The National is the best thing that has happened in the restaurant scene of Greenwich in a long time. It’s got pizzazz, glamour, a celebrity chef, old-world charm, neat cocktails, and food that looks good and tastes even better. We expected all of those things from Geoffrey Zakarian, the white-haired impresario of highly rated NYC eateries who’s hewn a career on TV cooking shows (The Kitchen is the latest).
The design of the place—on restaurant-heavy lower Greenwich Avenue—is posh. Part the gray-velvet cold-blocking curtains at the entrance, and you will feel like Alice tumbling onto a dramatic stage set. Gray and white tiles jitterbug across the floor, palm trees evoke a land of serenity, banquettes of teal (and a few red ones) invite comfy seating, white- or black-speckled marble tables and bar play at opulence, a mirrored wall behind the bar glistens with reflections of jeweled liquors, and the occasional waft of delicious aromas as platters of food are scurried to tables all bring a heightened sense of what good dining is all about. It can be noisy, yes, but not unbearably so.
One evening, Zakarian, minus his telltale hula-hoop glasses, was seen fussing with the proper drape of the curtains. When I remarked, “Are you a decorator, as well?” he replied, “I love interior design. In my next life, that’s what I want to do.” He spent the evening cruising the dining room, with its long, narrow space between rows of tables, through which the wait staff had to gingerly sashay from kitchen to table.
Chef, TV personality Geoffrey Zakarian
Zakarian is comfortable in his own skin, easy to parry with, but I wouldn’t want him to judge my food. I prefer his. First of all, it’s not crazy, cutesy, or dusted with gold flecks from angels’ halos. It’s food intelligently cooked and paired. The agnolotti, for example, has a bellyful of creamed spinach encased in perfect al dente dough, subtly touched with a lemon glaze and a hint of Parmesan cheese. Parmigiano more heavily marries with tender pork and beef meatballs in a luscious tomato sauce. I also loved the lumache, snail-shaped pasta that swims with broccoli rabe and Calabrian chilies, the anchovy so subsumed in the sauce that it’s not detected yet adds immeasurably to the dish’s success.
A side of smoky broccoli rabe dewed with chili vinaigrette is an absolute must-order. So are the crispy rosemary fries and the pan-roasted cauliflower gussied up with sharp pecorino cheese. Creamy chicken liver mousse was perked up with a dab of red onion marmalade that at first was cloying but then proved a tasty uptick. Unfortunately, we barely tasted the promised eggplant in another side because the lentils and yogurt conquered it. The dish seemed tired.
Admittedly, the menu is confusing, because in an attempt to separate grilled dishes from the pasta and other mains, the diner is presented soup and polenta in the same section as a lamb shank (this feeds two or more, as could the half-chicken listed elsewhere) and pan-roasted cod. Yet, in the on-the-grill section is another fish, this one a fillet of salmon served with green grapes, salmoriglio (a Sicilian classic of garlic, lemon, and oil), almonds, and charred radicchio. One of our guests proclaimed he would come back for this dish alone.
Salmon with charred scallion and citrus
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I would go back for the tuna crudo: a superbly crafted composition of citrusy-sweet green tomato, tang of mustard, and creamy avocado. On the other hand, the calamari was all too familiar, as were the six halves of small deviled eggs. The chicory salad was too bitter for one guest; much gentler was the one composed of gem greens, pistachios, and tarragon. And that chicken cooked Barbuto style (wonder if this refers to the West Village restaurant)? Someone said it suffered from its vinaigrette, but the rest of us lauded its moist meat.
Another of our guests sprang for the octopus over a potato confit, with preserved lemon and pickled chilies. It was a fabulous choice—sweet and tender. The Ugly Burger looked pretty good to us, a Dagwood of a sandwich on a soft bun with cheddar cheese, crunchy shallots, and house sauce, cooked to rare perfection. So was the roasted Diver scallops special skirted with grilled leeks, chanterelles, and charred cucumbers under caper-egg vinaigrette.
You can’t visit The National and not order cocktails to start (Smashed, made with bourbon and fragrant mint, was a winner, as was Mango Picante with or without a spice-rimmed glass) and desserts to end the evening (beg for the sticky toffee pudding). Prices are mostly reasonable, but beware of ordering too many of those clever drinks!
Food: 3/4 I Service: 3/4 I Atmosphere 3/4 I Cost: 3/4
376 Greenwich Ave