The woman sitting next to me takes a bite of what's been introduced as "twigim" and says what I'm thinking after I spoon into the same dish at one of the most bewitching restaurants to open in Manhattan in seasons.
"Oh, my God!"
Twigim, the third offering in a 10-course tasting menu at the tranquil Atomix in Midtown East, showcases Scottish langoustine, seasoned with lemon zest and perilla (shiso) leaf and sheathed in a tempura that shatters on contact with the teeth. Riding shotgun is a pale green dollop of sea urchin creamed with nasturtium, lemon juice and yondu, a vegetable extract that, like soy sauce, acts as a flavor bump.
Powdered chopi adds a numbing citric punch. Before pepper was widely available in Korea, chopi, from little green pods, gave the cuisine some zap.
I know all this not just because it washed over my tongue earlier this summer, but also because each course at Atomix is preceded by an illustrated, wallet-size card explaining the dish and its preparation, sometimes inspiration. At the conclusion of dinner, guests depart with a dozen or so beautiful cards, including a note from the staff, in a sturdy paper packet.
Bye, bye, bonbons. Move over, mignardises. There's a fresh way to send diners into the night, and they're pretty enough to frame.
"We love fine dining, but it's hard to remember everything," says JeongEun "Ellia" Park, the serene mistress of ceremonies who owns the restaurant with her husband, chef Junghyun Park. While some other restaurants are dispensing with printed menus altogether, Atomix knows: Surprises can be fun, but cheat sheets are more helpful. By meal's end, we learn that the rice is polished in-house, the sesame oil is made on-site, and petals of steamed eggplant make a lovely cover for smoked eel nestled in a froth of eel, crème fraîche and lemon. Also: Waygu beef fermented in fruit juice for three days has an affinity for 33-year-old Portuguese wine.
Korean food has never been hotter in this country; hasn't gochujang become every other chef's condiment of choice? But its elevation to fine dining is relatively recent, evinced in Manhattan this year by the steakhouse Cote, an upgrade from the standard Korean barbecue - and even more so by the ambitious Atomix.
The chef, 34, was raised in Seoul and has cooked around the world. After graduating with a major in food sciences in Korea 10 years ago, he went to London for an externship at the Michelin-starred Ledbury, then to Melbourne, Australia, where he cooked in three restaurants owned by top chef Andrew McConnell. Back in Seoul, Park cooked at the modern Korean Junsik, which sent him to New York City when the restaurant opened a branch in Tribeca in 2012.
The Parks' original idea was to open a fine-dining restaurant. But as unknowns in Manhattan, they opted for a less-risky path. Hence Atoboy (ah-TOE-boy), a casual Korean restaurant they opened two years ago. The New York Times rewarded their celebration of banchan, the collection of side dishes that accompany Korean meals, with two stars.
"Ato" is an ancient Korean word for "gift." Atomix (ah-TOE-mix) refers to the mix of ground-floor bar, downstairs lounge and dining room: 14 seats around a rectangular black granite counter, with a visible kitchen in the rear.
The entrance has us double-checking the address. A small sign with the name is affixed to the building, but the door pushes open to what looks like a residential foyer. Our tentative knock on an unmarked door is met with a nod and a smile. Inside, we're led past a posh bar down a long flight of stairs to a lounge with sofas the color of stone and walls that resemble a vertical Zen garden. Drink requests are taken and snacks are produced, the best of which is a pinch of Dungeness crab in a lemony cabbage leaf.
Servers in spare gray smocks usher us to our counter seats. With its low oak ceiling and subdued lighting, the dining area makes a comfortable cave. A note card informs us "guk," or soup, is our first taste. A beautiful bowl holding charred baby corn, a delicate fish cake and pea tendrils is followed by a hot stream of golden broth that tastes richly of pork.
The Parks collect chopsticks and invite diners to pick a pair from a handheld case of 30 or so, the most prized of which is made from Korean pearl. The chopsticks come in handy for the second course, "hoe," sea bream splashed with tangerine vinegar and served with creamy Japanese uni and little yellow jellies made with a light soy sauce. The accompanying card says the idea for the dish dates to the Choseon era (1392 to 1910) and a poem describing "hoe that has been tossed in golden gleam." Does the backstory improve the flavor of the food? It might.
There's nothing very Korean about sukchae, a drift of milky fresh curd (which Park learned to make Down Under) and dashi-braised baby artichokes capped with glistening osetra. But the next dish pulls us back to Korea with a slice of golden eye snapper that is cooked on one side with a light batter. Insiders will recognize the name and the crackle: jeon is Korean for pancake, a common dish on Korean menus.
Fermentation, says Park, creates an essential flavor in the Korean repertoire, a technique that made it possible for the ancients to eat well even as they traveled through the country's famously mountainous terrain. Past and present mingle in four stamps of blushing Wagyu beef juxtaposed with fermented wasabi leaves and what a server calls "last year's garlic" and ramps.
Korean restaurants aren't known for their desserts; Atomix wants to change that, with a quenelle of rice ice cream atop a puddle of rice pudding, made from the prized rice that sticks to the bottom of its pot (nurungji). The thick golden stripes on the ice cream turn out to be thyme honey mixed with pickled sprout juice, a novelty that deserves to be jarred and sold.
Something that can't be said of too many tasting menus: While a lot of flavors cross your lips here, the portions and the pacing leave you counting the days until you can return rather than groaning the equivalent of "uncle!" in Korean.
Atomix plans to change its script every quarter. As much as I'm anticipating the next wave of dishes, I'm looking forward to a fresh deck of cards. Lots of restaurants feed and serve their audience beautifully. This one manages to offer history lessons, cultural appreciation - even a shopping list, should you be inclined to play Park at home.
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Atomix, 104 E. 30th St., New York. No phone number; atomixnyc.com. 10-course tasting menu, $175 per person; seven-glass wine pairing, $135.