Review of 2017 (NYC)

2017 felt like a down year for New York City dining scene. In addition to all these sexual assault scandals involving some of the most well-known chefs from Mario Batali to Ken Friedman, while there were many openings (and closings) during the year, I also felt there was this race to the fast casual where chefs are focused more on crowd-pleaser concepts than showcasing their philosophy in a dynamic and more experimental manner. Some of the new openings that everyone was talking about, such as Flora Bar, Loring Place, 4 Charles Prime Rib, Chinese Tuxedo, abcV, Tim Ho Wan, Cote or JeJu Noodle Bar, ranged anywhere between inconsistent to utterly disappointing. That said, I did find some truly amazing restaurants, some of which opened this year but many others actually opened before 2017 but I haven’t had a chance to visit until this year. The best part of my culinary journey in 2017 in retrospect is that now I have a permanent dining partner in my wife Jun who has been unafraid to share her honest opinions about the places we have visited. Our taste is more similar than different, and as a fantastic cook Jun is certainly more discerning than me in observing the subtleties on ingredients and techniques. I look forward to having an even more amazing journey with her in 2018. 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. Ribeye beef @ Aska 2.0 – KenScale 9.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/01/11/aska/)

The new Aska from chef Fredrick Berselius was a truly beautiful experience with the exciting New Nordic cooking that seemed to have evolved even more in the positive direction from the restaurant’s origin inside Williamsburg’s Kinfolk Studio. Among the many memorial dishes Jun and I have sampled, the ribeye beef was perhaps the most memorable, with its impeccable texture that I am confident can hold on its own against any of the top steakhouses in the city if not the country.

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Beef (120 Day Dry Aged Ribeye, Preserved Black Currant and Salted Plum, Cured Beef Fat)

2. Hummus @ Dizengoff – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/01/24/dizengoff/)

New York City dining scene over the past couple years has witnessed the rise of Israeli / Middle Eastern restaurants which are still somewhat underrepresented. One team from Philadelphia decided to bring their talent to the Big Apple, and the tasting menu at Dizengoff inside the Chelsea Market was so satisfying when Jun and I had visited in January, none more so than the simple hummus that were accompanied by hen of the words mushrooms and pine nuts for an earthy sensation that was quite remarkable.

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Hummus (Hen of the Woods Mushrooms with Pine Nuts, Green Tehina) and House Pita

3. Pork soup dumplings @ Shanghai Asian Manor – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/01/26/shanghai-asian-manor/)

Everyone has their favorite dim sum place in New York. While I have yet to make the trip to the Queens area which reportedly has so many places that are better than their counterparts in Manhattan’s Chinatown, for now I will keep going to Shanghai Asian Manor when Jun and I need a dim sum fix. The key at this popular restaurant is to focus on the front page in the menu, particularly the supremely delicious pork soup dumplings (Xiao long bao) whose rich, aromatic broth is something you want to savor, especially in this brutally cold winter.

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Steamed Soup Dumplings with Pork

4. Grilled lobster @ Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare – KenScale 9.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/01/31/chefs-table-at-brooklyn-fare/)

I’ve finally had a fortune to dine at the insanely-hard-to-get-a-table Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, probably because the restaurant’s move to a bigger space in Manhattan allowed them to take in diners outside the counter. Although the counter seating would’ve been even more memorable with the way you can look at the magic happening at this premier seafood-centric haute cuisine palace, I didn’t mind eating at the table with Jun thanks to many of the wonderful dishes, especially the grilled lobster that was crunchy and really showcases the kitchen’s commitment to sourcing the freshest seafood out there. Yes, the price tag (at $330 per person when we visited) isn’t gentle, but definitely consider this place the next special occasion dinner where you can afford to splurge.

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Grilled Lobster with Clementine

5. Tonkotsu ramen @ Ichiran – KenScale: 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/03/29/ichiran/)

Ichiran’s tonkotsu ramen was the best ramen dish Jun and I have had this year. An outpost from a popular chain in Japan, what stands out about the ramen at this place is that you get to be responsible for making your own ramen based on the customization of seasoning, richness of the broth, firmness of noodle and other categories. The one Jun and I have ordered, with light seasoning coupled with medium richness, a fair amount of spicy red sauce and firm noodle, was so spot-on in flavor and texture that I was struggling to remember when was  the last time I’ve had a ramen bowl this good. Only if Ichiran were located nearby our home in Financial District instead of Bushwick in Brooklyn…

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Tonkotsu Ramen

6. Dry hot pot @ Mala Project – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/03/31/mala-project/)

Since we’ve been together, when Jun cooked at home she really cares about the level of seasoning that goes into what she prepares. While she avoids salt at all costs, she usually likes to spice up her food, and our taste preference has gravitated toward the spicy side in general. For anyone who shares our passion for spicy food, the dry hot pot at Mala Project, where you get to choose as many ingredients as you want from the menu and the kitchen puts together a “salad” (unlike the traditional hot pot with broth that we are used to), is a must. The one we ordered was sheer decadence with the way the spicy sensation kicks you in the gut yet you can’t get enough of this awesomeness.

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Dry Hot Pot (Beef Heart, Pork Belly, Chicken Gizzard, Quail Egg, Prawn, Lotus Root, Oyster Mushroom, Bok Choy, Chinese Cabbage)

7. Roast duck flambé @ The Beatrice Inn – KenScale 9.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/04/26/the-beatrice-inn/)

One of the most pleasant surprises this year was the Beatrice Inn which has undergone a major evolution from a classic nightlife trap to a serious restaurant on its own with its decadent meat-centric cooking. Jun loves duck meat in general and therefore sets a very high bar for the poultry whenever we get one during our culinary journey. After getting a few bites out of the gigantic roast duck at the Beatrice Inn, there was no question for both of us that this duck dish was life-changing in a way that we can never settle back to having an average meat anymore. The remarkable texture of this dish, coupled with cherry jus, is easily one of the best dishes of the year. Next time you are thinking of a large format dinner with a group of friends, put the Beatrice Inn on your list, and order a bunch of meat dishes on the menu, including this one if it is available.

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Roast Duck Flambe with Cherry Jus

8. Fritto misto @ Union Square Café – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/05/17/union-square-cafe/)

Calamari is one of those dishes that is deceptively hard to master. You need to be careful with the use of batter and seasoning to make sure the seafood’s texture still shines is not undermined by the fried shell surrounding it. Jun and I have had our fair share of fried seafood dishes, and no restaurant has quite mastered this craft like Union Square Café, which triumphantly returned after its shocking closing several years ago due to rent hike. The wonderful balance of flavor and texture in this dish is something that Jun and I kept thinking as a barometer whenever we have had calamari dishes elsewhere since our visit to Danny Meyer’s flagship restaurant. And no other place has still lived up the standard set by Union Square Café.

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Fritto Misto (Calamari, Halibut, Peppers, Artichoke)

9. Avocado dessert @ Empellon Midtown – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/06/15/empellon/)

Not many people know that Alex Stupak, who has built a mini-empire of his Empellon brand restaurants culminating in a giant Midtown restaurant that opened in 2017, was a pastry chef. Empellon Midtown was one of the best meals Jun and I have had this year from the appetizers to the desserts, and we will certainly come back again for this beautiful dessert that looks like an avocado but gives, in chef Stupak’s own word, a sensation of a delightful key lime pie that can swoon anyone who loves desserts. No wonder this dish is one of the mainstays in Instagram photos covering the restaurant. Yes, New York City is too infatuated with avocados these days, but this one I’ll give a pass.

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Avocado with Lime, Olive Oil and Eucalyptus Yogurt

10. Grandma chicken mixian @ Little Tong Noodle Shop – KenScale 8.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/06/20/little-tong-noodle-shop/)

This year, Jun and I have had the pleasure of getting our first taste of an unknown Chinese noodle dish called mixian from the southwestern Yunnan province of China. We really didn’t know what to expect from these noodle dishes, but the clean flavor of the grandma chicken mixian was wonderfully aromatic, and reminded us of a traditional Korean chicken soup that we grew up eating a lot to fight the hot summer (yes, in Korea we were taught that the hot soups can control the hot weather). Mixian can be a serious contender to being the next great Asian noodle dish after ramen, pad thai and dan dan noodle.

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Grandma Chicken Mixian (Chicken Broth, Chicken Confit, Black Sesame Garlic Oil, Tea Egg, Chinese Broccoli, Pickles, Fermented Chili)

11. Pasta a la presse @ The Grill – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/07/14/the-grill/)

By now, it should come as no surprise that The Grill was one of the best openings of 2017 in New York City, and who can easily forget this unapologetically nostalgia to the good old days of New York luxury dining at one of the most iconic spaces in the city at Four Seasons? When I heard of the closing of Four Seasons, I wondered who would take on the unenviable task of resurrecting the space. Well, the Major Food Group behind the super chef duo of Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi has pulled it off quite spectacularly. While not every dish that I tried with Jun and another food-loving couple worked, we certainly were stunned by the pasta a la presse where the staff comes out with a press cart to extract meaty juice from various poultries. The result is a pasta dish with smoky sensation that I didn’t even know exist in this world!

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Pasta a la Presse

12. Prime rib @ The Grill – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/07/14/the-grill/)

The Grill is the only restaurant on this list that gets to have two dishes. While I was not ready to give 9.0 or above KenScale for a variety of reasons (including the prohibitive price that makes it less approachable than it could be), if I were to have a prime rib (preferably on an expense account), The Grill would be the place I would love to head over to. The giant piece of meat which the staff cuts from a pushcart is astounding in its texture with restraint on seasoning that further enhanced the moist and juicy sensation. Too bad the other meat dishes that we had sampled didn’t quite live up to the same standard (and hence one of the reasons I settled with 8.5 at the restaurant).

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Prime Rib

13. Chicken enchiladas @ Atla – KenScale 8.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/07/21/atla/)

Atla from the acclaimed chef Enrique Olvera and his top lieutenant Daniela Soto-Innes, despite its hits and misses during our visit for a early summer dinner, is one of the restaurants that I would love to get back to thanks to its unique perspective on presenting Mexican cuisine in a lighter, healthier manner. A case in point: when you think of chicken enchiladas, you will probably think a 1,000 calorie bomb that makes you want to walk for a couple of hours if you feel guilty afterwards. Well, I’m not sure how many calories the one at Atla contains, but the delicately spicy flavor of red chili pepper sauce made this dish rich yet not heavy (and therefore making you feel less guilty).

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Chicken Enchiladas

14. Spanish mackerel @ Okonomi – KenScale 9.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/07/31/okonomi/)

One place that has long eluded me is the omakase tasting experience at a modest restaurant in Brooklyn called Okonomi, which is only available one day a week for a single time slot on Saturday evenings. When I finally booked a couple of spots for Jun and I (yes, you have to pay for online tickets in advance, which makes the planning even trickier), only to hear from the owner on the same day of our scheduled visit that there was a “medical emergency” so our dinner had to be rescheduled, I wondering if I will never get a chance to visit Okonomi. I’m glad we were able to reschedule to a later date shortly after the unexpected cancellation. Jun and I loved the delightful experience at our counter seating, especially this magnificent Spanish mackerel with maitake mushrooms on top that was simply cooked to perfection. If you know you can commit to one Saturday evening for a meal at Okonomi, turn on your computer as soon as possible for the next openings.

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Sawara (Spanish Mackerel), Maitake, Oregano, Sansho, Yuzu

15. Pork collar @ Norman – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/08/14/norman/)

One of the most stunning restaurant spaces Jun and I have visited in 2017 was Norman, with its industrial charm inside a large open design space at a former warehouse. As such, I was shocked that the restaurant was virtually empty on a perfect Sunday evening. Could it be that Norman, a collaboration between one of the founders of Noma and a chef leading the kitchen of Aska (see above), was not as good in food? After our dinner at the restaurant, my answer to that question is hell no! The modern Scandinavian / New Nordic cuisine coming from the kitchen was creative and expressive, especially the wonderfully cooked pork collar. Maybe the issue of why Norman is not being packed with people is its odd location (in the middle of nowhere on the border between Williamsburg and Greenpoint). In any event, I wish more people found out about this place and shared my enthusiasm with the kitchen’s cooking.

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Pork Collar (Red Banana Fingerlings, Spicy Greens, Pickled Gooseberry)

16. Eggplant Carpaccio @ Nur – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/08/24/nur/)

New York City is one of the most difficult testing grounds for out-of-town chefs looking to make an impact. With avid diners with sophisticated taste with a ton of economic power, if you have a hit you can strike gold. Those same diners can also be a fickle bunch, and may move on to the next best thing in the dining space after your hype dies down. Add often prohibitive rents and labor costs, and it’s not surprising that a lot of chefs who made their names in the Big Apple decided to move elsewhere for more modest propositions. I believe the acclaimed Israeli chef Meir Adoni’s new restaurant in the Flatiron will have a staying power for a long time, not because New York City is flooded with Jewish people but because the restaurant is very good. Do you get my point if I say I don’t typically eat eggplant yet the smoked eggplant carpaccio was my favorite thing of the night (and yes, there were other memorably delicious dishes but no particularly bad one during our visit)?

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Smoked Eggplant Carpaccio (Fired Roasted with Feta, Raw Tahini, Dates, Pistachios, Rose Water)

17. Green tea soba noodle with duck breast @ Secchu Yokota – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/08/30/secchu-yokota/)

One of the hidden gems that Jun and I had visited this year was Secchu Yokota which offers refined tempura-based tasting menus at an intimate counter seating. I’ve some of the best tempura dishes during our visit, with a variety of seafood and vegetables that were fried more or less perfectly to ensure the texture of each ingredient shines. The one dish that I can’t still forget, though, was the green tea soba noodle with duck breast that was not only beautifully plated but had the subtlety in flavor and texture that was quite remarkable.

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Green Tea Soba Noodle with Duck Breast

18. Clam toast @ Hart’s – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/09/25/harts/)

Hart’s, a modest operation in Brooklyn, was a surprise inclusion to the acclaimed magazine Bon Appetit’s America’s Best New Restaurants list this year. It is also the kind of place that Jun and I would love to go back again and again every once in a while, with an intimate dining space and thoughtfully executed Mediterranean fare that can make you smile. Just make sure that when you visit Hart’s, always get the clam toast which displays a powerful punch in flavor without being too greasy in your palate. Who says you need to have the next fancy technique or ingredient to be successful? Hart’s shows that more often than not, simplicity prevails if you do it right.

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Clam Toast with Pancetta

19. Dungeness crab rice @ The Pool – KenScale 8.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/10/30/the-pool/)

Compared to its shiny sister restaurant The Grill, The Pool doesn’t seem to have the same energy and confidence even though its space with its iconic pool in the center has a ton of potential. That disparity even shows in the quality of food Jun and I have sampled, where we’ve had some good dishes and others somewhat pedestrian (and it didn’t help that The Pool was still charging outrageous amount of money for these). The lone exception was the Dungeness crab rice which, despite its hefty $36 price tag for a modest portion, still displayed a ton of complexity in flavor that I’m comfortable declaring one of the best dishes I’ve had this year.

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Dungeness Crab Rice with Fresh Bay Laurel

20. Scallop with bonito dashi sauce @ Mifune – KenScale 9.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/11/28/mifune/)

New York City probably doesn’t need any more expensive high-end sushi omakase or kaiseki tasting menu only restaurants that charge $200 or more per person (yet 2017 has seen a lot of new openings that exactly do that). I have still yet to go to these places (and am somewhat hesitant to go because I’m not sure if the value proposition is right) but Mifune’s eight-course tasting menu at $120 per person was a revelation, showcasing elegant Japanese dishes with modern twists that Jun and I immensely enjoyed. For someone like Jun who is quite sensitive to the freshness of scallop, it was a pleasant surprise to see her rave about the crispy scallop submerged in bonito dashi sauce that was beautifully executed and had immaculate texture.

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Crispy Arare Battered Scallop, Bonito Dashi Sauce

21. Chicken skewers @ Ugly Baby – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/11/28/ugly-baby/)

I probably sweated the most at a restaurant in my life ever when Jun and I visited Ugly Baby. We are both very partial to spicy food, but the way Ugly Baby’s kitchen didn’t pull any punches in that department was simply groundbreaking. After a few scoops of duck salad, I thought my mouth was literally breathing fire and had to compose myself gulping down Thai iced tea just to keep up. Perhaps because of that struggle (although I didn’t complain as the food itself was quite addictive and delicious), my most favorite dish that night was chicken thigh skewers that were the least spiciest (although by no means wild) for saving me from sweating even more.

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Gai Golae – Southern Style Chicken Thigh Skewers

22. Yuzu and honey @ Dessert Bar at Patisserie Chanson – KenScale 9.0/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/11/30/dessert-bar-at-patisserie-chanson/)

When a pastry shop decides to open a multi-course dessert tasting menu bar, I knew I need to check out with my sweet-tooth wife who has her own “cabinet” of candies, chocolates and other delicacies at our home. And boy did the Dessert Bar at Patisserie Chanson delivered with its ingeniousness and experimental spirit. We’ve had our fair share of remarkable desserts while dining together, but the Dessert Bar brought an entirely different vision and philosophy that is hard to match for other pastry and dessert shops in the city, such as this beautiful combination of yuzu ice cream and honey candy that was so delightful that it took us a couple of minutes to finish the entire plate!

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Yuzu, Honey

23. Oyster and salmon roe @ Mayanoki – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/12/19/mayanoki/)

There is nothing usual about Mayanoki, which offers that it calls the “sustainable sushi” experience using mostly fish that is locally sourced on the East Coast helmed by a Caucasian sushi chef who used to work in Texas. Despite these oddities that challenged our expectations about a traditional sushi restaurant, Jun and I had a lovely time at Mayanoki’s counter enjoying various nigiri pieces that display a unique vision that you can’t see anywhere in New York City. Who would’ve thought I would get to see this remarkable combination of oyster and salmon roe at a sushi counter?

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Oyster and Salmon Roe

24. Black bass @ The Modern (Kitchen Table) – KenScale 8.5/10 (https://kenscale.com/2017/12/28/the-modern-kitchen-table/)

The Modern inside the Museum of Modern Art is always a reliable place. Once I found about that the restaurant also opened the Kitchen Table that provides a front-row seat access to the kitchen during your meal, I was instantly hooked. Nowadays, I have always tried to sit in front of the kitchen wherever possible to see the kitchen staffs in action, and I thought the Modern’s kitchen would certainly be a state-of-the-art one. While I wished the overall experience were a little bit more interactive with the chefs, the food that Jun and I had for my birthday dinner was elegant and beautifully prepared. Our unanimous favorite of the night was this black bass with artichokes that was cooked to perfection and had the subtle yet refined flavor that was not overpowering but complementing the fish’s texture superbly.

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Crispy Skin Black Bass, Artichokes Barigoule & Minestrone Sauce

 

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