I was very torn whether I should write a new blog post at the end of 2020 reminiscing about the top restaurant dishes I’ve had. With the global pandemic that started to overwhelm the world in the spring, the restaurant world suffered perhaps the most this year, leading to temporary or permanent closures of a number of iconic institutions in New York City and beyond. Of course, my wife Jun and I had to mostly suspend our culinary adventure that we had undertaken together since 2016, and resorted mostly to delivery, takeout and, of course, Jun’s excellent home cooking. When New York City began to gradually open up in the summer with outdoor dining, and later to indoor dining in the fall (before it got shut off again in December as COVID-19 infection spread more widely again), we took advantage of what few opportunities we had, always keeping in mind to avoid crowded places and wearing masks in compliance with the federal and local health authorities’ guidelines. We were fortunate to also use a downtime in the summer to visit Maine where we were able to walk around in the beautiful nature of Arcadia National Park and indulge on fresh seafood. In the meantime, I stopped reviewing restaurants after March, even the ones we have been able to visit, because I didn’t think it was very meaningful or fair to rate a restaurant when very few is probably on their A-game with the constraints they have in terms of financial resources, staffing and capacity. I will probably undertake the KenScale journey again once the vaccine becomes more widespread and people feel reasonably safe to dine or work at restaurants. This post serves largely to remember some of the cherished moments in this god-awful year where we felt some semblance of normalcy and comfort, before and during the pandemic.
Top Dishes of the Year
1. Heugimja Ice Cream – Scorched Rice Cream @ Kochi (https://kenscale.com/2020/02/28/kochi/)
Before COVID-19 reached New York City, Jun and I were fortunate to visit Kochi, a new Korean restaurant that opened last year focusing on dishes inspired by skewer (a Korean response to Japan’s yakitori culture). We were very impressed with the ingenuity and thoughtfulness from the kitchen, and would absolutely go back once the world becomes normal again. We certainly would love to have this ice cream stick made of “heugimja” (or scorched rice cream) that looks like cookies and cream but tastes even better.
2. Crab Galette with Dungeness Crab, Aji Dulce, Green Chartreuse @ Gotham (https://kenscale.com/2020/02/29/gotham/)
One of the major closures in New York City this year was the iconic Gotham Bar and Grill restaurant that was a major influence in the Big Apple fine dining scene. Interestingly, the restaurant announced its closure right before the pandemic hit the city hard, suggesting that it was already going through some difficulties even with a new chef Victoria Blamey at the helm. While our experience at the restaurant was somewhat mixed, we certainly will not forget this phenomenal crab galette that shows how savory food should be done inside pastry.
3. Maine Lobster Roll @ Bite into Maine
In July, getting tired of being holed up in our tiny apartment in downtown Manhattan, Jun and I decided to go on a road trip to Maine. Neither of us has been to this beautiful part of the country before, and it certainly was quite an eye-opening one with beautiful scenes everywhere around Portland and Acadia National Park. Of course we ate a ton of lobster rolls (and even braved a horrifically long wait at the joint Red’s Eats), and by the time our trip was over Jun vowed not to eat lobster again for the next year or so. Of all the rolls we tried, though, the simple classic Maine lobster roll with mayo and chives from the Bite into Maine food truck in Cape Elizabeth (nearby the iconic Portland Head Light) was my favorite and something I will absolutely come back to Maine for.
4. Oysters @ Eventide Oyster Co.
When I asked Jun after our Maine trip what she will remember the most, she said without hesitation all the oysters she had at Eventide in Portland. That was quite a statement because Jun can get quite sensitive when it comes to eating raw shellfish that is not very fresh. While we were at Eventide (which we visited twice during our trip), Jun didn’t bother to look at anything else on the menu and just kept ordering dozens and dozens of oysters. She remarked these were the freshest she had had in our lifetime, and at that time I couldn’t think of any other place where I had had better oysters either. When you are in Portland, visit to Eventide for an oyster fest has to be an absolute must pilgrimage.
5. Battered Casco Bay Pollock @ Eventide Oyster Co.
Well, what if you don’t want to just eat oysters at Eventide? Then you have to order this beauty. We stumbled upon this dish on our second visit to the restaurant on the last night of our Maine trip, and regretted we didn’t have room to try more (we were already full with oysters by the time we decided to give it a try). We couldn’t think of a better fried fish the moment we took a bite into this dish. Add a bit of lemon and dip a piece into the tartar sauce, and your beautiful night in Maine is complete.
6. Margherita Pizza @ Joe and Pat’s
Even before the pandemic, our favorite pizzeria in New York City was always Joe and Pat’s. We are huge fans of the thin crust pies that this iconic restaurant (which started in Staten Island before branching out to a second location in East Village). We always ordered the pizzas from Joe and Pat’s through delivery, and inevitably there were more often than not issues with temperature due to delivery time (and it didn’t help that Caviar, now acquired by DoorDash, was particularly adept or motivated to solve this issue). When I heard over the summer that the restaurant opened its back patio for outdoor dining, I knew this was the chance to try the pies that just came out of the oven, and oh boy how much difference did it make! Jun and I won’t forget this absolutely delicious margherita pie we had on a hot summer night.
7. Bucatini @ Anton’s
Anton’s is one restaurant that was on my radar for a while but we didn’t have the proper opportunity to visit due to COVID-19. When the restaurant opened up for outdoor dining, and we set up a summer brunch double date with another couple (the very first brunch in the pandemic era in fact), I figured this might be a perfect occasion to visit this restaurant known for featuring old-school comfort food inspired by the traditions of New York City. One dish that we absolutely loved, and eventually inspired Jun to try her own version at home, was this bucatini pasta that was exceptional in texture, from the al dente noodle to the pieces of bacon sprinkled across the plate.
8. Songyi Mushroom, Golden Oestra Caviar, Pine Nut @ Atomix
When restaurants in New York City were allowed to open with 25 percent capacity in the fall, Jun and I were anxiously waiting for reopening news from our all-time favorite in the city Atomix. As anyone who has read my reviews will appreciate, every time we visited the restaurant, we were mesmerized by the unparalleled level of ingenuity and execution. When the restaurant did announce its reopening starting on October 7, we secured the very first table at 6 p.m. While it was sad to not communicate with the staff more freely (and without masks) and the service felt slightly rushed due to the lead time the restaurant needed to sanitize the dining space between shifts (obviously perfectly defensible), we still came away thinking the kitchen was still firing on all cylinders. One of our favorite dishes from that night was this sensational combination of mushroom and caviar on top of pine nut milk; it was a beautiful harmony of the forest and the sea.
9. Halibut, Yangchon Chungju, Oyster Mushroom @ Atomix
Another favorite dish that I had from our dining experience at Atomix was this halibut that was not only beautifully cooked but somehow worked perfectly with sauce made of chungju, a type of Korean rice alcohol that is not as well-known to the outside world as soju and makgeolli. Add a bit of lemon oyster mushroom, and it’s a study of contrasting flavors and textures that give an astonishingly delicious plate. When the dish came out, the restaurant’s manager (and head chef’s wife) Ellia Park approached us at the counter and whispered that this was her favorite dish of the current season, and I couldn’t agree more.
10. Langoustine @ Aska
Another restaurant Jun and I were able to visit during the short window we had in the fall was Aska, one of our top places in the city. It was nice to do an elbow-five with chef Fredrik Berselius briefly catching up on our lives and his creative and thoughtful Scandinavian cooking, while slightly diminished in portion compared to our previous visits, was still going very strong. My favorite dishes of the night was this grilled langoustine tail with a sauce of caramelized shells and red gooseberry, a full display of the high level of sophistication and execution that leads us back to Aska time and again.
11. Bangeo @ Jua
One new restaurant that Jun and I were able to visit during the pandemic is Jua, a new Korean restaurant showing a relatively affordable tasting menu with mostly wood-fired dishes, Despite our impossibly high standard when it comes to Korean restaurants (due to our origin that shaped our expectations of how Korean food should taste like), we were pleasantly surprised by the modern twist that was quite cleverly executed at Jua. One dish that we won’t stop thinking about is this “bangeo” dish, or lightly touched yellowtail hamachi with charred cabbage on top. The smoky flavor from the cabbage was an absolutely worthy companion to the fish underneath to create a stunner. We will certainly be back to Jua when the normal times come.
12. Dover Sole @ Le Bernardin
In the spring, I made a reservation at Le Bernardn for our anniversary in April. Of course, COVID-19 had other ideas and our plan was thrown out the window (although we still had a nice meal at home on our anniversary with food from one of our favorite Italian restaurants Rezdora). Fast forward eight months later, Le Bernardin was back open and we joined two friends (one of whom was leaving New York City) for farewell/year-end gathering in early December. We were slightly alarmed by the rather large crowd at the dining space (is this really 25 percent capacity?) but otherwise the meal at Le Bernardin was as good as expected. One dish I missed a lot during the restaurant shutdown was dover sole, which is not something you can easily cook at home. When we saw that the full tasting menu had dover sole (but the shorter four-course menu did not), I seized on the opportunity to encourage everyone to go for the full menu. And yes, the perfectly sautéed dover sole, accompanied by almonds and chanterelles, on top of soy-lime emulsion was a thing of beauty.