Chow: Chef Paulo Im is taking OBON in new directions

Matt Martinez

 It may have foreshadowed today’s wisdom on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Congress Street when poet and playwright Oscar Wilde penned in 1895, “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.” 

Guided by the Wildean spirit, you should heed these words on your next visit to OBON where a new seasonal menu, featuring “perfect examples of the unexpected,” has been revealed. 

I tapped into the modern intellect of OBON’s Paulo Im last week to learn more about this story that goes beyond his traditional sushi, steam bun, and ramen staples. After only a few minutes with him, I can honestly say that his new dishes definitely defy expectations. 

“What I’ve been doing in building this new menu is falling down different rabbit holes of food that I really like to eat,” said Im, brand chef and director of culinary innovation at OBON, 350 E. Congress Street. “This is something which our restaurant’s change in leadership has welcomed and encouraged in an environment where I previously felt boxed-in,” he said. “I’m not saying that our new dishes are better, I’d just say that they’re simply more genuine.” 

The son of Korean immigrants, Im tells me that “my sensibility to my roots is a reflection of the food that I create,” and this sentiment anchors the restaurant’s new menu, whether it’s an appetizer, a center-of-the-plate entrée or, brace yourselves, a salad. 

The dish topping Im’s list is the Mala Sea Bream, a rich, flaky, white fish served with savory and salty scallion pancakes and sharply acidic dressed vegetables. It was inspired by his longtime passion for fish butchery, as well as what he calls the “nose-to-tail manifesto” writings of Josh Niland, an Australian chef and author who “approaches fish butchery from an unconventional standard and has changed the entire blueprint of how I think about fish.” 

This whole fish is fabricated in a way for it to be eaten, as Im says, uninterrupted, without bones or the spine while remaining beautiful to look at. It’s served with a house chili crisp made from a symphony of whole spices that are ground onsite, including cardamom, star anise, Szechuan peppercorns, fennel, coriander, cumin, white pepper, and cinnamon. 

In addition to my new fish butchery knowledge, another unexpected development in my conversation with Im was his reference to salads as symbols of this genuineness.

“For me, our new salads reflect what it means to be a Korean American,” he said. “It’s a title that I haven’t worn well throughout my life, but it’s something that I’ve recently embraced.” 

One example is the rotating Korean Seasonal Salad. The current expression features meaty pieces of ripe persimmon, which Im says requires a knife and a fork, as well as silken tofu whipped with burrata cheese, red romaine lettuce, pine nuts, cinnamon, and Korean marmalade. 

“Some of these flavors aren’t commonly equated with Korean food, but if you were to visit Korea in the fall and have a Korean barbeque dinner, you’d absolutely observe them,” he said. 

A salad calling for both a knife and a fork? Talk about unexpected. 

Other decidedly different dishes on the menu include the Mackerel Toast, with seared mackerel, tapenade, tomato, pickled red onions, tofu burrata and cracked pepper, and an updated version of the Crispy Tuna appetizer, with spicy tuna tartare served with blocks of crispy, deep-fried sushi rice. 

I think you’ll notice the difference that OBON is making downtown. When Chef Paulo Im is involved, you should come to expect it.

Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at mrussell@russellpublic.com. Russell is also the publisher of OnTheMenuLive.com as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.

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