“My taste buds are going crazy!” said one of my dining partners as we stepped outside Noona and onto the sidewalk in the burgeoning Parsons Alley development in downtown Duluth.
Indeed, a succession of dishes — kimchi fried rice, grilled octopus with the sweet heat of ssamjang (a Korean dipping sauce), a sizzling bone-in rib-eye with melting shiso butter, a side of collard greens funked up with kimchi and cheesecake with tart yuzu jam — held unexpected flavors and were enough to awaken all the senses.
A venture that second-generation Chinese-American business partners Michael Lo and George Yu (Taiyo Ramen, Suzy Siu’s Baos, Double Dragon) opened late last year, Noona injects Asian — mainly Korean — flavors into its steaks, seafood and sides. The restaurant is a cross-cultural marriage of dining concepts, ingredients and even cooking techniques that feels right for the time.
Things felt right early on, with drinks. While a Penicillin cocktail usually holds the soothing flavors of Scotch, lemon, honey and ginger, Noona’s version, called the Asian Medicine, brings the Iwai Tradition label of Japanese whisky into the mix. I also found it to be the most balanced and character-filled among a handful of mixed drinks — vodka-based Perfect Pair, soju-laden Hey, Seoul Sister — that give the bar an Asian bent.
A starter of beef tartare was also a fresh interpretation of a classic. A sculpturesque puffed rice disc was perched atop the round of tightly packed, minced raw beef. Carefully strewn over the meat and across the plate was a line of shaved cured egg yolk (in lieu of the typical raw yolk), a sprinkling of preserved yuzu (a sour-tasting Asian citrus fruit) and dots of red Korean chile flakes. Apart from the fabulous flavor and appealing texture combination (crunchy puffy rice cake, clean and tender meat), this one is as composed a dish as you’d expect from any “new American” concept. Beef tartare also certainly belongs on a steakhouse menu, and it felt wholly at home in this kitchen stocked with Asian pantry stuffs.
Hweh, a Korean cold app of raw, thinly sliced white fish, while still highly arranged with a ring of herbed oil and Korean chile, was underwhelming.
On the hot app side, grilled octopus is another place where East-West waters intermingle. Octopus is seemingly on every menu these days, as overworked as cauliflower or kale. But here, tiny glazed shimeji mushrooms, fermented soybean, ssamjang, seaweed powder and black sesame seeds gave the (slightly overcharred) octo some spicy soul from Seoul.
A stuffed cabbage roll could take you on a trip to Turkey, Poland or the far East, but the tightly rolled cabbage wraps stuffed with pork and shiitake mushrooms, and cooked sous vide, took me nowhere. They were surprisingly mild in flavor, despite a puddle of a lightened ssamjang dipping sauce.
What of the other meats? Noona is a steakhouse, after all, and it strives for superior; it sources from respected Chicago purveyor Meats by Linz and cooks its cuts on a wood-fired grill that Lo and Yu built themselves. But what made main events like an 8-ounce filet or bone-in rib-eye or bone-in New York strip memorable was not the meat itself, the preparation of which I have no qualms about. Everything was ordered medium rare, and it came out just that way. It’s that the Asian steak sauces and butters made things so much more interesting.
A crab roe bearnaise sounds far more fishy and exotic than it tastes. Bright orange gochujang butter brought some zing, but my favorite was the shiso herb butter. It may be just a simple compound butter, but boy, does it love to be slathered on your steak.
Among other meat preparations, I wish that the cast-iron chicken, though juicy and tender, was more wowza, knowing the effort that went into it: brined, steamed, pan seared and grilled. And between the duck breast and a grilled pork chop, I’ll take the chop again, especially with its pairing of wilted greens and Asian pear.
Oysters are the other part of the Noona equation. The restaurant has a regularly changing menu of fresh shucked oysters from both coasts — that are priced half off from 4-6 p.m. — and the carte includes a list of bubbles with which to pair them. Kumamotos, Beausoleils, Red Raiders and Bass Masters from Massachusetts … yeah, they tasted fresh, but not worth a long drive if you’ve got a trusted oyster spot closer to home.
Lo and Yu have stated their hopes for Noona as a neighborhood joint, but what will get me to drive the distance to Duluth are the items flanking its main affairs. Sides are where it’s at. Like kimchi fried rice. Dismiss those notions of fried rice as greasy, the grains stuck together and the flavors all muddled. Here, grains are moist but still fluffy, the pungency of kimchi present, and the fried egg, with its wobbly yolk, the perfect crown. Order the grilled cabbage, the kimchi-collard greens. Repeat: the kimchi-collard greens! (For a double win, order the flaky seared salmon since the greens come with it.) They’re all easy and approachable.
And when you get to dessert, try that airy cheesecake dubbed with the familiar “New York Style” label. But know that it will be different, as it comes with an Asian accent of yuzu jam and orange blossom honey. Ditto on a lighter than normal creme brulee — again, a menu item fitting for a steakhouse — that features Korean pear.
Down to the complimentary H&F brioche bread, Noona is a steakhouse. Even the bright, airy space itself breaks with traditional steakhouse trappings like polished mahogany, leather seats and dark recesses. Formality is out the window, replaced with a relaxed air.
“We come from a different approach,” Lo told me back in a 2016 interview. “I have no desire to serve the food that my parents did out of necessity,” said this son of Chinese immigrant restaurant owners.
The approach is refreshing. Sure, you can tuck in for a steak and a twice-baked potato. Or you can chill out at the bar as you sip an Asian Medicine and scarf down some kimchi fried rice. There are no hard and fast rules here.