The National

Downtown cool in Midtown

By Lawrence Weibman

This David Rockwell-designed hit offers a quiet cool you won’t find elsewhere in Midtown. Small bar tables, round leather banquettes and black and white checker tiling turns an otherwise culinary wasteland around with this booming palatial bistro. And the food matches the vibe. Chef and proprietor Geoffrey Zakarian brightens American classics with bold, seasonal flavors. In fact, the three best dishes (diver scallops, pork chops and "ugly" burger) read like Guinness World Record entries for most ingredients in a single menu item, but their layered flavors provide a swoon-inducing trip with every bite.

Start with the diver scallops appetizer, it’s the everlasting gobstopper of seafood dishes, providing a different note of flavor and texture with every bite. First, candied bacon’s smoky crunch is overtaken by the spicy punch of rhubarb bathed in the brine of house made pickled jalapenos. Then the buttery scallop (and onion soubise it rests on) floods your palate with a sweet, steady richness cut perfectly by the bright, black licorice flavored fennel. The pork chop entrée plays like a magician’s sleight of hand. It looks simple enough at first (a pool of pan juices, a few cloves of candied garlic and a side of sautéed broccolini) and then out of nowhere, a small covered skillet of cheddar cheese grits is revealed and you want to applaud. Bring all the elements together on your fork for the best bites. Where the scallops and pork chop subtly surprise diners with their layered flavors, the towering “Ugly” burger outright flaunts it. A colorful garden’s worth of thinly sliced vegetables (punctuated by fiery pickled jalapenos) are topped with the house made “NTL sauce,” which combines ketchup, mustard, mayo, BBQ sauce, and A1 steak sauce; a stoner concoction gone wonderfully wrong. Only the burger itself (topped with cheddar or gruyere and optional baked-then-grilled bacon) allows the kitchen to play one more trick: what seems like an ordinary flame-grilled patty is in fact a Pat LaFrieda blend of short rib, brisket and chuck. The “Ugly” burger is in fact a thing of beauty.

the crowd

The National’s menu finds success with a few calculated risks. Expect the typical loosened tie, sleeves rolled up, little black dress crowd binging on the company card. Weekends skew toward out-of-towners staying in the Benjamin Hotel upstairs and a few awkwardly dressed tourists.

... on the side

decibels
Bring your earplugs during the weeknight dinner rush and prepare to get up close and personal with your fellow diners. Both the bar area and dining room were deafeningly loud on a recent Thursday, broken up only by the sound of male office workers high fiving (they must have just laid eyes on the burger).

hours

daily 7AM-12AM

price range

$18 ("ugly" burger) to $36 (steak frites)
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