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Noa Noa
**** 1/2
Out of a possible five
$$$
Ryan DuVall/The Journal Gazette
The Cassafrass roll at Noa Noa.

Noa Noa rare catch in cuisine

Sometimes it is the simplest of things that shows how special a restaurant is.

In the case of Noa Noa Wood Grill and Sushi in Warsaw, it was one ingredient in one sushi roll.

With so many places using imitation crab, one bite of the fresh crabmeat on my roll at Noa Noa made me close my eyes and sigh with delight.

It was not that I didn't expect Noa Noa to use the real thing; the case loaded with fresh seafood in the lobby guaranteed that. But I have just gotten so used to imitation crab in my rolls that it was just an eye-opener.

The roll in question was invented by my server, Cassie Elkins. After repeatedly suggesting it to customers and bickering with the chefs who didn't like making the off-menu roll, the owners finally added the “Cassafrass” roll – and a few other staff and regular-customer inventions – to the menu.

It starts as a Florida roll – basically a spicy California roll with crab, avocado, cucumber and pepper flakes topped with spicy mayo. Tuna, eel sauce and tempura bits were added to make it a Cassafrass. It was a perfect combination, and the crab was exquisite.

Not only was her sushi roll great, Elkins was a great server, which seemed to be the norm at Noa Noa. All of the folks were friendly, knowledgeable and eager to help, and it was clear they love the place. It is easy to see why, too, because when it comes to seafood in these parts, I don't think it has a peer.

Take, for example, the fried fish sandwich I had at lunch. Fried fish is even more commonplace than imitation crab, and Noa Noa's version – a Trinidadian recipe – included bread crumb-coated, fried tilapia on deep-fried flatbread with the restaurant's “Trini Slaw” on top. The bread was crisp outside but still chewy, and the slaw had ramen noodles, onions, carrot and red peppers with a sweet vinegar dressing.

The slaw added a fresh, island feel to the sandwich, but it was that tilapia that was the star. It was moist and flaky with an almost sweet flavor that frozen tilapia never has. Had I not known it was tilapia, I would have sworn it was red snapper or some other more expensive fish.

The Trinidad fish was only the beginning of the island nuances at Noa Noa. There is no escaping them. The thatched roof over the bar, the Tikis, the bamboo-covered wall and its bar menu, which is the most exotic and enticing in the area, all scream of the tropics.

Given the World Cup is in full swing, my first drink choice was easy, and I was happy to see it offered. The caipirinha is Brazil's national cocktail and is made with cachaca (sugar cane liquor), lime juice and sugar. It was pucker-worthy with so much lime, but I asked for a little extra simple syrup to help balance it out and it was perfect.

If you abstain from cocktails or want to order something cool for the kids, Noa Noa also offers tasty, slushy virgin fruit drinks. During one of my visits, the restaurant was out of mint making mojitos impossible. It was disappointing, but I just had another caipirinha to cheer me up.

Noa Noa was also out of lobster one night, which was a much more glaring omission. But I pressed on.

The Steamed Shell Mix sounded wonderful, and its light, slightly salty broth of white wine, garlic, shallots, parsley, butter and fresh lemon juice was so good I think it would have made the sole of my shoe scrumptious.

However, I felt a little cheated with it, too. In addition to lobster, Noa Noa must have been out of scallops because it had none even though the menu listed them. The dish had just three shrimp, four clams and five tiny – but delicious – mussels.

Had I not added a king crab leg to the dish – and paid a pretty penny to do so – I would have left hungry. The crab leg was sizable and packed with some of the most delicate and delectable meat I have ever enjoyed.

There was nothing missing from my featured halibut. It was deftly seasoned and seared so the mild flavor of the meaty fish was still present, and glazed with a just-sweet-enough spiced pineapple-rum sauce.

I also loved every morsel of the Caribbean Cobb Salad at lunch. Two plump, mesquite-grilled shrimp were joined by tender, juicy grilled chicken over a bed of greens with grilled pineapple, Mandarin oranges, half of an avocado, tomatoes and bleu cheese over mixed greens. The grilled pineapple was fantastic as were the perfectly seasoned shrimp with the only knock being the tails were left on. It came with raspberry vinaigrette, but I preferred the house specialty Vietnamese dressing, which had a briny, salty flavor from fish sauce.

When it came to appetizers, the best came from the land and not the sea.

The smoked chicken wings were worth the trip to Warsaw, too. Noa Noa not only uses mesquite on its inside grill, it has a big smoker out back where ribs, pork, chicken and some seafood gets slow cooked with fruit wood.

The wings were very crisp and just kissed with Buffalo sauce so the smokiness was prevalent.

The crab cakes were OK but not as good as I expected given the quality of crab. Mine were cold in the middle and soggy, and although there was plenty of crab, it was too fine to stand out.

I wasn't too interested in dessert at Noa Noa because another fruity cocktail seemed like a better option. But I was wrong because the cheesecake was epic.

Scott Woods, who owns Noa Noa along with his wife, Tish, makes the desserts and his favorite – and mine – is the Ho Ho cheesecake. He starts with a classic cheesecake recipe and then chops up and mixes in two boxes – that's right, two boxes; 20 in all – of the classic Hostess brand novelties. It was rich, creamy and chocolaty beyond belief and it had nice little crunchy pieces of the Ho Ho shell throughout.

It was the perfect end to a couple of nearly perfect visits to Noa Noa.

Restaurant: Noa Noa Wood Grill and Sushi Bar

Address: 310 Eastlake Drive, Warsaw

Phone: 574-372-3224

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday

Cuisine: Seafood

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Smoking status: Non-smoking

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Crab cakes ($12.95), wings ($5.95), Cassafrass roll ($12), Trini fish sandwich ($9.25), Steamed Shell Mix ($21), halibut ($33)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 max.), service: * (1 max.)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.

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