A quick glimpse through the narrow window slivered into Atoboy’s concrete exterior and you would never guess that this discrete restaurant in Manhattan’s bustling NoMad neighborhood is leading the way in redefining western conceptions of Korean cuisine. Rather than serve well-known North American favorites, such as bulgogi or bimbimbap, Atoboy turns the spotlight on banchan; the vast array of complementary side dishes that are typically served with a Korean meal. These sides, often overlooked as mysterious accompaniments to the average diner, are reimagined at Atoboy to celebrate Korean ingredients and techniques. The masterminds behind the concept? Husband and wife duo Chef Junghyun Park and Manager Ellia Park.
With such refined technique, it is hard to believe that Chef Park never attended culinary school. He did, however, obtain a degree in food science from Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea, the same city in which he was born and raised. Following his studies, he travelled to over 30 countries, learning to cook in several upscale restaurants, such as The Ledbury in London and Cutler and Co. in Melbourne. Upon returning to Seoul, Mr. Park joined the team at Jungsik, the highly-acclaimed Korean restaurant which would eventually bring him to the United States after he was offered the position of chef de cuisine at Jungsik’s two Michelin-starred Manhattan location. After many years of working in the fine-dining space, he sought out to make modern Korean cuisine more accessible by offering high-quality ingredients at an affordable price, in a more casual setting. With Mrs. Park well-versed in New York’s restaurant industry, having come from Kajitsu, Maialino and Noreetuh, it seemed natural for the two to create Atoboy together.
Recently awarded the number eight spot on The New York Times’s list of Top New York Restaurants of 2017, Atoboy delivers a Korean dining experience that elevates all the senses. While the stark, futuristic space might read unsentimental at first glance, within minutes of experiencing Atoboy’s warm hospitality and inventive menu, the simple aesthetic lends itself to a relaxed-meets-sophisticated experience. Two identical rows of sleek wooden tables line the unadorned, exposed concrete walls that constitute the sides of this long, narrow restaurant. With muted colors, symmetry steals the show with industrial spotlights perfectly aligned over each table. The understated, minimalist interior offers guests a refuge from the chaos of Koreatown, but most importantly, its simplicity enables Park’s eye-catching dishes to take center stage.
While the menu changes based on the seasonality and availability of local market ingredients, each dish remains distinctly Korean, without intimidating newcomers to contemporary Korean cuisine. The family-style menu empowers guests to order at their leisure, with a prix-fixe order offering three shareable dishes of the customer’s choice accompanied by a bowl of rice. Predictable banchan staples such as cabbage and apple variations of kimchi are executed with respect for traditional Korean flavors. However most of the menu consists of adventurous plays on the sides, elevating banchan to embody a Korean manifestation of upscale tapas.
Take the Broccoli Rabe–simply sautéed with shallots and olive oil, given body and complexity with bagna cauda; an Italian anchovy dip, and dubu skin; a silky Korean tofu. Sweet red peppers are balanced with savory cuttlefish and fresh fennel, and given texture with crunchy rice crackers. Moist filets of trout are baked to perfection, laid over sautéed Tuscan kale and blanketed in a velvety lardo and dried scallop sauce. The wine list, curated by Mrs. Park, highlights the complex, earthy flavors of Mr. Park’s dishes while traditional corn silk tea cleanses the palate after each memorable bite.
One taste of Mr. Park’s inventive creations and it becomes clear that banchan has been underappreciated for too long, and while Americanized versions of Korean barbeque have their place in Western gastronomy, Korean cuisine clearly has more to offer. We caught up with Chef Junghyun Park to learn more about his and Mrs. Park’s motivations behind Atoboy, what inspires his culinary creativity, and what exciting innovations he has planned for the new year.
What inspired you to create Atoboy?
My wife, Ellia, and I have always dreamt of opening our own restaurant. When the opportunity and time was right, we decided to open Atoboy here in New York City. We felt that Korean cuisine is often known for its barbeque and kimchi, so we wanted to show a different style of Korean cuisine to a global market. Ato – means “gift” in ancient Korean. So, Atoboy, being our first restaurant, means for us a place where we can deliver our take on modern Korean cuisine and culture as our “gifts” to our guests.
What is most rewarding about working together as husband and wife?
We, of course, love being together 24 hours at home as well as at work! We are always sharing our opinions about work and can develop the menu together. There’s no barrier between the kitchen and the dining room in our restaurant — just like our relationship. To us, that’s a key value of our restaurant.
What makes Atoboy different than other Korean-American restaurants? And why did you decide to make banchan the foundation of your menu?
For many non-Korean, and also several Korean diners, banchan has often been thought of as small side dishes. What many don’t realize is that banchan can mean more than just meaningless side dishes. It’s actually what makes a Korean meal uniquely Korean. A well-set Korean table always consists of rice, kimchi, and a soup or stew of some kind. Along with those three, several banchans – whether small or large – complete the well-rounded meal. It is believed that from olden times, the number of banchans that one put on the table represented one’s socio-economic status. For example, a more modest home would have about two to three banchans, whereas a member of the royal family would have 12.
Here at Atoboy, we put a lot of care into every single aspect of the banchans, as any great Korean cook should. And because our guests are able to choose their banchans, rather than receive the chef’s selections of the day — they can really enjoy the whole meal. Instead of the banchans just being laid out to you with minimal description, we want our guests to have conversations with our service team regarding each dish, so each of their bites are more meaningful and delicious.
Who do you look to as inspiration for both your food and wine menus?
It’s hard to name just one person. All of the chefs where I used to work, as well as our dining experiences, inspire me.
Which dish is closest to your heart and why?
I would have to say the Sunchoke we have developed. It incorporates a lot of unexpected and unique flavors and techniques, but is also approachable and relatable. There’s a deep soy flavor with truffle cream which is balanced with orange.
Which dish are you most excited about for the winter season?
Endive — it’s a warm vegetable dish stuffed with shrimp and is served with a soy butter sauce.
How have your previous restaurant positions influenced your approach with Atoboy today?
As the chef de cuisine at Jungsik restaurant, I met many people who supply the best ingredients in New York. They helped us a lot when we opened Atoboy!
How have your experiences traveling to over 30 countries shaped your cooking?
My travels allowed me to learn about new ingredients — ingredients that I would have never known about before. I was also able to learn about the history of many authentic cuisines from around the world. It helped me develop ideas for new combinations of flavor and balance.
Where is your favorite place for banchan in the world?
Probably my mother’s home!
What’s next? How do you plan to continue to carve space for Korean cuisine in the American restaurant industry?
At Atoboy, we want to continue to ‘wow’ our regulars, as well as our new diners. As for what’s next — we will open Atomix this spring, a multi-course, fine-dining restaurant. We would love to showcase even more about Korean cuisine’s unique ingredients, flavors, and techniques.
Photography by Anna Haines