At the core of a Korean meal is rice and banchan side dishes. The quality and variety of banchan can really make or break your experience. I know it’s going to be a good day when a restaurant throws in a steamed egg or pan-fried tofu, and on the flipside, it’s always a sad day when all I get is kimchee and some limp bean sprouts. Atoboy, a new restaurant in Flatiron run by Junghyun Park, the former Chef de Cuisine of Jungsik, rethinks the banchan side dish as the main dish, where you can make a meal out of several of them. The menu is divided into three sections of small plates, which is differentiated by portion size, and for $36 you can pick a dish from each one of the sections along with a bowl of rice, the traditional white rice or the rice special of the day for an extra $2. As an fyi, you really should pay up for the rice special, otherwise you will miss out on something amazing like the bacon and scallion rice.
The banchan only faintly resemble traditional Korean ones. Some of them, like the eggplant with snow crab and tomato gel, look and taste like they’ve stepped out of a modern day molecular gastronomy restaurant. The NY strip steak, cooked beautifully medium rare, appears to be a standard Western dish, until you taste the sweet sesame marinade that reminds you of its Eastern roots. The pork stuffed squid with its garlic and pesto could fit in seamlessly at any Mediterranean restaurant but somehow finds itself in a Korean one.
This element of surprise is a defining characteristic of the cooking at Atoboy. While the menu lists the ingredients plainly in every dish, you shouldn’t take that description at face value, as there is always a twist. They’re not always huge ones, like the tofu, whose slight quirk came from the heat of the underlying wasabi, but the bigger ones pay off more. I have to admit I was a little skeptical of the fried chicken, which arrived with a dollop of clumsy-looking peanut butter sauce underneath, but I was proven completely wrong when I actually tasted it. The fried crust was sweet, almost like a cake batter, and the sensation was similar to eating a rock solid piece of karaage chicken. Another surprise was the zucchini, probably because it’s not a particularly exciting vegetable, but at Atoboy it was not only fried to perfection but prettily presented as a carpaccio.
The one drawback about making a meal out of tapas is that it doesn’t leave you quite full. For those with bigger appetites, you can order additional dishes a la carte off of the menu. But to fully appreciate the precision and skill of Chef Park’s cooking, it probably makes more sense to give your full attention to a few dishes rather than gorging on big family style platters. There’s more to Korean food than just gutbusting bbq and soju, and the fact that there’s a restrained and elegant aspect to it at Atoboy is a lovely option to have.
43 E. 28th St (between Park and Madison Ave)
New York, NY 10016