioned corned beef musubi, but there's also a Spam tortelloni. And honestly, I'd normally be turned off by the sound of anything involving Spam, but after seeing how they look at and prepare food, I'm not scared anymore. I'll even try the tripe, for goodness sake! Noreetuh has earned my trust, my tastebuds and definitely my loyalty.

128 1st Avenue
New York, NY 10009