At Atomix, a Korean Restaurant Overflowing With Ideas
A card is set down in front of you before each new course arrives at Atomix, the tasting-menu restaurant in Murray Hill run by Junghyun Park and his wife, Jeungeun. Each is printed with a boldface transliteration of a Korean word under an abstract design of geometric shapes and lines. They look like flashcards from a school run by progressive graphic designers.
“Your first course is guk, which means soup,” a server will say.
“This card is for hwe, Korean for raw.”
“Jorim is next. Jorim means it’s been braised.”
This sounds as if it would get old, but it doesn’t. Very early on, you learn that on the other side of these vocabulary exercises lie dishes of wonderful intricacy, sophistication and beauty. One after another, each of the 10 courses in the $175 meal opens up new ideas about Korean cuisine and culture. In the Atomix pedagogical method, instruction is followed closely by reward. (While we are working on vocabulary: The restaurant’s name is pronounced, somewhat counterintuitively, a-toe-mix.)
Many of the rewards are the kind you eat, of course. Guk-which-means-soup is a shimmering broth that Mr. Park, the chef, makes from fermented tomatoes and kelp; chilled and poured over scallop slices layered between slivers of green tomato that have been marinated in Korean fig vinegar, the broth has an electrifying sweet-sour balance.
The dish may not scream “Korean cuisine,” but the next one does. This is hwe — Korean for raw, you’ll recall, and also the term for Korean-style sashimi. The fish is striped jack, brushed with plum vinegar sauce. Slices of it are folded around a mild fermented chile, a few drops of sesame oil and bits of kimchi made from cabbage and ramps. Sitting over each slice of jack is a crisp square of gim, which the Japanese call nori. Pinch some fish inside the gim and eat it, and the flavors that unspool are some of those that are brought to the table with Korean sashimi, but they’re put together with a harmony that’s hard to achieve when you swab them yourself under the influence of a few glasses of soju.
Inspired by a poem from the Choson era, Mr. Park summoned an entirely different set of flavors for the hwe on Atomix’s opening menu, which ran from late May to early September. Then, the fish was sea bream, firm and chewy, marinated overnight with ginger in a magnificently good tangerine vinegar from the island of Jeju. Eaten with sea urchin, plain spinach, sparkling shards of jelly made from pale young soy sauce, and Chinese-mustard leaves fermented in some wonderful way, it was so deeply harmonic I wouldn’t have minded if Mr. Park had served it over and over for the rest of the meal. 纽约时报中英文网 http://www.qqenglish.com
Centuries before it became the fashion among American chefs, fermentation was a pillar of Korean cuisine. Atomix exploits it in all kinds of ways. Fermentation bends a mix of juices from Korean pears, green apples and pineapple toward a cidery direction that makes it a thrilling marinade, braising liquid and sauce for exquisitely rich Wagyu strip loin. It’s the foundation for an array of vinegars you won’t find on the average table in Koreatown: cherry blossom, persimmon, mugwort, birch. And, of course, fermentation is behind the restaurant’s arsenal of pickled vegetables, the most interesting of which may be the tart brussels sprouts that Mr. Park serves in banchan format alongside roast duck with a mole sauce that could pass muster in Mexico if Mr. Park did not up the funk level with gochujang.
Some of these ingredients were fermented or otherwise preserved in South Korea. Many more were put up for storage at Atoboy, the Parks’ other restaurant, over the past year or more as the Parks prepared to open Atomix.
Atoboy’s food is woven around traditional banchan dishes, and while Mr. Park gives himself room to play, the cooking there stays true to the fairly simple origins of banchan. His tasting menus at Atomix make a quantum leap in complexity. It’s like seeing the guy who strums the 12-string guitar on the L platform pick up a conductor’s baton and lead an orchestra through a Mahler symphony. On the back of Atomix’s flashcards he lists the components of each dish, and each of their ingredients — around 20 on average, very few of them ordinary and none of them out of place. Nothing at Atomix tastes confused or overburdened.
The dishes are even more elaborate than those at Jungsik, the rarefied Korean-inspired restaurant downtown where Mr. Park was the chef de cuisine before he and his wife struck out on their own. And while Jungsik seems determined to stuff Korean flavors into an outdated French formality, Atomix is warm, contemporary and Korean at just about every turn.
The Parks, who were raised in South Korea, hired a Seoul architecture firm, Studio Writers, to remake two floors of a secretive-looking townhouse on East 30th Street. Upstairs is a small bar where you can slither into a pale-leather booth to idle over smartly conceived snacks like soy-marinated scallop jerky; beef tartare, mixed with red and black pepper, and under a snowfall of pecorino; or fried wings stuffed with fried rice and dusted with ground Sichuan peppercorns.
Stairs descend to a bright, skylit lounge of upholstered benches where the tasting menu kicks off with a couple of hors d’oeuvres and drinks. The idea must be for you to leave the shuffle of Manhattan behind in stages, but I always spent my few minutes in this way station eyeing the comfortable, dark, wood-clad den a few steps away where the rest of the meal is served at a 14-seat counter.
The natural materials and simple lines in the tasting room seem to bow toward Korea’s long Zen tradition, and a kind of purposeful calm reigns there. Servers and cooks all wear flowing, boat-neck shirts in a shimmering pewter color that gives them a slight science-fiction look; they are the work of a Korean-born New York designer, Sungho Ahn.
Ms. Park, who goes by Ellia, glides behind the counter, smiling and holding out a cloth case to offer a pair of the Korean-made chopsticks she collects. They’re beautiful objects, and so are the handmade plates and bowls that begin to file out of the kitchen, each made by a potter or glass worker or wood carver in South Korea. These artisans are identified on the menu cards, whose abstract designs are the work of a South Korean artist.
Tasting menus can be arid and sterile when a chef doesn’t have much to say. The format comes to life when a restaurant is overflowing with ideas, like Atomix. The way the Parks put Korean culture in the foreground recalls the early days of the Four Seasons, which moved beyond European models of formal dining by hiring an American architect and American industrial designers to go along with the American ingredients and even American wines.
The Four Seasons had a Swiss chef, though. Atomix is more thorough: It has the Parks.