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REVIEW: Norio’s Might Just Blow Your Mind

September 15, 2014, 1:55 PM HST
* Updated September 8, 12:27 PM
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Nate Gaddis is a 17-year food industry veteran. He gives his frank assessments in the interests of honesty and improving Hawai’i Island’s culinary scene.

9/30/2014: Author’s Note: Readers have alerted us to a possible error in the below article regarding the identity of the chef at “Norio’s” in the Fairmont Orchid.  We’ve been informed that Norio himself left the hotel some time ago to start his own restaurant.  This article will be updated soon once we’ve been able to verify with all parties involved.

Been there, done that.

That expression sums up the reaction you get when questioning Norio’s sushi chef about his career path.  After decades spent slicing up fish across multiple continents, his resume doesn’t need padding. He’s old-school Japanese, and has been handsomely rewarded for his handiwork.

He also happens to look bored as hell.

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Just Another Nigiri?

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After claiming our place at the sushi bar, we wasted no time in ordering the “Amakase” (chef’s choice) Nigiri sushi sampler from our server ($50).

Although our sushi chef was within arm’s reach of us, we opted out of barking our orders out to him. With over 60 seats, he seemed a busy guy. He also had very sharp knives.

As our order’s ticket spat out of the printer in front of him, the chef gave it a glance, then proceeded to disassemble the various cuts of fish he wanted to feature for us that evening.

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Despite seeming only half-interested, the chef’s deft hands still delivered.

Toro (fatty tuna) Nigiri sushi from Norio's. Photo by Kristin Hashimoto.

Toro (fatty tuna) Nigiri sushi from Norio’s. Photo by Kristin Hashimoto.

Fresh slices of Hamachi, Red Snapper, Clam, Salmon, Ono and Toro (fatty tuna) adorned clumps of still-warm sushi rice. Packed slightly loose, the rice had a nice balance of sweet Mirin and Rice Vinegar.

All the Nigiri on our Omakase were fresh and pleasantly textured, with the Salmon (Sake) being a real standout. But the real prize here? Sweet, buttery Uni (Sea Urchin Roe). Dynamite.

On another trip here, the chef warned us away from the Uni after we inquired about its quality. Much appreciated.

We wish we’d asked his advice on the Ebi (shrimp) we ordered that same night ($12). It arrived looking a little funky, and went down even funkier. Disappointing, as it was delightful on our first visit.

Our advice? Order the “Omakase,” or simply ask “what’s good tonight?” Either way, let the sushi chef call the shots.

Room with a View

A sample of Chef Norio's creative dishes. Photo by Kristin Hashimoto.

A sample of Chef Norio’s creative dishes. Photo by Kristin Hashimoto.

The ambiance here is great. A stone-topped sushi bar is roomy enough to provide your average Gaijin some elbow room, while tables in the main dining area extend out to a Lanai overlooking the Pacific Ocean and classic West Hawai’i sunsets.

Our sushi chef was friendly enough, and game for story-telling when things weren’t too crazy.

The restaurant’s rolled sushi has been mostly farmed out to others.

We tried an obligatory “Dragon Roll,” which turned out to be a combination of fried shrimp, avocado, slices of tuna and various drizzled sauces.

Due to the volume of our ordering, the Dragon Roll was “on the house.” Fully priced, it might have been difficult to swallow ($24).

The roll was well-executed, and left us wanting more. But just as we began browsing the menu for similar options, a series of mysterious plates began to emerge from our sushi chef’s station that piqued our interest.

Mr. Sunshine

Classical sushi, it turns out, may no longer be this chef’s chief passion.

Norio's "Hamachi-Avo." Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Norio’s “Hamachi-Avo.” Photo by Nate Gaddis.

While we were eating, a trio of chefs had been seated at a table nearby. As soon as they started ordering, our sushi “maestro” seemingly lit up with renewed interest, and began intently carving thin slices of fish and vegetables.

Noticing the shift, we quickly jumped on the bandwagon and ordered up what the chefs were having: thinly sliced hamachi, layered with avocado.

“Hamachi-Avo” as the staff calls it, comes perched over a shallow pool of garlic Ponzu and leek oil. The hamachi and avocado melted together in our mouths, while the fragrant Ponzu and leek oil opened up our palates. Incredible.

Once he saw our enthusiasm, our chef decided to surprise us with an un-named dish: slices of red snapper wrapped around Ponzu-marinated gems of grapefruit.

An un-named creation from Chef Norio: red snapper-wrapped grapefruit. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

An un-named creation from Chef Norio: red snapper-wrapped grapefruit. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The pairing sounded dubious, but the resulting flavors blew our minds. Tart grapefruit and slightly oily snapper managed to marry well in the Ponzu, producing first-in-a-lifetime tastes and sensations.

Already full and running up our tab, we regrettably bowed out for the evening, stuffed and satisfied.

Given another trip here, we’d likely skip the traditional sushi all-together, and simply throw ourselves at the mercy of the chef’s creative genius.

We’d probably start with the Hamachi-Avo, then leave the next four or five plates to his personal discretion.

Something tells us that would suit him just fine.

Editor’s note: The above review of “Norio’s Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar” was based soley on the quality of the restaurant’s raw fish products. Due to its diverse menu, the restaurant’s dinner entrees may be reviewed separately at a later date.

Norio’s Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar is located within the Fairmont Orchid, at 1 North Kaniku Drive Kohala Coast, 96743. Phone: (808)-885-2000.

Hours of operation are Thursday through Monday, from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m.

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