2019 was a very productive year in terms of travel. My wife Jun and I hit four different countries from Canada to Europe to South America while hitting multiple states from Oregon to Arizona, and had an amazing opportunity to explore different cultures and scenery that left us with precious memories. And, of course, along the way we got to have quite a culinary journey. There were certainly some moments where the actual experience didn’t quite meet the expectations, like when we had the worst meal of the year at one of the supposedly best newcomers in Portland, or when the show at Chicago’s trailblazer Alinea dazzled us much more in terms of visual effect than the actual quality of food. On the other hand, we did have some amazing dishes, particularly in places that emphasize the use of fresh local ingredients without resorting to a lot of fancy techniques. Here are the top dishes I have tasted in 2019 (based on the order we had visited the restaurants). The list doesn’t include dishes from our trip to Argentina which took place around the end of December so I didn’t have a chance to yet sort through all the photos from that trip (although there were certainly some truly amazing dishes we’ve had in Buenos Aires and Patagonia).
Top Dish of the Year
1. Beef Bacon and Duck Heart Yakitori with Kimchi @ Montreal Plaza (Montreal, Canada) – KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/01/27/montreal-plaza/)
During our trip to Montreal in the sub-zero temperature (Jun swore she would never go back to the city in the winter), we had some memorable dishes at Montreal Plaza whose kitchen was not afraid to try different combinations of ingredients in an unexpected way, often to great effects. We certainly didn’t expect to encounter this smoky yakitori dish that was beautifully executed.
2. Seared Ahi Sandwich @ Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop (Lahaina, HI) – KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/02/16/leodas-kitchen-and-pie-shop/)
In February, Jun and I had a wonderful time in Maui for our friends’ wedding there. We certainly had no shortage of really fresh seafood dishes during our trip (seriously, I never expected to have poke dishes inside a liquor store), but one dish that I would love to come back for is this sandwich with seared fresh sashimi grade tuna whose texture was simply perfect. When you are in Maui, stop by at this modest restaurant/pie shop and order this (their banana cream pie is pretty good, too).
3. Seafood Paella @ La Cevicheria (Cartagena, Colombia) – KenScale: 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.0/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/05/28/la-cevicheria/)
Cartagena in Colombia was one of the places I had been looking to visit for a long time, and I finally made that happen in May. Jun and I absolutely enjoyed walking around the colorful historical Old Town despite the punishingly humid weather, and got to taste some fresh seafood dishes as well, one of which was this gorgeous paella dish with perhaps the most generous portion of seafood I had seen at a restaurant (and loved it even more as it cost only around $30).
4. Camarones @ La Mulata (Cartagena, Colombia) – KenScale: 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.0/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/05/29/la-mulata/)
More often that not, it’s the simplicity that matters. An unassuming restaurant in Cartagena greatly surprised with aromatic fish soup served for free, but even better was this plate of shrimps and coconut rice that was just so addictively delicious. Drink a bottle of local Club Colombia beer with this dish and your culinary mission in Cartagnea is more or less complete.
5. Duck Stack @ Canard (Portland, OR) – KenScale: 8.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.0/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/07/20/canard/)
During the Fourth of July weekend, Jun and I visited Oregon to check out Portland and explore the Willamette Valley wine country. Of course, we had to make a few stops at restaurants in Portland. One of the best newcomers in the city’s dining scene is Canard, and the star at this restaurant is the already famous duck stack, a decadent combination of pancakes, duck gravy and duck egg. If you are not afraid of rich and fatty flavor, give this dish a try while you are in Oregon.
6. Beef Tripe and Octopus @ Ox (Portland, OR) – KenScale: 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/07/28/ox/)
Ox was the final stop of our Oregon trip, and while the Argentine-inspired grill house offered very solid meat dishes, it was this stunning combination of beef and octopus that I would remember for a long time, particularly its spicy kick that enhanced the textural contrast of this surf-and-turf appetizer. When you visit Ox, save some room for this dish before digging into the meats.
7. Cod and Tomatoes @ Óx (Reykjavik, Iceland) – KenScale: 9.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 9.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/11/30/ox-2/)
If you think food in Iceland is not very good (while also being expensive) based on your experience in the country, I would like you to try this tasting counter inside the Sumac restaurant. Óx was hands down the best meal (tied for the highest KenScale score with Atomix in NY) Jun and I had had in 2019, and we marveled all night at chef Þráinn’s culinary show featuring fresh Icelandic ingredients, including this astounding dish with cod and tomatoes.
8. Milk and Fennel @ Óx (Reykjavik, Iceland) – KenScale: 9.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 9.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/11/30/ox-2/)
Another standout dish from our blow-out meal at Óx came toward the end, with the milk ice cream giving refreshing touch on top of the fennel cake. Get a sip of the coffee that the kitchen brews in fancy lab-like equipment to complement this outstanding dessert, and your meal at this magical place comes full circle.