It was another remarkable year for my culinary journey outside of my home in NYC from Asia to Europe to other parts of the U.S. I’ve marveled at the dedication of Japanese chefs during my short stay in Tokyo, indulged in the simplicity of food in its most elegant form in Italy and had an opportunity to visit San Francisco and Chicago which always excite me with a constant influx of ingenious restaurants that are not in NYC. Below are my top 8 restaurant visits and 16 dishes of the year.
Top Restaurant Visits of the Year
- Nihonryori Ryugin @ Tokyo, Japan – KenScale 9.5/10
- Sushi Sawada @ Tokyo, Japan – KenScale 9.0/10
- Cala @ San Francisco – KenScale 9.0/10
- Rio Bistrot @ Riomaggiore, Italy – KenScale 9.0/10
- Al’s Place @ San Francisco – KenScale 8.5/10
- Roister @ Chicago – KenScale 8.5/10
- Il Ridotto @ Venice, Italy – KenScale 8.5/10
- Lord Stanley @ San Francisco – KenScale 8.5/10
Top Dishes of the Year
1. Tendon @ Kaneko Hannosuke (Tokyo, Japan) – Out of all the amazing food that I had in Tokyo, this one will stick with me for a long time. For such a simple tendon dish (tempuras on top of rice) to have such marvelous flavor and texture, at slightly more than $10 per person, is why Tokyo is easily considered one of the best food cities in the world.
2. Surf clam @ Nihonryori Ryugin (Tokyo, Japan) – Ryugin certainly didn’t disappoint as one of the best restaurants in the world period. I had a fabulous meal at this modern Japanese palace, and among all the blissful sensations I’ve had here, the textural effect of surf clam was the most memorable.
3. “Strawberry” and “sakura” ice cream @ Nihonryori Ryugin (Tokyo, Japan) – Ryugin’s elegant tasting menu isn’t just limited to savory dishes. All of the desserts were just as impressive, particularly this beautiful array of ice cream dessert that fully displays the ingenuity of kitchen in a country with deep culinary tradition in sweets.
4. Noodle soup @ Mingles (Seoul, Korea) – Mingles has always been my go-to modern Korean restaurant in Seoul whenever I visit the city to see my family. My trip to the restaurant in March was outstanding as usual, but the noodle soup that came in anchovy-based broth was such a heartwarming dish on a chilly spring evening.
5. Ribeye @ Al’s Place (San Francisco, CA) – By now, everyone knows about how great Al’s Place is in vegetable dishes, but did you know that they also have a killer ribeye steak? For me, a great steak always wows you with texture of meat, barely adding any condiments that can otherwise kill the texture. The ribeye at Al’s Place is an important exhibit of how that timeless principle is put into action.
6. Crispy skin ivory trout with zucchini ratatouille @ Arbor (Chicago, IL) – Arbor was a bit of a polarizing experience for me; I absolutely hated all the natural wine selections that accompanied the tasting menu. On the other hand, there were some excellent dishes, particularly this expertly cooked ivory trout that worked so harmoniously with the fresh zucchini ratatouille underneath.
7. Breakfast sandwich @ Lula Café (Chicago, IL) – Lula Café is a longstanding institution in Chicago by now for its killer brunch offerings but I haven’t had a chance to check out this place until this summer. Lula Café does know how to make brunch exciting (which is a hard feat), and this simple looking sandwich with tomato, ham, fontina, egg and lettuce inside focaccia bread was just a joy to eat.
8. Watermelon sorbet @ Roister (Chicago, IL) – I have yet to check out the famed Alinea (I just can’t plan a trip to Chicago way in advance to be able to purchase the notoriously hard to get tickets) but the casual project behind their team certainly displayed a ton of creativity in their basement test kitchen offerings. I’m not a fan of watermelon in general, but this sorbet (accompanied by watermelon gummy!) was a delightful ending to a very satisfying meal.
9. Buckwheat pasta with cheese, cabbage and potatoes @ Aperitivo et al (Bellagio, Italy) – My girlfriend and I traveled to Italy in the fall and one of the stops was Lake Como area; unfortunately due to rainy condition, we had to be stuck inside an unassuming wine bar in Bellagio but boy am I glad we did, with this amazing pasta that had the memorable rustic touch that I just couldn’t forget about even after we landed back in JFK.
10. Sea bass @ Il Ridotto (Venice, Italy) – Out of all the places we had visited in Italy, Venice was perhaps the most touristy place that we were glad to leave after just one night. On the other hand, I’m really glad I made a reservation at Il Ridotto which offered sophisticated seafood based dishes that displayed elegant simplicity without much fanfare, including this perfectly cooked sea bass dish with minimal seasoning.
11. Tiramisu @ L’Osteria di Giovanni (Florence, Italy) – Florence was by far our favorite city in Italy we had visited, and there are a ton of awesome places to eat here as well. L’Osteria di Giovanni is a place I would strongly recommend if you’re looking for simple Tuscan fare. I’ve had many fantastic dishes at the restaurant, but the one I can’t forget about to this day is the marvelously moist tiramisu. I don’t even know if I can find anything remotely similar in NYC (other than maybe the one I had at Carbone).
12. Spaghetti “alla chitarra” @ Enoteca Pinchiorri (Florence, Italy) – My culinary trip in Italy was focused on checking out local spots with traditional food offerings instead of fancy Michelin star places inside hotels. Enoteca Pinchiorri has held three stars for a long time, but I was a bit skeptical how good this “modern” Italian place would be. When it comes to this spaghetti, I am totally comfortable declaring this is one of the best pasta dishes I’ve had this year.
13. Risotto with black truffle @ Ristorante Perucà (San Gimignano, Italy) – We stumbled upon Perucà almost by accident after barely making it to San Gimignano through a pouring rain as it was just a minute away from our hotel. It turned out to be a surprise gem with a lot of classic Tuscan dishes, and I had a tough time thinking whether I’ve had a better risotto dish than the delightfully creamy (but not heavy) one here accompanied by black truffle.
14. Fritto misto @ Rio Bistrot (Riomaggiore, Italy) – Cinque Terre is one of the best destinations of our Italy trip, with magnificent, photogenic sceneries everywhere of the Italian Riviera. Add to the fact that there is one of the best surprises in the southern town of Riomaggiore where I had a wonderful lunch that was just too good to be true. A lot of restaurants struggle to prepare a great fritto misto dish, but the kitchen at Rio made sure they selected the absolutely fresh ingredients and fried them in perfect conditions without any hint of sogginess whatsoever.
15. Trout tostadas @ Cala (San Francisco, CA) – On my second trip to SF in the fall for my law school reunion, I made a point to visit Cala to see how Mexican meets California vision is executed. I had a phenomenal dinner here, starting with these delightful pieces of trout tostadas that displayed clean flavor while at the same time fully showcasing the rich taste of Mexico. Kudos to the kitchen for treading that delicate balance between the two culinary traditions so effortlessly!
16. Wagyu beef @ Lord Stanley (San Francisco, CA) – Lord Stanley is one of the top newcomers in the awesome San Francisco dining scene, and I was impressed with the sophisticated cooking of the kitchen that wasn’t over the top but really knew how to play with different flavor and texture. Wagyu beef here was the standout on my visit, with almost flawless texture and subtly rich (but not heavy) flavor thanks to the supplement of Burgundy truffle.