How Atomix Got Us to Care About Chef's Counters Again
Presented with gravitas in a shimmery, periwinkle brush roll draped over a wooden tray, the chopsticks at Atomix are meant to be conversation starters. Some of the recherché eating utensils are painted maroon or gold; others are stained to flaunt their natural wood grain; one pair is whittled with geometric divots that make them particularly fun to hold as you pick up curls of raw yellowtail wrapped around ramp kimchi or bites of braised abalone in fermented huckleberry dashi. The cutlery collection belongs to co-owner JeongEun “Ellia” Park, who shares her treasure trove with two rounds of fourteen diners five nights a week at this ambitious, yet earnestly approachable celebration of Korean fine-dining.
For the past two years, she and her husband, chef Junghyun “JP” Park, have operated Atoboy, their boisterous and budget-friendly culinary bunker where $42 gets you a choice of three market-driven small plates inspired by banchan, the generous parade of snacks that traditionally kicks off most Korean meals. It’s a restaurant central to the city’s ongoing contemporary Korean boom (along with Cote, Oiji, Soogil, and Her Name Is Han, among others) that remains one of the most rewarding bang-for-your-buck dinners around town.
Banking on that cachet, this past spring the Parks debuted Atomix, which they first started planning years ago while Junghyun was the chef de cuisine of Tribeca’s two-Michelin-starred Seoul import, Jungsik. Unlike that restaurant, which mingles European and Korean techniques and ingredients, or Atoboy, where the kitchen applies Korean techniques to NYC’s global pantry in a way that’s both casual and ultra-creative, Atomix is anchored around a $175 ten-course tasting menu that mines the foundations of Korean cooking and highlights a rotating cast of South Korean artists and artisans – from avant-garde potters and designers to producers of soy sauce like Ki Soon-do, the matriarch of a condiment dynasty with roots that go back more than three centuries.
It’s a genuinely thrilling second act that has so far impressed local and national critics, and netted the dynamic wife-and-husband team (both of whom grew up in South Korea) a Michelin star of their very own. In much the same way that Atoboy brought a fresh perspective to the tired small plates format, with Atomix, they’ve breathed renewed energy and purpose into the often vacuous chef’s counter – partially by taking some of the spotlight off of the chef and placing it on the people, places, and things that enrich the entire magnificently orchestrated procession.
Even finding the place is kind of fun. Hidden away behind an unmarked door, the restaurant occupies a moody and minimalist bi-level space in the belly of an unassuming NoMad townhouse. Upstairs, there’s a dimly lit lounge in which to sip pisco sours spiked with perilla leaf syrup, chew on scallop jerky, or ponder how the kitchen so skillfully stuffs bulbous, shatteringly crisp-skinned chicken wings with fried rice (come early, just a few orders are available each night). Descend a precipitous staircase to reach the subterranean foyer and dining room, where the Parks and their crew hold court around an expansive U-shaped chef’s counter. Wine pairings by Jhonel Faelnar run $155 and eschew the natural fad in favor of vintage big-name European bottles from the likes of Dom Pérignon and Weingut Emmerich Knoll.
Ellia’s preprandial choose-your-own chopsticks offering is one of many small but meaningful gestures that punctuate the meal with personal connections. Another is the small welcome message from the chef – “Here is my take on a new tomorrow,” it dramatically concludes – printed in English and Hangul on a double-sided stationary, which gets tucked inside taupe napkins that are almost matched to the austere grey smocks worn by the friendly staff. With each course, they swoop in to explain the dish’s components and the Korean cooking technique or tradition at play. Dungeness crab is brutally sliced with a purée of the crustacean’s own brains. That sauce pooled around perfectly rosy and crisp-skinned duck breast? It’s gochujang mole, a continent-bridging fermented pepper sauce that hums with fruity chiles alongside pickled melon and another sauce imbued with woody, tart birch.
The food impresses on its own, but as dishes hit the table so do gorgeous abstract notecards vividly illustrated by Ellia’s cousin, which brilliantly provide contextual information ranging from anecdotes about the history of dairy being reserved for royalty, to ruminations on the importance of fermentation in Korean cuisine, to profiles of the couple’s noteworthy colleagues, like kimchi savant Kwang-Hee Park, who provides the restaurant with preserved perilla leaves and Korean plums grown along the mainland’s southeastern coast. Rather than overwhelm, the stories improve the experience, and by dinner’s end the stack is gathered up and packaged to take home. It’s an effort that’s clearly resonated with those who’ve paid the Parks a visit. Petit fours are ephemeral, after all. In an early write-up, Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema noted that the keepsakes were pretty enough to frame. A quick scroll through Instagram confirms that at least one diner has done just that, proving that in the right setting, knowledge can be as powerful an ingredient as flavor.