I didn’t realize until I walked into Ato with my wife Jun that the restaurant’s name is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the word “art”. I’ve always been very appreciative of the dedication and sophistication of some of the finest Japanese restaurants in New York City and beyond, but naming your restaurant as such seems like a pretty ambitious bar to set at this modest-looking restaurant led by chef William Shen. I certainly became more curious and went out to order the full omakase menu (at $185 per person, but since we didn’t have any other plans to eat out during that week, I thought it might actually be worth the splurge). Overall, chef Shen’s philosophy of “French delicacy meets the Japanese cuisine” was more often than not spot on, and Jun and I really enjoyed some of the dishes that were prepared and sent over to us.
For those looking for another sushi restaurant to try in the city, you will be disappointed to learn that Ato doesn’t serve any nigiris on its menus. In fact, almost all the seafood dishes were prepared with Western techniques even though the overall sensibility of each dish was closer to Japanese than French. There was one exception, an assortment of sashimi consisting of golden eye snapper, shrimps, striped jack, tuna and horse mackerel. Once Jun and I tried a couple of pieces, we knew chef Shen had something special going up his sleeves, with immaculate texture of each fish that was pure bliss.
In addition to the sashimi, there were other dishes that by themselves were worth KenScale 9.0, such as the combination of swordfish and monkfish liver whose textural effect was quite stunning (even Jun who doesn’t like monkfish liver because it reminds her of foie gras approved), or the Norwegian sea trout with carrots and baby bok choy that was wonderful in its balance of flavor. To this day, I’m still surprised that Jun doesn’t like uni that much, but she had no complaints on the fresh Hokkaido uni with fresh wasabi served inside a glass. One of the best dishes of the night belonged to the butterfish with eggplant on top of gochujang bouillabaisse (strangely, the color was yellow instead of the typically red Korean pepper paste). With the more or less perfectly cooked fish and the spicy kick added from the broth, I was very impressed with the ingenuity and execution behind this marvelous dish.
Compared to all of these winners, there were some mixes too like the combination of tuna and Louisiana caviar that surprisingly didn’t gel together despite the high expectations that I had, or the red snapper that got too overpowered by the salty flavor of ikura, but they didn’t otherwise undermine our dining experience too much, especially not when toward the end we were presented a marvelous rice dish with foie gras. I’m not sure what trick went into preparing the foie gras (we were told it was sourced from a nearby farm), but it didn’t have the funky sensation that could be a turn-off for some people like Jun, and we both finished this dish in an instant! Until my visit to Ato, I don’t recall seeing a chef dare to add foie gras into a rice bowl, but with the expert preparation from chef Shen, I’ll remember this dish for a long time. We both walked out from the restaurant very satisfied with the high quality of ingredients and thoughtful and confident cooking from the counter.
Given that Ato is a small space, I highly recommend making reservations in advance (on our visit on a recent Friday evening, the dining space was almost empty until it got packed toward the end of our meal). There is a selection of diverse sake options (although on the pricier side compared to other restaurants) to complement your meal. Sitting at the counter and watching chef Shen in action instead of at one of the tables is really the way to augment your experience and witness all the magic happening at the counter. New York City already has a lot of expensive, high-end Japanese restaurants, but Ato brings something new that I haven’t seen from other places. If you want to see how a young ambitious chef looks to modernize Japanese cuisine with Western techniques and ideas, I highly recommend checking out the restaurant.
KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10)
- Creativity: 9.0/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredients: 9.0/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
- Value: 7.5/10
Address: 28 Grand Street, New York, NY 10013
Telephone: (646) 838-9392