Atoboy, finesse without pretension

New York: October 2021

A restaurant whose food is delicate, clean, elegant and balanced as any of its multi-awarded and famed colleagues in the city. Yet, the ambiance and the service are toned down and devoid of pretension, allowing a dish like fried chicken to become the star of the show.

We could start this review by explaining the concept of banchan. But the foundational idea behind Atoboy has grown to be more than that. In fact we should stress that Atoboy is not a Korean restaurant, but a Korean-inspired restaurant. Western influences (mostly French and Spanish) are abundant in the menu, making it feel as if the cosmopolitan air of New York is transpired into the food.

That chef patron Junghyun Park started his career as a stagiaire in The Ledbury in London also helps. From Brett Graham’s establishment, he moved to work under Andrew McConnell in Melbourne. Both Australian chefs follow a gastronomic philosophy deeply rooted in European techniques with impeccable presentations and clean and delicate flavours. This cuisine would leave an indelible mark on Park. Indeed, in his return to his native Korea, he would join a restaurant that was already exploiting similar ideas with the aim to revolutionise Korean fine dining – Jungsik2. This experience in Seoul as a head chef would take him to New York, where Jungsik would open its second restaurant in 2011.

In Atoboy, we see Park’s first gastronomic project alongside Ellia Park, his wife and manager. The food keeps the level of refinement held at his previous employers, albeit in a more casual and relaxed setting. The new wave of fine dining is going in this direction in search for a more approachable and less rigid experience. One can play with elegant flavours, balanced harmonies and visual impact without the use of tweezers or laborious sculpturing. Here, the Korean influence is present  in the Korean flavour profile. Fermented and preserved foods are employed profusely, adding umami, acidity and heat. Seaweed, dashi, gochujang, appear to the point where a vichyssoisse with gochugaru makes sense. Much of this food is meant to be shared across the table, in the spirit of banchan.

With the restaurant’s success, the level of the food has been elevated and it feels that the sharing experience has become less of a focus. Dividing a flaky poached fish among your friends is not as easy as sharing a bowl of fried chicken. This goes in line with the opening in 2019 of Atomix, the couple’s more upscale and in-depth fine dining project. Atoboy’s five course tasting menu, for $75, is now more of an approachable way to access Park’s dishes while retaining its easygoing, laid-back ambiance.

This casual aspect is also reflected in the venue’s minimal interior. The long and narrow room is modern, with light woods, little to none natural lighting, concrete cladding and no tablecloths. Fortunately, here ‘casual’ does not mean noise like elsewhere (yes, I’m referring to Estela or Empellón). 

The wine list has an interesting number of obscure or under-appreciated listings. We enjoyed a glass of Lemberger that paired well with most of the menu thanks to its acidity. If you order the fried chicken (you should), do get a glass of sparkling wine!

The menu opens up with Gim Bugak, normally a crisp made with seaweed and rice flour, here it came as a fried seaweed sandwich with a tofu and smoked roe mousse. Being umami, rich and crispy, it did well its job to stimulate our appetite.

The starters that followed were simply delightful and telling of the finesse that the kitchen tries to achieve.

From the three seafood options available for the first starter, the Amberjack was the most appealing. Compared to tuna, amberjack has a flavour more akin to swordfish and a tighter texture. In this dish, the slices of lukewarm amberjack had been cut with a sharp knife, seared with a blowtorch and cooked under 45C to preserve that nacre finish that enticingly scatters light. Between these slices of fish, thin slivers of ginger and cucumber provided a beautiful freshness and a delicate contrast to the amberjack. The ginger’s typically intense aromas had likely been attenuated by means of pickling or blanching. The whole composition bathed in a lukewarm dashi.

The nacre finish in the amberjack slice.

For the second starter, we chose the Prawn soondae. For Soondae – typically being a blood sausage – the combination of prawn and chive was surprising, delivering very pure and sweet flavours reminiscent of the filling of a har kau. The meat component one would expect in soondae came in the form of a pork bone broth in which the sausage slices were skinny-dipping. Bright sparks of perilla seeds and perilla oil pierced through the broth with a zingy citric note. A touch of gochugaru gave some heat to this otherwise clean broth. Some garnish of leaves gave a peppery note while dices of some root added texture.

The Halibut dish we selected as a main did not seduce us as much as the starters, maybe we should have gone for the duck. Yet, the halibut had some charm. It had been poached until flaky and placed atop a rich leek velouté. The neo-vichyssoise was surprisingly savoury and had a few drops of gochu oil for heat. That addition of Korean umami and heat is an easily recognisable pattern in Atoboy’s food. Submerged under this cream lied chives, mushrooms, and some small pieces of king crab that surprised you with a bomb of flavour.

The showstopper in this restaurant is an extra, and it is a must. The Fried Chicken in Atoboy might be one of the best in the city. Red meat cuts are marinated in pineapple juice, salt and garlic before frying them in a tempura-like batter. The result is what we all want: that contrast of an incredibly crispy and crunchy exterior against an extraordinarily tender and juicy interior. Tenderising with pineapple here works superbly well. Perhaps this is a great way to avoid cooking sous vide for this application. 

The dips accompanying the chicken were addictive, requiring some serious self-restraint in order not to finish them. On the left, a peanut butter mayonnaise with gochugaru and black vinegar. On the right, gochujang, tomato and honey sauce.

The sharing experience distilled from a more traditional banchan.

The main in Atoboy is always served alongside banchan and rice. In Korean culture, banchan refers to a series of side dishes that are served alongside a bowl of rice to be shared. The most canonical banchan dishes of the meal were the pickled daikon with gochugaru and gochujang and the Shishito peppers, served roasted with steamed potatoes and a sweet soy sauce. Their importance was lost when considering all the dishes served during the meal. Atoboy may have started with the concept of banchan at its heart in its foundation, but nowadays its delivering more than just that.

The rice was nutty, mildly sweet and very flavourful. Apart from the addition of some black grains to give some heterogeneity, some trompette de la morte accentuated the intrinsic rice earthiness. The texture was not fluffy, but some oil or fat had been used to loosen up and unclump the grains. Compared to the rice we had at Sollip earlier this year, this one did not hit the same spot.

The dessert we chose did rise some eyebrows. The Sujeonggwa Granita, reversions the traditional cinnamon punch sujeonggwa in a cold dessert. The granita flavoured with cinnamon and ginger holds underneath some lychee yoghurt (instead of the more typical pieces of dried persimmon), cubes of a mozzarella-style cheese and candied pecans for a sweet crunch. It felt like an original idea with an unimpressive result. The granita only really performed when one found one of those pecans in the spoonful. It was otherwise one-dimensional in flavour and texture. Unfortunately, finding a few larger ice crystals in the granita did not help either.

  1. Jungsik Yim trained in Bouley or Aquavit (NY) and Zuberoa or Akelarre (Basque Country). In the latter, the new spirit towards traditional Spanish and Basque food inspired Yim to employ the same approach with Korean cooking.
  2. Jungsik Yim trained in Bouley or Aquavit (NY) and Zuberoa or Akelarre (Basque Country). In the latter, the new spirit towards traditional Spanish and Basque food inspired Yim to employ the same approach with Korean cooking.

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