The impossibly soft chunks of octopus, scorched just slightly along the edges to produce a crackly crust, bring to mind Spanish tapas, with a strong scent of garlic and spices. But dig underneath and you’ll find bits of kimchi and chorizo sitting in a pool of fire-red, kimchi-infused oil, with the spicy and piquant elements of Spanish and Korean cuisines indistinguishable from each other, fused into one.
In chef Junghyun “JP” Park’s cooking, the boundaries between Western and Korean flavors are erased. Park and his wife, Ellia, recently opened Atoboy, in the NoMad neighborhood, where Korean spices, sauces, and stocks become the foundation for blending in other cultures’ flavors.
Unlike most Korean restaurants that serve banchan (small dishes) only to accompany main dishes, at Atoboy they are the sole focus of the menu. Park, who was previously chef de cuisine at modern Korean restaurant Jungsik, explained that the traditional Korean dinner table consists of many banchan that the family shares, eaten along with bowls of rice and soup. Park wants to bring this part of Korean culture to the dining scene here.
The dining room is a bare, minimalist setting, with exposed concrete walls and long white wooden tables. Its hushed noise levels are a welcome reprieve from outside.
For dinner, you pick three dishes from a menu of 20 options, served with complimentary rice ($36 per person). You also have the option of choosing a “seasonal” rice, such as seaweed, with an extra hint of saltiness, or barley mixed with shiitake mushrooms, chewy with a touch of vinegary tartness (additional $2). Each order also comes with housemade kimchi, made with a rotation of seasonal local vegetables like jicama or tomatillo.
Here, the dishes bring different parts of the world together. Start off with lighter fare from the top of the menu, such as littleneck clams spiced with gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes), garlic, and scallions. That familiar Korean kick is tempered by a little Mexican flavor in the form of cheesy avocado cream and a sprinkle of micro cilantro.
Park has traveled to more than 50 countries and has worked in kitchens in London, Seoul, and Melbourne, so his inspirations come from all the different places and cuisines he’s experienced.
In one dish, rings of squid encase a finely chopped blend of pork, shrimp, and chives, like a Korean calamari sausage. This is in fact inspired by a Korean street food dish of stuffed squid. A drizzle of salsa verde on top, made from parsley, mint, scallions, garlic, and anchovies, gives the dish an Italian flair.
Interpreting the Classics
The chef brings a new interpretation to classic Korean dishes. For a traditional dish of braised mackerel with radish, Park uses Spanish mackerel, a species found in Atlantic waters, and slow cooks it until the meat falls apart with ease, disintegrating in the mouth almost instantly. The fish is braised in a typical Korean stock of dried anchovies, kelp, and vegetables, and in the accompanying sauce, he adds a purée of green chilies, like poblano and jalapeño, instead of the red chilies common to Korean cuisine.
A dish called gamjajorim—usually made with potatoes—gets remixed, with sunchokes and oyster mushrooms instead. The original soy-based sauce is enhanced with black truffle cream for a powerful combination of umami, aroma, and sweetness. Dotted with oranges for added brightness, the dish hits all the taste sensations at once.
Thick slices of confit pork jowl have a crispy skin that envelops the generously fatty, bouncy meat, which resemble slices of succulent Chinese or even Italian roast pork but with a lighter seasoning that brings out the meat’s flavor. Served on the side is a heap of romaine lettuce, as well as barley tossed with ssamjang, the spicy Korean soybean paste. To fans of Korean barbecue, eating the pork jowl is similar to the ritual of slathering ssamjang onto rich grilled meats, then wrapping them in lettuce.
Meanwhile, Atoboy’s carrot dish is inspired by galbi jjim, braised short ribs that absorb flavor from a sauce of soy, mirin, and root vegetables. When Park realized the carrots were plenty flavorful without the meat, he decided to put them on the menu on their own. The carrots are paired with that braising sauce—with a roasted sweetness resembling caramel—and served with chestnuts and Korean-style pickled pearl onions.
The desserts are light and multidimensional. The honey panna cotta is topped with black rice vinegar, sablé crumble, and pomegranate seeds ($7), while the black raspberry cake—broken into three petite squares—is layered with black raspberry mousse, pistachio crémeux, flourless chocolate sponge cake, and hazelnut chocolate feuilletine ($9).
With its delicious twists on traditional dishes and exciting blend of flavors from different cuisines, Atoboy is a bright, new addition to the city’s growing scene of Korean-inspired restaurants.
43 East 28th St. (between Madison and Park avenues)
5:30 p.m.–10 p.m.
(starts Nov. 7)