In a city where a ton of Koreans live, whether for work or school, it is shockingly difficult to find a large number of great Korean restaurants. Korea Town in Manhattan has a lot to do with it; you don’t have to have great food if you open up a restaurant there because no matter how good or bad the food is, people (Korean or non-Korean) will inevitably flock to that little strip on 32nd Street for food, alcohol and night life. Lately, there has a number of newcomers in the New York restaurant scene trying to showcase modern Korean cuisine and reinterpret the taste of Korea in a unique fashion. Whenever I see these places, my feelings are a bit mixed. I really appreciate the attempt to bring the Korean cuisine forward to today’s age, but on the other hand I’m wary that the rich traditional flavor and texture might get lost in this reinvention process to cater to the Western world’s sensibility of taste. Still, even if a restaurant sort of loses its identity, I would still give credit so long as the food is prepared with careful execution and/or ingenious approach on cooking. It was unfortunate that Atoboy, opened recently in the NoMad neighborhood by an ex-Jungsik (one of the pioneers in modern Korean fine dining) chef with his wife as a manager, not only loses touch with Korean identity but also the food itself wasn’t that great in any objective barometers on my recent visit.
Atoboy’s approach seems interesting at first glance. They serve three dishes at $36 per person. It is really a small-plate format that is ideal for sharing among multiple diners. I already got lost, however, when the French bean came. I saw smoked eel on the menu for this dish, but didn’t see or taste it anywhere and asked the server where the “eel” was. The server responded it is lightly shaved on top of the dish. All I could taste was bland bean that my girlfriend and I instantly regretted ordering. Leek was somewhat more interesting, but the hint of doenjang (soy bean paste) didn’t add a ton of novelty to the leek either. At other times, the execution wasn’t just there. Sea urchin and quinoa on top of egg custard sounds like a brilliant idea but the overall consistency of flavor and texture was lacking. Sunchoke was the most successful dish of the night, and I felt the combination of oyster mushroom, black truffle and orange was well thought-out while maintaining nice balance in flavor.
My brief moment of relief, however, got interrupted immediately once the last two dishes came out. The octopus didn’t feel too fresh, and I kept wondering while taking each piece whether the texture was supposed to come out this way. Octopus is always in best shape when the chewiness is maximized through gentle cooking, and the one that I was eating was mushy to say the least, and the kimchi and chorizo that accompanied it simply didn’t add up to change this weird texture. Pork jowl was equally unimpressive; the meat wasn’t cooked in its tender form, and again the addition of barley and ssamjang did nothing to help out this textural deficiency. For dessert, we had sujeonggwan (Korean traditional cinnamon punch drink) flavored gratina, which by itself was quite refreshing but the addition of burrata totally undermined the refreshing sensation. Overall, I felt that the kitchen was simply trying to play too cute and totally lost its way and I got perplexed throughout the meal why the attempt to combine different ingredients didn’t pan out. I was going to give it a lot lower score than 7.5, but my girlfriend convinced me enough that I should give credit to the novelty of the kitchen’s attempt, however imperfect that was.
Getting a reservation at Atoboy wasn’t too difficult, although the restaurant was relatively packed with mostly curious non-Korean diners. I did like the modern vibe of the dining space with minimalistic décor and bright lighting that makes it a fairly serviceable place for casual date or dinner with friends and family. There is full bar with Korean-inspired cocktails but nothing in particulate interested me. I really wish I liked my experience at Atoboy better since I had very high expectations for this place after hearing about their unique approach to Korean cuisine. Sadly, the creativity of kitchen often got lost in puzzlingly low level of execution and curious mix of ingredients that didn’t seem to understand the essence of Korea’s flavor and texture. I hope the kitchen can fix its issues going forward and start putting together better dishes. All in all, it was one of the most disappointing meals I’ve had this year.
- Creativity: 8.5/10
- Execution: 6.0/10
- Ingredients: 7.0/10
- Flavor: 7.0/10
- Texture: 6.5/10
Address: 43 East 28th Street, New York, NY 10016
Telephone: (646) 476-7217