2017 was a milestone year for me as I got to marry my lovely wife Jun at the beautiful Auberge du Soleil resort in Napa Valley. On the flip side, that also meant that my opportunity to travel outside of New York to expand my culinary horizon had been somewhat limited this year as most of my vacation times were used for our wedding and its preparation (and hence the heavy concentration of restaurant visits in San Francisco / Bay Area). That didn’t mean that we hadn’t visited any good restaurants. In fact, my best restaurant of the year (and Jun will wholeheartedly agree) was located in the St. Helena neighborhood of Napa Valley. 2018 is the year when we hope to make more trips outside of New York and get a taste of what how other chefs are developing their philosophy with local sensibility that we haven’t seen in the Big Apple. With that in mind, here are the top dishes I have tasted in 2017 (based on the order I had visited the restaurants).
Top Dishes of the Year
1. Gnocchi @ Petit Crenn (San Francisco, CA) – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/05/27/petit-crenn/)
Dominique Crenn is one of the top females chefs in America, if not the world. After being featured in the wildly popular Chefs Table documentary series on Netflix, her Atelier Crenn has become one of the top dining destinations in the country. I still need to visit the restaurant and my expectations have become even higher after a very pleasant meal at the more casual bistro Petit Crenn that Jun and I stopped by during our trip in the Bay Area to visit our wedding venue. A restaurant that fuses bistro concept with California sensibility, Petit Crenn’s fresh perspective was quite memorable, none more so than in this beautifully prepared gnocchi (remember, I’m not really a gnocchi person) accompanied by English peas.
2. Crème caramel @ Petit Crenn (San Francisco, CA) – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/05/27/petit-crenn/)
The second best dish at Petit Crenn was this delightful penny royal crème caramel with rhubarb jam and pistachio. It was not overly sweet yet there was so much going in the flavor that can touch your palate in different ways, and the addition of pistachio to add the crunchy texture to silky smooth dessert base was brilliant. This really epitomized chef Dominique’s approach to creating a subtle dish with careful attention to details on the way ingredients work together to add up to a beautiful final product.
3. Foievacado @ The Restaurant at Meadowood (St. Helena, CA) – KenScale 9.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/05/28/the-restaurant-at-meadowood/)
Restaurant critics in the past couple of years have remarked that San Francisco / Bay Area has overtaken New York City as the fine dining capital of the world. With all due respect to the likes of EMP, Chef’s Table and Le Bernardin (and despite my obvious bias toward my hometown), after visiting the Restaurant at Meadowood, I do think these critics have a point. Meadowood was the best restaurant I had visited all year (and the only one that received the 9.5 KenScale in 2017). Jun and I were deeply touched by the sophisticated cooking that still respects the boundary of nature and strives for perfection in execution. People can’t stop talking about avocados, and I am frankly tired of it, but I wouldn’t mind having this beautiful “foievocado” (with foie gras in the middle of avocado) for my breakfast every day.
4. Black cod @ The Restaurant at Meadowood (St. Helena, CA) – KenScale 9.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/05/28/the-restaurant-at-meadowood/)
Another favorite dish of ours at Meadowood was black cod with fresh peas. Too oftentimes, a restaurant brings out a fish that is freshly sourced and aptly cooked but totally overwhelmed by heavy dose of seasoning. What is all the point of cooking the fish if all you taste is salt, pepper and butter? Not so much at Meadowood, which brings the seasoning to a bare minimum such that the cod’s texture really shines and works beautifully with the peas.
5. Beef @ The Restaurant at Meadowood (St. Helena, CA) – KenScale 9.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/05/28/the-restaurant-at-meadowood/)
For being the only 9.5 KenScale restaurant of the year, Meadowood gets to have three favorite dishes in this list (really, it was that good!). After all the wonderful savory dishes, the kitchen decided to bring out a marvelous piece of wagyu beef as an exclamation point. You get to see this beautiful meat being smoked in dry onion tops inside a small wooden box, and the sense of anticipation that builds up as it gets placed on the plate was just exhilarating. If Aska’s ribeye was the best beef of 2017 in New York City that I had tasted, Meadowood’s wagyu would undoubtedly be the best beef that I had outside of the city.
6. Wasabi lobster @ In Situ (San Francisco, CA) – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/05/31/in-situ/)
It may be hard to find a consensus about In Situ inside San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. On the one hand, how hard is it to replicate the signature dishes of other acclaimed chefs around the world (which is the central concept of the restaurant)? I think In Situ, opened by the acclaimed chef Corey Lee behind SF’s Benu, deserves more credit than that. You still need a competent kitchen staff to be able to execute the recipes they received from other chefs and In Situ has achieved that feat quite well, as evidenced by this wasabi lobster dish from chef Tim Raue in Berlin (who is known for high-end Asian fusion tasting menus). The way the initially overpowering wasabi gradually became integrated to the crunchy lobster was simply magical.
7. Cheesecake @ In Situ (San Francisco, CA) – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/05/31/in-situ/)
A couple of years ago, I had a wonderful dinner at the acclaimed Tickets behind the team that put Spain on the culinary map with the now shuttered elBulli. So it was really nice to see that one of the dessert menus at In Situ featured a recipe from Tickets, and the same remarkable ingenuity was present in this cheesecake accompanied by hazelnut, white chocolate and cookie. Its delightful sensation is not something that Jun and I would forget in a while.
8. Chicken @ The Charter Oak (St. Helena, CA) – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/09/29/the-charter-oak/)
I was so impressed by the Meadowood when Jun and I visited in May to check out our wedding venue so once I heard that its more casual counterpart was opening up in the summer, I emailed the reservation staff immediately to grab a table for our family’s rehearsal dinner prior to the wedding. Our family was still trying to get to know one another and the dinner couldn’t have gone better, at the magical backyard where we get to share a lot of fresh and thoughtfully prepared food family style. It’s not often that you marvel at a chicken dish, but the one at the Charter Oak was one of the best I’ve had this year. The perfectly cooked meat with a smoky feel that is accompanied by fresh and dried grapes represents the kitchen’s philosophy on using the freshest ingredients and focusing on doing the right things in execution rather than wowing the diners with some gimmicky ingredients or techniques.
9. Apple upside down cake @ The Charter Oak (St. Helena, CA) – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/09/29/the-charter-oak/)
I’ve had a lot of great dessert dishes in 2017, but one dish in particular that I can’t keep forgetting (and would love to get my hands on in the future) is this apple upside down cake at the Charter Oak. It looks so simple but its sweet sensation was balanced without overpowering my palate, and you can tell that the kitchen made sure to source the freshest apples out there.
10. Surf and turf poor boys @ Parkway Bakery & Tavern (New Orleans, LA) – KenScale 8.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/12/22/parkway-bakery-tavern/)
One major trip that Jun and I took after our wedding was to New Orleans. The city was absolutely charming when I visited for a summer weekend trip a couple of years, and there is no shortage of outstanding restaurants showcasing the Creole cuisine. Jun has never been to the city before so I found our trip to be a perfect opportunity to explore the city’s culture while also expanding our culinary experience. One thing in New Orleans that I regret not going on my last time was to not try a po’ boy. This time, after consulting numerous resources, I made sure that the destination for our first meal would be at Parkway, which serves the decadent surf and turf version that mixes up slow cooked roast beef and golden shrimp.
11. Citrus glazed jumbo shrimp @ Herbsaint (New Orleans, LA) – KenScale 8.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/12/22/herbsaint/)
Donald Link is a big name in the New Orleans dining scene, yet his flagship restaurant Herbsaint has somewhat stayed under the radar, overshadowed by the likes of Peche and Cochon Butcher which have received more buzz (and I liked both of them, especially the latter, when I visited a couple of years ago). While I felt the restaurant didn’t quite wow me the same way the other sister restaurants did, there was no question this citrus glazed jumbo shrimp was a thing of beauty, with fresh shrimp and surprisingly well-balanced seasoning that made me keep digging at it.
12. Curried goat @ Compère Lapin (New Orleans, LA) – KenScale 8.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/12/26/compere-lapin/)
Ever since its opening, Compère Lapin has been a hit in the New Orleans dining scene thanks to chef Nina Compton’s unique Caribbean angle to the Creole cuisine. When I visited with Jun for a dinner meal during our trip to NOLA, we’ve encountered some hits and misses but I was enamored with the curried goat accompanied by sweet potato gnocchi and cashews that more than capably displayed how a fusion of two somewhat related yet still distinct culinary traditions could work to great effect.
13. Fried Bologna @ Turkey and the Wolf (New Orleans, LA) – KenScale 8.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/12/26/turkey-and-the-wolf/)
It was almost like a déjà vu. My best meal in New Orleans, just like the last time when I visited the city a couple of years ago, was at a sandwich shop. There is a good reason that Turkey and the Wolf was named the #1 best new restaurant in America by Bon Appetit magazine in 2017. Jun and I were simply astounded by how a simple sandwich can be made this delicious, with seemingly incompatible ingredients working together like a beautiful symphony. Take this fried bologna sandwich which has uncrushed potato chips and shredded lettuce. Its powerful flavor combination is not something that Jun and I will easily forget; still to this day, Jun reminisces about the wonderful sandwiches at Turkey and the Wolf.
14. Collard green melt @ Turkey and the Wolf (New Orleans, LA) – KenScale 8.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/12/26/turkey-and-the-wolf/)
The only reason that I didn’t wolf down the aforementioned fried bologna sandwich in five minutes was that there was another phenomenal sandwich that we had ordered that blew both of us away the same way the fried bologna did. I was in awe wondering how a simple-looking collard green melt with no meat could pack so much flavor and texture that was just impossible to fathom just by looking at the ingredients on the menu. I’m not going to be a vegetarian and neither is Jun, but if we were to become one, we wouldn’t actually mind having this 3-5 times a week.
15. Blue crab beignets @ La Petite Grocery (New Orleans, LA) – KenScale 7.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/12/26/la-petite-grocery/)
Out of all the restaurants we had visited in New Orleans, La Petite Grocery was one that I had high expectations for but ultimately was disappointed with. Maybe it’s the turtle Bolognese pasta that I heard was a signature dish at the restaurant but turned out to be underwhelming and not as rich and powerful as the traditional ragu pasta that we’ve had in Italy or elsewhere (it didn’t help that Jun was feeling squeamish about the dish because her family used to raise a couple of turtles). Still, if a restaurant in New York City has blue crab beignets on the menu that are as good as the one at La Petite Grocery, I will run (not walk) to that place. The lightly fried crab with malt vinegar aioli was a marvelous appetizer.
16. Stone crabs @ Joe’s Stone Crab (Miami Beach, FL) – KenScale 8.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/12/26/joes-stone-crab/)
Jun and I have never been to Miami so we were thrilled to check out the restaurant scene in the city with heavy Mexican and Cuban influences during our short trip. When one of our pilates teachers who knows the city well told us to check out Joe’s Stone Crab, though, I did make sure to include the restaurant in our itinerary. Despite a hefty price tag (compared to somewhat underwhelming size), the stone crabs at Joe’s were sensational with absolutely juicy crab meat that made us feel thankful we’re enjoying this in sunny Florida instead of facing what is turning out to be a brutal New York winter.