January 17, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

The National Pastime

The National woos with a $28 steak frites, tossed salad, WiFi, breakfast at 7 am. Photo: Steven Richter
The National woos with a $28 steak frites, tossed salad, WiFi, breakfast at 7 am. Photo: Steven Richter       

        Another peripatetic star chef with multiple ambitions, Geoffrey Zakarian had scarcely zipped up an aspirational scheme at the Lambs Club in the Chatwal Hotel before he was supposedly conducting the kitchen drill at The National in early November.  Even so, his offerings here in the Benjamin Hotel looked different enough, with greens sprinkled everywhere – slanted cuts of bok choy in fragrant soba noodle soup with pork belly, and watercress wilting on ricotta gnudi with shards of parmesan, both served in aluminum pots so shiny they look like silver.

I didn’t get serving a sundae in a pot and neither did Zakarian after all. Photo: Steven Richter       

        Even the fabulous mocha praline sundae with hazelnut brittle and fudge sauce came in the same metal pot. Still, I could imagine dropping by anytime for his juicy burger with very good pickles and its zesty secret sauce, though the hand-cut fries needed more thought.  And the spectacular-looking lamb shank pebbled with hazelnuts definitely needed more time in the braising.

The well-bred design looks as if it were there forever. Photo: Steven Richter       

        As quiet and well-bred in its Rockwell design as the Lambs by Thierry Despont is rich and flamboyant, The National looks like it might have been simply freshened up, as if the complex tile floor had been there since the Emery Roth building opened in 1927. Half full, the place has a gentle buzz and light from paper shaded bulbs above is calculated to illuminate food and menu.  “It should be an American version of a great French café,” Zakarian and David Rockwell agreed. Passersby are meant to peek in and stop on a whim anytime from 7 am on, linger with free WiFi, lunch at the bar.  Behind the host’s stand, a polished bronze staircase with patina’d steps rises to the private dining room, a gleaming spiral sculpture.

Pickles and “house secret sauce” grace a juicy burger. Bacon, $2 extra. Photo: Steven Richter       

        Now, a month later, the kitchen is more confident, seemingly unperturbed by union protesters taunting the staff during lunch. Most of the aluminum pots have been retired from table service. Even before I spy Zakarian, I’ve smashed a warm poached egg atop the frisée salad with clumps of duck and bits of lardon and am enjoying the mix, cranberries and pecans adding tart and crunch. 

A toss of greens with duck, chorizo and a poached egg could be lunch Photo: Steven Richter       

        Meatballs, firm little roulades under a melt of smoked mozzarella, done with romesco sauce, are listed as a “Small Bar Bite.” But even if you’re wary of the several shisito peppers planted among them, there are more than enough meatballs to challenge the concept of “bite” for our three, and we also share perfectly cooked octopus in a spicy toss of chorizo, fennel, and cannellini beans.

Tiny mussels, intense lobster-orange broth with saffron aioli-painted croutons. Photo: Steven Richter        

        An appetizer portion of mussels comes piled high – you have to eat your way down a bit before you can get your spoon into the intense potion of an orange and saffron-tinged lobster broth. For such tiny mussels, they are surprisingly potent and we’re begging the waiter to bring seconds of the country toast smeared with spicy aioli, not even bothering to dunk. It’s that good.
        More wilted greens, this time mizuna, are draped atop first rate steak frites.  And the outsize pork chop comes with molten sweet garlic, broccolini and cheese grits.

Cranberries have replaced hazelnuts on the caramelized lamb shank. Photo: Steven Richter        

        Tonight cranberries have taken the place of hazelnuts on the lamb shank. Skate Grenobloise with lemon and capers doesn’t really need cauliflower and grapes, just a few buttery croutons to keep it classic.  And for Brussels sprouts lovers like me, these crispy leaves and pancetta are so deliciously caramelized, it seems petty to complain that the bigger pieces are not quite cooked enough, but there you are.

Here’s a night we caught the wandering Zakarian at the kitchen pass. Photo: Steven Richter       

        Since he made his name at “44” in the Royalton, his comings and goings at Town, then Country, and a glamorous young wife at his side on the floor have only polished Geoffrey Zakarian’s racy image for me. I’ve come to think of him as the playboy-chef of our town.  Granted he’s not the only chef that loves dinner parties and walking the red carpet, and maybe he’s not even having the most fun, but he’s definitely about as far as you can get from the “I am just a cook and never leave my kitchen” school of Andre Soltner at Lutèce.       
        He doesn’t fool me when he makes a sudden appearance at some point during a meal when I am in one of his restaurants – trim chef’s whites slipped on over a business shirt, usually blue. Quick change, you can do it in a phone booth.

We loved these ribs on an early visit. Now they’re listed as a bar snack. Photo: Steven Richter       

        And that’s okay. Because Zakarian is a gifted chef – in the literal meaning – the guy in charge. He has been skilled in recruiting the chefs de cuisine he leaves behind to cook in his name. Paul Corsentino, standing at the pass here at The National, was reflected in his boss’s starry glow as executive chef at Country. Corsentino confides that he spent a night in the Lambs Club kitchen “to be sure there was no overlap.”

Crab and pork belly with enoki, cuts of baby bok choy and soba noodles. Photo: Steven Richter         

        The National wasn’t designed for fickle first nighters and tall babes on spindly spikes who certify what’s chic in New York, nor for addled blogotrons, or chef groupies. With its easy, relaxed air, timeless good looks, and good food at temperate prices – entrees $13 for an artichoke sandwich to $28 for that steak frites – it could serve a busy neighborhood for a very long time.  
        557 Lexington Avenue at 50th Street  212 715 2400. Seven days a week from 7am to 1 am. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3:30 pm.