Like life, the food at Atoboy comes at you fast. New dishes land while others are still being eaten, until plates crowd nearly every table. This isn’t some flaw in the system; nor is it the sign of an impatient or hyperactive chef. The brisk pacing is by design. That’s because Ellia and Junghyun Park’s slick, modern NoMad restaurant puts banchan — the rapid procession of sides that classically kick off a Korean meal — front and center.
These small tastes can be as simple as vegetables slicked with sesame oil, or as hearty and elaborate as fully composed plates of braised meats, seafood stews, stir-fries, and griddled pancakes brimming with everything from shredded beef to edible flowers. At Atoboy, Junghyun (most recently chef de cuisine at Tribeca’s French-inflected Korean fine-dining respite Jungsik) packages them into an attractive set meal: $36 for three savory courses, with additional plates priced at $9, $12, and $15 respectively, depending on their size and ingredients.
Before the first dish even hits the table, an assortment of amuse-bouches arrives — sort of a meta-banchan. Roasted seaweed crackers offer a blast of pure umami to jump-start the taste buds, and two kinds of kimchi, cabbage and radish, buzz with chile pepper heat. Lighter fare, like plump littleneck clams with avocado and rice crackers, arrives next. Smoked eel lends a campfire kick to French beans and grapes, while mustard likewise boosts tofu and king oyster mushrooms. This section also boasts three kinds of tartare, including a simple but irresistible disk of Asian pear and diced cobia — a pleasantly firm-fleshed saltwater fish — crowned with a tangle of shredded shiso leaf. Most alluring is an unassuming, almost uninviting blob (really a trio of blobs) layering smoky eggplant cooked down to glistening mush, Dungeness crab, and chilled tomato jelly. It’s a snooze to look at, yet its lively flavors occupied my mind for days.
Behind an austere concrete-and-wood façade, Atoboy occupies a long, boxy corridor of more concrete and wood, giving the restaurant the feel of a futuristic cantina. Inside, diners knock back cans of Hite lager and Ellia’s soju cocktails, which mingle Korea’s signature spirit with ginger or tonic. Junghyun’s cooking, often brightly colored and vividly seasoned, stands in thrilling contrast to the stark, minimalist confines. His vegetable dishes are particularly eye-catching: See the autumnal wreath of oyster mushrooms, orange segments, and sunchokes — roasted and fried into chips — which tastes faintly of black truffle. He gets equally artsy with octopus and squid, arranging the former around a mound of chorizo kimchi and stuffing the latter with ground pork, its tubes forming a trippy cephalopod blossom on the plate. Lashed with a vibrant salsa verde, it’s outstanding. Even rice gets fawned over: Plain white is free, but an extra $2 nets a seasonal recipe that might be infused with seaweed, bacon, or matsutake mushrooms.
Fans of Korean barbecue will recognize the bowl of cheesy corn offered mid-course, though I’d wager none compare to this intense mixture, which pits bacon and the fermented-soybean paste known as doenjang against the funkiness of taleggio cheese. And you won’t find a finer steamed egg custard pretty much anywhere, including the city’s elite bastions of Japanese cooking, which load their chawanmushi with foie gras, truffles, and other luxe add-ins. This version’s a must-order, with a yielding, wobbly base made from kelp, clam, and dried-anchovy dashi broth. Its surface scattered with crunchy puffed quinoa, the custard sits under a heady nest of scallions, seaweed, pickled hearts of palm, and both watercress and sea urchin purées. For a modest $10 supplement, Park will lay sweet California sea urchin lobes over the top. Even if you’ve tired of urchin’s ubiquity on New York City menus, the silken, savory pudding showcases the spiny animal in a sumptuous new light, and in a relatively cost-effective way.
You’ll find that the heaviest items, all of which feature meat or fish, deliver some of Atoboy’s boldest flavors. There’s the salty green-chile broth surrounding a flaky mackerel fillet, and a peppery peanut butter sauce pooled under brittle-crusted fried chicken. Marinated New York strip steak comes nicely seared, though fat-rimmed pork jowl and fork-tender brisket coated in garlicky, gingery foie gras sauce provide lustier indulgences. Sweets, also Junghyun’s handiwork, lean in the opposite direction. Honey panna cotta with a slug of woody black-rice vinegar is ethereal beneath frozen pomegranate seeds, and a fiercely pink black-raspberry cake with hazelnuts and pistachios is tamer than it looks. In a brilliant move, Park transforms sujeonggwa, a traditional digestif punch made with cinnamon and dried persimmons, into a refreshing granita, then hides candied walnuts and unexpectedly creamy burrata beneath the spiced fruity frost. Part cheese course and part dessert, it’s a mystery worth deciphering and exactly the kind of confounding and memorable meal-ender that could only come from this kitchen.
43 East 28th Street, 646-476-7217