Around this time of the year, I usually have one or two favorite restaurants in NYC in my mind (my annual review will come out shortly). 2018 thus far has been a strange year in that regard; it was quite difficult to pinpoint any memorable moments throughout the culinary journey with my wife Jun. Of course there were some strong restaurants with unique identities and philosophies that I would love to visit again. Still, there was no place that I felt comfortable giving 9.0 or above KenScale this year. Until my recent birthday dinner with my wife Jun. Anyone who follows my reviews will know that as a native Korean, I can be pretty difficult to please when it comes to Korean restaurants in the city. Despite its accolade since opening in 2016, Atoboy was one of those restaurants I found hard to love even though Jun appreciated the unique approach of the kitchen to bring “banchan” (side dishes in Korean) to the main show (see my review here https://kenscale.com/2016/10/30/atoboy/). When I heard the husband and wife duo behind Atoboy (chef Junghyun Park helming the kitchen and his wife Ellia as the manager) opened a more upscale, tasting menu-only concept nearby this year, I admittedly had some reservations until rave reviews from all across the board started coming out. After much deliberation on where I will celebrate my 35th birthday with Jun, I decided Atomix may be well worth the shot and purchased tickets for two (at $175 per person). It turned out that Atomix is the best Korean restaurant I had been to in New York City. It also turned out that Atomix is the best new restaurant in NYC that I had visited this year. It also has made a profound impact on the way I will approach picking restaurants to dine at going forward.
What distinguishes Atomix from other fine-dining tasting menu places is the efforts that the restaurant has put into explaining the background behind each dish in its ten-course offering. I have never come across a restaurant that has a flashcard describing the inspiration for each dish, and this narrative element greatly adds to the tasting experience itself. Of course, having been born and raised in Korea I was familiar with the form of each dish (Jun chuckled at how many of these flashcards used words as they are pronounced in Korean without any footnotes describing what they are in English), but still it was very refreshing to see a kitchen that lays out its culinary philosophy in such an articulate manner. And each dish actually delivered with such astounding elegance. Let’s start out with “guk” (soup in Korean); maesangi is a type of delicate seaweed that you don’t often see at a restaurant in Korea Town. With the seaweed in the pork broth along with garlic custard and sea urchin from Hokkaido, the soup became one harmonious bowl that was aromatic and delicious. Atomix’s brilliance lies in the way the kitchen uses unexpected ingredients in the way I had not expected in Korean cuisine, such as carrot that was fermented to give yellow sashimi (“hwe”) such a refreshing kick. As described in the flashcard, potato pancake (“jeon”) has not been considered peasant food given the low place of potato in the grain hierarchy of Korean tradition, but Atomix has found a way to elevate it into a beautiful slice with ricotta cheese and a variety of flower and herb that was also delightfully crispy.
Other dishes such as steamed snow crab “jjim” with white kimchi sauce, pickled grenada pepper and smoked trout roe (it was a little bit difficult to get a taste of kimchi in the sauce), fried (“twigim”) soondae (Korean blood sausage that was more or less perfectly battered) and a tart of celeriac, buttermilk cheese, hazelnut milk and caviar (“sukchae”) (which displayed fantastic complexity in flavor but Jun and I weren’t convinced with the fit this dish had with the sweet potato rice on the side) similarly displayed ingenuity and thoughtful execution. Our two best savory dishes came at the end. The grilled (“gui”) golden eye snapper that came with kohlrabi (compressed with white kimchi juice) and nuruk (a traditional fermentation starter) sauce using snapper fish stock was so delicious that I had a hard time thinking of any other fish dish I had at a restaurant recently that was just as memorable. Add a side dish of seaweed (parae) and tofu skin to complement this wonderfully grilled fish, and you will start wondering if this dish should’ve been at a place like Le Bernardin.
Similarly the braised (“jorim”) wagyu was a marvelous perfection in texture. You will see an assortment of rice and lettuce with which you can make small wraps along with this beautiful meat accompanied by fermented red pepper. Each bite of wrap was just blissful, and my only regret was that there were only four pieces of meat. Korean cuisine has long been well-known by foreigners for its BBQ culture, but those who frequent restaurants in Korea Town probably haven’t got the taste of the very best of braised meat that you can now experience at Atomix. The two desserts that came out were also fascinating. I didn’t expect to see ice cream made of makgeolli, but it sure was a delightful palate cleanser (“ipgasim”) and I began to wonder why other restaurants have not thought of using this popular rice wine for desserts. The main dessert (“husik”) consisting of red bean, crème fraiche, persimmon and pine nut drew influence from winter solstice (on which Koreans eat red bean porridge (“patjuk”)), and beautifully captured the modern interpretation of patjuk with the addition of persimmon that was aged with soju (another popular Korean liquor) then roasted to give a smooth texture. By the time we finished the dessert, Jun and I unanimously agreed that this restaurant was the best we had been to in the city this year.
As noted above, reservations at Atomix can only be secured through ticket purchases (one for 6 p.m. and the other for 9 p.m. each day) online (available at Tock). Ever since reviews started coming out, it’s definitely become much harder to buy these tickets, so commit to a date as much in advance as possible. The intimate single chef’s counter setting at the restaurant gives a modern yet unpretentious feel that is another positive contributor to the dining experience. Occasionally chef Park comes out to serve a dish himself, and his wife Ms. Park walks around the counter making sure all the diners are properly attended to. There is full bar with cocktails inspired by modern Korean flavors and ingredients as well as a wine list that seems to be represented mostly from France, Italy and U.S. We opened a bottle of red Syrah from California that actually tasted more like Northern Rhone’s Syrah and complemented the food pretty well. At the end of our meal, Jun and I took a photo with chef Park and briefly spoke to Ms. Park, who noted that most of the guests who have come to visit thus far are non-Koreans and the menu changes every quarter. Well, first of all it was shocking that Koreans do not come to this magnificent restaurant more often and the frequency of menu changes gave me a revelation that Jun and I should visit this place whenever the menu is revamped so we get to see what kind of magic chef Park’s kitchen brings forward, while also as a fellow native Korean hopefully giving more moral support to this mild-mannered yet ambitious Korean couple. In fact, while our culinary journey has been mostly checking out new restaurants as they open, we have decided that we will pick a few go-to restaurants that we will want to visit more than twice every year, not only to have opportunities to try dishes across different seasons but also to get to know pioneers in the restaurant space that we would like to know better at a personal level. Atomix will be the first restaurant on that list.
KenScale: 9.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 9.0/10)
- Creativity: 9.0/10
- Execution: 9.0/10
- Ingredients: 9.0/10
- Flavor: 9.5/10
- Texture: 9.0/10
- Value: 9.0/10
Address: 104 East 30th Street, New York, NY 10016