Atoboy – New York, NY
I've always been a staunch defender of northern California's food scene over New York City's, mostly because that's where I learned to love food, but also because of the magnificent produce in California that pervades their cuisine. The problem for Nor Cal's food world is that San Francisco, while still one of the culinary capitals of the world, is not the city it used to be, while New York has a rather unshakeable core identity that guides its food scene, which leads me to cautiously conclude that New York might take the prize these days. And also, it's such an easy, cheap flight from Charlotte.
One reason I have a recent appreciation for New York is that many of their best dining destinations remain approachable. Such places are not insanely expensive or merely designed for expense accounts. Don't get me wrong––there are plenty of those types of restaurants here, but these days some of the most absurd of them fold pretty quickly. But San Francisco, of late overwhelmed by tech wealth, is not the interminably accessible, anything-goes city it used to be famous for being anymore, and its food scene reflects that. Meanwhile, during the pandemic, it's been amazing to see how many of New York's fine dining stewards have adapted and driven the conversation around accessibility. One of the most impressive adaptations has led to the dominance of Atoboy in the mouths of critics and diners alike.
I've been trying to eat at Atoboy since I made my first post-quarantine trip to NYC this past February but I can never score a res for one (who's surprised?). That's six visits to NYC with no Atoboy. This time it so happened that my buddy Tamara was going to be in NYC with another conductor friend, Tanya, to see the new production at the Met. So after being extended an invite to attend the opera with them, I was tasked with finding a dinner spot. Atoboy happened to have tables for three.
Chef JP Park and his wife Ellia opened Atoboy ("ato" means "gift" in Korean) in 2016 as a little play on Korean banchan, those small dishes of sides and accompaniments that come with any Korean meal. For $36, diners would get a set selection of "evolved" banchan to create a full meal. It was a raucous success, even charming the NYT critic Pete Wells, who famously ridiculed the very idea of paying for banchan. After that, Chef JP, who had worked at two-Michelin-starred-Korean-fancy-pants-tasting-menu place Jungsik before opening Atoboy, opened his now-flagship restaurant Atomix as a somewhat wilder response to Jungsik, and it is now widely considered one of the best fine dining spots in the city.
But Atoboy, the casual little brother, is getting the attention these days. They have evolved the banchan concept to become a fully-fledged five course prix fixe meal. Seventy-five dollars, with service, rice, and banchan included, and now with the choice of one of three dishes per course. It's a hell of a deal for food of this caliber, and while $75 is still a chunk of change, it's certainly more accessible than, say, a $335 vegan-only meal at Eleven Madison Park (something I still haven't been able to not roll my eyes about, and apparently Pete Wells agrees with me).
Tanya got stuck in traffic, so we missed her (and the fact that she could order the third of three options for each course of the menu), but I knew Tamara and I, despite being still full from our late lunch at Sushi Nakazawa, would be able to get a good sense of the restaurant and enjoy ourselves in the process.
In an otherwise not very interesting neighborhood somewhere between Chelsea, Murray Hill, and the Village, Atoboy's concrete facade almost looks more like a construction site than one of the city's best restaurants. Inside it is equally spare and industrial, with concrete walls, nearly-florescent lights, and plastic chairs, but somehow it works given the general streamlined approach. Though it does more resemble a dystopian cafeteria.
We were sat at one of the longer tables next to the servers' POS stand and welcomed, given a tour of the menu, and told about the new sound-muffling acoustic panels (literally installed the same day). When the server came back he gave us his recommendations, going so far as to say "don't order that; this is much better" when we finally made selections. Some might bristle but I appreciated his direct knowhow making its way into our decision making.
The first course was a small bite for each of us, and the same for each of us. Gim bugak, which is a type of Korean fried seaweed cracker, formed the "bread" of a little mini sandwich which enclosed a mousse of smoked tofu and summer pepper. A tasty little morsel.
Bubbly was my first choice for wine (naturally!). Can Sumoi comes from the Serra de l'Home in the Penedès region of Spain's northeast south coast (wrap your head around that!) just outside Barcelona. An old-school Catalan grape, sumoll, forms this sparkler with natural, organic wine production, low alcohol, food-friendly acidity, and a bit of funk. A delightful, zippy cava to start the journey.
Just seconds after the opening bite was cleared, the second course arrived at the table, which seemed fairly abrupt, but I suppose it was just after the "amuse bouche" so there wasn't much reason to tarry. An amberjack crudo was the first of the two, with thin slices of celtuce and shiitake mushrooms, dressed in brown butter and served in a "savory broth" of unknown constitution. Quite tasty, but not particularly memorable. The second dish was wagyu tartare topped with very thinly sliced heirloom tomato. Within the tartare was cinnamon basil and a marinade made with chopi pepper, which is essentially the Korean version of Sichuan peppercorns with the same numbing, tingly effect. Very cool and interesting dish, and certainly took the spotlight from the amberjack in this flight.
Before the next course, I opted for another glass of wine, finally finding one of the waitstaff to help pick a pairing with the next two bites. This natural grüner Veltliner from Gut Oggau, named after the winemaker's daughter, Theodora, with a handsome illustration to boot, was food friendly natural wine. Lightly cloudy with green apple and apple cider notes, it worked nicely with the bites to come.
Again the next dishes arrived with alarming, and frankly annoying, speed. First was the item described by the server as "the best dish on the menu"––a rectangle of delicately fried zucchini topped with thin slices of squash and finger lime "caviar," as well as a rather flavorful aromatic herb called tangerine lace and a seaweed dressing. Quite good indeed, with the tangerine lace providing the aromatic, herbaceous "X" factor.
The second dish is one of their signatures, that according to the server "says a lot about who [they] are." And it prominently featured my favorite thing––sea urchin! My third helping today. Gyeranjjim is a classic savory egg custard dish in Korean cooking, and they made a sort of jjim with egg, hearts of palm, and green onion, topped with crumbled seaweed, puffed quinoa, micro greens, and, the pièce de résistance, several lobes of gorgeous Maine urchin. Each bite was wonderful, particularly the bites with the urchin, but that shouldn't surprise either of my regular readers!
Atoboy has the option to add fried chicken served with a spicy peanut butter sauce and gochujang, and every review/recommender says that this is an absolute must. Tamara was hesitant given how full we were already, but I couldn't pass it up, and offered the compromise that we could give the leftover chicken to Tanya, who had to miss dinner! The chicken was, as predicted, absolutely spectacular, and was definitely the course of the night. the pieces were tender, with plenty of fatty bits for flavor, and the dipping sauces, especially the peanut sauce, sublime.
Midway through the chicken, again rather abruptly, they brought out the accompaniments for the "main" course to come––two types of banchan, one a kohlrabi kimchi (deeelish) and another sesame-glazed fingerling potatoes and shishitos. We also got a little bowl of scrumptious wild mushroom rice. All very tasty, but a lot of food, and coming far too quickly.
And look, our mains came out seconds later, before we'd even put a dent in the chicken. I felt like my head was spinning, and with chicken, banchan, rice, and two entrées, I was feeling a bit exasperated and didn't quite know where to begin. Meanwhile, given our proximity to the POS stand, I could overhear a handful of servers saying some pretty unpleasant things about some of the other diners. Hope they didn't have such opinions about us! A bit disappointing for staff at one of the most celebrated restaurants in the US.
The first entrée course with a barely-cooked halibut was my second favorite dish of the night, and one so delicate and beautiful in flavor it could have been served at Le Bernardin. The sauce was a creamy take on miyeok, a seaweed-based soup. It had a slight umami of seaweed complemented by leeks and chives, as well as a welcome mound of king crab and some manner of chili oil. Absolutely wonderful.
Before I approached the duck, which had been languishing on the table for nearly fifteen minutes owing to the breakneck tempo of the service, I fancied another glass of wine, so asked them for a red to pair. From the Württemberg region of southwestern Germany, this Lemberger, a grape also known as Blaufränkisch, exhibited the lighter side of the versatile grape, with singing acidity, a food-friendly red fruit-driven light body, and a bit of spice.
The duck was remarkable as well. A small skin-on breast was topped with thin-sliced roasted beets and radishes and a pecan powder. I appreciated the tang of the beet with the bright elements of the Lemberger, and the duck's crisp, fatty skin was, as usual, delicious.
We split the two desserts as well––a white sesame and blueberry semifreddo was served with a blueberry sauce. Delicious, but a dim afterthought compared to the other dessert. A sujeonggwa punch, a classic cinnamon and ginger drink, was frozen into a granita and served atop burrata, lychee yogurt, and walnut. The granita was multifaceted and even a bit salty, with the lychee providing fruit and tang. Just stupid good.
So what to say about my meal here? I have conflicting feelings. Most of them were unexpected circumstances. Our sushi lunch was about an hour longer and more complete than I thought, so neither Tamara nor I were particularly hungry. We unexpectedly lost our third person, so we didn't get to sample the entire menu. Also, I wound up tripping and falling on West 28th St en route to Lincoln Center after dinner and badly injuring my knee, and the highlights of dinner weren't exactly the first things on my mind.
But I think the thing that bugged me more than anything else was that everything happened so quickly, and with a sort of a bizarre indifference from the staff. Not that they all were this way, but there's definitely an effortless coolness, or even an attitude of "we're one of the best and you're just spectators." Some of that is welcome, at least from me, like our server telling us we were missing out on a superstar dish, but the speed at which the service took place was rather ignorant of what was already on the table, like the kitchen and waitstaff were more interested in putting dishes on the table when they wanted than being in tune with their diners' pacing. Moreover, it was pretty difficult finding someone to take my beverage orders between courses, maybe because there was nary a second without food on our table. And moreover, I found myself frustrated by overhearing some of the comments some of the staff were making about guests.
Perhaps the confluence of circumstances, or the built up anticipation for the meal, clouded the experience. The food was pretty much just as good as I'd come to expect, and some dishes were transcendent. I wish I'd given myself one blockbuster meal that day instead of two––perhaps that is the lesson of this: it's difficult to fully grasp two amazing meals back-to-back because one will inevitably outshine the other. In fact, until my knee injury, the whole day was so fantastic that it was hard to really appreciate one element of it in isolation.
I will definitely go back to Atoboy. The price is certainly right for the quality of food and I will make sure I get myself in the correct mindset and set of circumstances. A meal at Atomix, though, might come first!