557 Lexington Avenue near 50th Street, Midtown East, (212) 715-2400
Getting There: 6 to 51st Street; E,V to Lexington Avenue-53rd Street
Restaurant Review: The National
Part bistro and part cafe, but all old world Manhattan is perhaps the most accurate description of midtown east’s The National. The throwback to old New York concocted by celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian follows suit with the essence of their menu- reinventing the traditional. As jazz music pumps in the background, once inside it seems the only things missing are fedoras, cigar smoke, and perhaps Don Draper.
The nondescript white walls are broken up by a bevy of mirrors, below them dark brown wooden tables surrounded by elongated brown leather booths. The floor is checkered in a “places don’t use this kind of decor anymore” manner that immediately makes the ambiance a conversation piece. Typically any night walking passed The National provides a glimpse into a parade of diners that skews older. Well dressed, silver haired men and women, some families, some dining solo, all seem to take residence here, but all sharing the same visual quality. Class. Perhaps that’s what resonates best while seated at a table, rather than a speculating passerby.
The cuisine is essentially American-Nouveau, or the term used to identify a restaurant with dishes that refuse to be labeled. Appetizers like “oysters on the half shell” ($3.25 ea.) and “mussels” ($13) share the page with “beef tongue” ($14) and “grilled octopus” ($15). Lighter eaters can indulge in soups filled with “chilled white asparagus” ($11) mixed with chili and chives or salads- the “asparagus salad” ($14) with buffalo mozzarella, and a truffle-lemon vinaigrette, is tough to turn away from. But it’s the “small bar bites” portion of the menu that was immediately eye catching, with such a medley of different cultural influences. The “Charcuterie” ($16) is a plate of Italian specialties- prosciutto, sopressata, a chicken liver mousse, and country pate- that you can pair with the Japanese infused “shrimp tempura” ($10), a rock shrimp with spicy aioli and tobiko. While it sounds like a mismatch, the restaurant makes it work. We went wild for the “meatballs” ($8). An excellent portion for the value of the dish, the bowl of hearty, pork meatballs mixed with delectable shishito peppers, and topped with a thick orange, sriracha sauce, and stuck with toothpicks for easy sharing. The tender balls were a standout dish because of their distinct flavor- a new take on a comfort dish.
The entrée options are not as extensive, but they don’t need to be. Your basic burger (“ugly burger” ($17) with pickled jalapeno, National Sauce, lettuce, and pickles), chicken (“roasted chicken” ($24) served with a lovely herb barley risotto and parmesan), and steak (“steak frites” ($32) grilled sirloin in a red wine sauce) dishes are all available. There’s also the “rabbit” ($25) served in a pasta with truffle oil, artichokes, parmesan, and tomato for the more experimental diner. The “striped bass” ($27) was a terrifically sized plate of two char-grilled filets, served atop a bed of heirloom potatoes and a fennel puree and a ramp vinaigrette drizzle. While the char marks on the bass could be tasted, they did not overwhelm the taste of the flaky fish, and the combination of inventive ingredients worked well. However, we enjoyed the “atlantic halibut” ($29) even moreso. One of the lightest fish dishes we’ve had recently, the filet was surrounded in a tasty, salty ham broth, surrounded by fresh chickpeas and delicious baby carrots. Where the plate may have been diminutive in size, the flavors of the mouthwatering meal- definitely worth trying.
It’s been said time and time again, that what’s old is new again and much of the charm of The National is the nod to a side of New York City that’s long been replaced by the glitz and glamour of the City’s brightest lights. In a neighborhood mostly void of notable restaurants, it’s The National’s timeless traditionalism that perhaps shines brightest.