2019 was another productive culinary journey for my wife Jun and I. For all the expensive tasting menu and omakase restaurants that are not accessible to most diners and the opening of the much-criticized Hudson Yards, Jun and I also found there were plenty of pleasant surprises where chefs and restaurateurs adjusted to the new economic reality and changing taste in the New York dining scenery. 2019 was also the first year that Jun and I vowed to find restaurants we would visit at more often as regulars under the KenScale All-Star banner. This year, we found five such restaurants, whittled down to four (Atomix, Ugly Baby, Aska and Mala Project) at the end of the year as noted below. We will use 2020 to discover more of these restaurants on our repertoire (some of them are quite close as noted below). Here are the top dishes I have tasted (based on the order I had visited the restaurants).
Top Dishes of the Year
1. Arctic Char Sashimi and Persimmon @ Mayanoki – KenScale 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/01/26/mayanoki-revisit-kenscale-all-star/)
One of the saddest news I received in 2019 was the departure of chef Jeff Miller from Mayanoki in the middle of the year. While we had not yet visited Mayanoki under the new chef, I decided to take out Mayanoki from the KenScale All-Star for now. I always loved the chef’s conviction in using locally sourced fish that I hope catches on in other sushi counters. One of the highlights from this year was this beautiful dish of arctic char from Iceland with persimmon offering a stunning contrast in texture.
2. Beef Noodle Soup @ Hao Noodle – KenScale 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/02/27/hao-noodle-chelsea/)
What is the best dish for fighting the frigid winter in the city? While there are many worthy candidates, one of the dishes that absolutely needs to be under consideration is this noodle soup that offers amazing depth in flavor and shows why Hao Noodle is one of the most exciting Chinese restaurants in the city. There is a good chance that next time I visit the restaurant it will receive the KenScale All-Star tag.
3. Yakitori Lamb @ Chefs Club NY (Lev) – KenScale 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/02/28/chefs-club-lev/)
2019 was also a year where Jun and I had been to plenty of temporary pop-ups, with spaces such as Chefs Club and Intersect by Lexus offering rotating menus of chefs from different parts of the world. One of the best meals we’ve had was during the residency of two Israeli chefs under the name Lev at Chefs Club. The remarkably smoky taste of the lamb yakitori is something that I sincerely hope stays for good in the New York dining scene.
4. Lumache @ Benno – KenScale 8.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.75/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/03/16/benno/)
Jonathan Benno is perhaps one of the most technically sound chefs in New York City and it shows in his first eponymous restaurant that opened toward the end of 2018. While the dishes at Benno do not have the same level of dazzling ingenuity that other haute cuisine places around the city features, I dare you to name me one pasta dish that is as good as this one with Maine lobster that offers great balance in flavor and perfect al dente texture.
5. Dover Sole @ Momofuku Noodle Bar (Columbus Circle) – KenScale 7.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 7.75/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/03/16/momofuku-noodle-bar-columbus-circle/)
One lesson I learned over my culinary journey with Jun is to give credit to outstanding individual dishes even when the overall dining experience at the restaurant is underwhelming. While we weren’t sure of all the hype behind David Chang’s latest Momofuku Noodle Bar branch inside the Time Warner Center, there was no question this dover sole was one of the best seafood dishes we’ve had this year, and a huge steal at slightly over $40 when many other upscale restaurants charge over $80 for this expensive fish.
6. Khao Soi @ Ugly Baby – KenScale 8.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.75/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/03/24/ugly-baby-revisit/)
2019 was an important year in our culinary journey as we discovered the winning formulation at Ugly Baby which has established its place as our all-time favorite Thai restaurant in the city. Now, anytime we go to the restaurant, we always make sure to order this aromatic egg noodle curry soup with beef shank. It will gradually kick your palate with heat, but you won’t be able to stop digging it.
7. Fried Turmeric Sea Bream @ Ugly Baby – KenScale 8.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.75/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/03/24/ugly-baby-revisit/)
Another stand-out dish at Ugly Baby was this beautifully fried fish with turmeric spice that is not as insanely spicy as some of the other dishes at the restaurant, but has quickly become our favorite. Every time we visit Ugly Baby and order this dish, Jun makes it a point to carve out the entire fish so we can indulge in its deliciousness.
8. Fried Bologna Sandwich @ Au Cheval – KenScale 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/04/29/au-cheval/)
One of the most hyped newcomers in the New York dining scene was the opening of the famed diner-inspired restaurant Au Cheval from Chicago. Its burger was certainly a standout dish but if you are getting tired of all the burger craze (but you need to still try one that I mention below), try this bologna sandwich that is pure decadence. You may feel guilty at the end of the meal, but won’t while you take a bite out of it!
9. Snap Peas and Caviar @ Atomix – KenScale 9.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 9.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/04/30/atomix-revisit-spring-2019/)
2019 was the year Atomix firmly established itself as the best restaurant in New York City for us. Our visit for the spring menu was tied for the highest KenScale score this year, and one dish from that meal that I can’t get my head around is this stunning combination of sugar snap peas and caviar with lightly grilled bluefin tuna underneath, inspired by the grilling technique of my all-time favorite restaurant in the world in Extebarri from Spain.
10. Lamb Ribs @ Cherry Point – KenScale 7.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 7.75/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/06/23/cherry-point/)
It’s not often that Jun asks to order the same dish over again at a restaurant, but when you have a rib dish as good as the one at Cherry Point, you would probably do the same. While the restaurant wasn’t perfect in all aspects, I am still astounded how the kitchen managed to make these gorgeous ribs out of lamb with superb balance in flavor thanks to yogurt and shallot.
11. Chicken @ Crown Shy – KenScale 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/06/23/crown-shy/)
Crown Shy is one of the best new restaurants that opened in New York City, and Jun and I are very thankful it opened in our Financial District neighborhood. We had been to the restaurant multiple times already for both dinner and brunch and always walked out very satisfied, and it’s probably close to being designated a KenScale All-Star restaurant soon. One dish not to miss at Crown Shy is this beautiful chicken marinated with grilled citrus that will make you forget other standout poultry dishes elsewhere. Take my suggestion and order it next time you come to the restaurant.
12. Grilled NY Strip @ Kawi – KenScale 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/06/29/kawi/)
While Jun and I haven’t been to every single restaurant inside the Hudson Yards, it’s more often you will encounter an expensive and underwhelming restaurant than a good one with great value. I still need to have a full meal at Mercado Little Spain, but I’m glad that Kawi happened in our culinary journey. At this first project from David Chang focusing almost exclusively on Korean cuisine, this NY strip (which was one of the best steak dishes I’ve had this year) is not to be missed.
13. Hake @ Aska – KenScale 9.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.75/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/06/30/aska-revisit/)
I’ve always had the utmost respect for chef Fredrik Berselius and his Scandinavian temple in Brooklyn, and while we won’t be able to go to Aska every month or two from pricing standpoint, it has become a restaurant I would like to go at least twice per year (hence the KenScale All-Star tag). The meticulous preparation of food behind the open kitchen is simply stunning; just look at this hake that was perfectly poached and offered a brilliant contrast in texture with sunchoke.
14. Lobster Noodle @ Wayan – KenScale 8.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/07/28/wayan/)
When your dad is an acclaimed chef, how do you develop your own culinary identity? For Cedric Vongerichten, the son of Jean-Georges, the path is a rather unique one based on his wife’s Indonesian root. Wayan was one of the pleasant surprises that Jun and I had visited this year, and we both still keep thinking about the lobster noodle which looks beautiful and tastes even better with red spicy sauce placed on the table.
15. Steak Mazemen @ Niche – KenScale 8.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 7.75/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/08/19/niche/)
Ramen is one of the favorite dishes for Jun and I, largely thanks to its deep-flavored and aromatic broth. When we visited Niche that specializes in broth-less mazemen, we were understandably wary at first, but then the steak mazemen came that offered wonderfully smoky feel of the meat that worked well with the noodles. Add some chili pepper on top to neutralize slight greasiness, and you will think again about having ramen without broth.
16. Black Sea Bass en Croute @ The Fulton – KenScale 8.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.0/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/08/23/the-fulton/)
The Fulton opened nearby our neighborhood at Pier 17 under chef Jean-Georges. While both Jun and I do not hold him with the highest regard like some of the other chefs, and The Fulton wasn’t as magical as some professional critics suggested it would be, one dish that we would gladly come back (definitely with more people due to its size and price) is this beautiful seafood dish served alongside tomato consommé and béarnaise sauce. You certainly won’t regret it.
17. Squash Blossom Pizza @ Pasquale Jones – KenScale 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/09/23/pasquale-jones-revisit/)
It still makes me wonder how I never managed to visit Pasquale Jones since my first visit three years ago, but I’m glad I “re-discovered” this year. The pizzas at Pasquale Jones are still some of the best in the city, and one pie I will certainly order again next time I come to the restaurant is this one with generous servings of vegetables that will make you slightly less guilty with eating pizzas.
18. Duck @ Frevo – KenScale 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/09/25/frevo/)
Anyone who follows my blogs knows that Jun is quite picky when it comes to duck meat. For 2019, the best duck dish we’ve had was this beautiful breast at this newcomer hidden inside an art gallery. The smoky and balanced texture led Jun to give a huge thumbs up to this dish, and has made our experience at Frevo for Jun’s birthday dinner even more special. Frevo will get a closer look from us in 2020 as a potential KenScale All-Star restaurant.
19. Tagliolini al Ragu @ Rezdora – KenScale 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/09/30/rezdora/)
Rezdora was probably one of the hardest restaurants to get a reservation in 2019 (and will probably be so again in 2020) and for good reasons. The Italian cuisine at this newcomer made us reminisce about all the wonderful meals Jun and I had had during our Italy trip in 2016. Exhibit A: this wonderfully rustic ragu-based pasta with perfect al dente texture. I hope we can return to Italy in 2020, but if not, Rezdora will do for now.
20. Chicken Katsu Club @ Golden Diner – KenScale 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10)
While I didn’t review Golden Diner, one of the top newcomers in 2019, because Jun and I didn’t order sufficient number of dishes during our fall brunch there to warrant a full review, I do think the chicken katsu club sandwich belongs right there among all the other top dishes we had eaten. It looks simple but the way the chicken cutlet worked with red cabbage slaw between the breads was so satisfying, making it the best brunch dish I’ve had this year.
21. Sardine @ Atomix – KenScale 9.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.75/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/10/28/atomix-revisit-fall-2019/)
During our visit to Atomix for its fall tasting menu, the restaurant’s manager Ellia Park confessed to us that this sardine was her favorite dish from the menu. And for good reasons. The spicy kick from gochugaru (pepper powder that I hope to see more often in non-Korean restaurants around the city) was quite wonderful, and formed a formidable duo with a bowl of rice with sea urchin and pine nuts.
22. Breast of Hen @ Chefs Club NY (Le Bristol / Epicure) – KenScale 8.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.75/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/11/29/chefs-club-le-bristol-epicure/)
I’m very grateful to Chefs Club for a collaboration with acclaimed chef Eric Frechon from three Michelin-star restaurant Epicure inside Paris’s Le Bristol hotel. The meal was a model of excellence for French cuisine focusing on freshness of ingredients and consistent execution. I knew the breast of hen would be special after a staff brought out a bladder in which the bird was being prepared, and Jun wondered all night how this meat could be so moist and juicy.
23. Dry Aged Burger @ Red Hook Tavern – KenScale 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/11/29/red-hook-tavern/)
As I noted above, the burger craze in New York City may have become a little too much, but that doesn’t stop ambitious chefs and restaurateurs from offering their own version. If you have to try one burger from a newcomer in 2019, the dry aged one from Red Hook Tavern is unquestionably what you need to go after. Instead of a more juiced up version (like we had experience at Au Cheval), it really puts all the efforts on making sure the highest quality of dry aged beef patty is served to the diners.
24. Scallop Ceviche @ Llama San – KenScale 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10) (https://kenscale.com/2019/12/14/llama-san/)
If you have been to Peru before, chances are you encountered this fruit called chirimoya. If you haven’t, well head over to Llama San, one of the best new restaurants in the city with its creative and thoughtfully executed Nikkei cuisine (a fusion between Peruvian and Japanese), and try this scallop ceviche. The wonderfully citrusy flavor from the chirimoya puree will make you swoon.