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Noa Noa brings a bit of tropicana to Michiana

Scott Woods, the visionary behind Noa Noa Wood Grill in Warsaw, graduated from Ball State with dual degrees: business and fine arts.

Little did he know at the time that his  interest in fine arts would be the inspiration behind the unique empire he has meticulously built in Warsaw.

Scott’s interest in cooking started developing when he spent a couple years in St. Johns, U.S. Virgin Islands. He worked at several kitchens there, learning the nuances of running a kitchen while understanding how the proper spice mixes can take an average dish to spectacular.

What further inspired Scott at the time was the access to fresh fish. He tells of fish mongers bringing tuna directly from the docks in the back of a truck, and butchering it in 100-degree weather. This access to fresh fish became an obsession and driving force behind his vision after he returned to the States.

The vision started near where Noa Noa sits today. Scott set up a stand to sell ham sandwiches, Cokes and “illegal beer,” so he says.

From that primitive beginning, he started Spikes, a sport bar built in a remodeled wood storage shed on the same property where he set up his stand.

As Spikes evolved, it catered more to the young crowd — so much so, that he built volleyball and basketball courts, started having tournaments and the business grew from there. That was in 1991.

After a year of planning, Noa Noa opened in 2000 as an addition to Spikes. Set on a wall in middle of Noa Noa’s dining room is a painting by Scott’s favorite artist, impressionist Paul Gauguin, titled “Noa Noa.”

Early on, Scott struggled with obtaining reliable sources for the off-the-truck fresh fish he enjoyed in the Virgin Islands. He and his wife decided to learn more, so they went to the Boston Fish Fair several years ago. They were disappointed that the fair consisted mostly of fish purveyors, and found it nearly impossible to access fish directly from the docks without the right contacts.

While still in Boston and sitting in the Union Oyster House (the oldest in the U.S.), Scott started chatting with a lady from Ashtabula, Ohio. She introduced Scott to her husband and they invited him to visit their perch shop on the shores of Lake Erie. This couple took Scott under their wing and taught him everything about sourcing and cutting fish. That mentoring is the basis of how Noa Noa operates today.

Scott receives a “catch list” each Monday, places his order, then receives the shipment overnight each Wednesday. Being in Indiana, that is as fresh as it gets. Scott has streamlined the process and the fresh fish counter is nearly always filled to satisfy guests through the busy weekend. Now, several area restaurants depend on Scott’s weekly fish shipments.

Sushi came along later but is now, arguably, some of the best in the area. Scott says, “Its not particularly authentic sushi but it’s sushi people enjoy.”

DJ, the sushi chef, serves up more than 40 variations of sushi. We enjoyed a huge combo plate on our most recent visit, and DJ did not disappoint. It was more than the two of us could eat.

This was during a Friday lunch and the restaurant was slammed. Hostess Julie said they had 109 people! She had to wait on us herself because the staff was behind with the large crowd. She also built a Moscow mule, which was delivered perfectly and timely. It’s a delightful tropical concoction that includes ginger beer, lime and vodka.

Scott came out to see us and advised that his baker was home sick so he was busy making cheese cakes and key lime pies. We chatted briefly, then he sprinted off when he noticed that a large table needed clearing.

Today, Noa Noa Wood Grill and Sushi Bar provides multiple dishes from its standard menu, many with Caribbean or Polynesian flair. Based on the catch, there are three to four specials each week, plus many standards on the menu.

Adding sushi to the scene started the notion of taking the restaurant into more international flavors. So earlier this year, Scott started experimenting with Indian food.

He spent a week cooking with an Indian family to learn the essence of Indian food, which combines multiple spices into many dishes. That spice balance is critical to the right flavor in each dish. Using this new knowledge, Scott added a small Indian food buffet to the restaurant. Early success has now led to eight hot dishes and many toppings, like cucumber raita.

He had several people sampling the buffet during our visit, and Scott said many folks from India have told him that the dishes are close to what they get at home.

Scott Woods and his wife, Tish, now oversee 65 employees, a food truck (with eight spots scheduled this summer), catering (50 events already scheduled this year), the Taharra Room (seats 110 people) for special events and Spikes for seasonal festivities. There are four full bars and three full kitchens in this complex!

Jeff Ihnen manages the kitchen for all of these affairs. Jeff is in his tenth year at Noa Noa and often cuts my fish for me. They cook all their entree dishes over an open, wood-burning fire. Scott gets his wood for Tish’s father and uses mostly cherry and oak.

We visit the fish counter frequently. Thursday is the best day to get your choice; however, when we were there on a Friday, they had everything from oysters to escolar. (This is the only place locally where you can get escolar — a delicious, oily fish from tropical waters.)

Also, with our last purchase, I was convinced for the first time to try farm-raised salmon. Jeff told me the Faroe Island salmon, farmed off the coast of Norway, is as good as it gets, so we grilled it that evening, simply—and to Jeff’s credit, we could not tell the difference. The flesh was a rich, dark pink – nearly red – and when seared to medium-rare, it was simply spectacular!

What a partnership and what an operation built from what started out as a ham sandwich stand selling illegal beer!

If you like sushi and seafood, there is no other place that offers the choices Noa Noa Wood Grill and Sushi Bar (and Indian buffet) offers. I recommend you give it a try next time you’re in the neighborhood.

For more dispatches from the dining scene in Kosciusko County from Loren Shaum, subscribe to the Lake Country Escapades email newsletter.

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