Over a year ago when I dined at The Lambs Club, I announced it as the return to prominence for Geoffery Zakarian. At that time the celebrity chef was filing for personal bankruptcy, and prior to Lambs Club he was without a kitchen to call home, as both his critically acclaimed Town and Country were closed. With Lambs Club, chef Zakarian showed once again his culinary prowess. During that meal he was roaming in and out of the kitchen, in firm control of the new venture.
Sure enough, chef Zakarian was back in a big way. Right after The Lambs Club, The National Bar and Dining Room opened in the Benjamin Hotel on Lexington, a slightly more casual interpretation of the French American cuisine. It was also around this time that that chef Zakarian became a household name, though not for the reason I expected. Despite getting excellent reviews for his new restaurants, chef Zakarian turned his attention to The Food Network, appearing on a handful of shows, culminating with a victory on The Next Iron Chef.
Curiously enough, in the past year I’ve had the opportunity to chat with many industry veterans who used to work at Iron Chef Zakarian’s restaurant Town. All of them expressed the same feelings about their time at the critically praised yet ill fated Town: it was good while Chef Zakarian put in his full effort, but faltered when he put his attention elsewhere and failed to put in someone capable of carrying the restaurant in his absence.
So my question was simple. Was The National part of the new refocused Zakarian, or simply a project that attached his name and fame?
The week before my dinner at The National, I caught Chef Zakarian on Food Network’s Chopped and Iron Chef America. The food looked fantastic, but such a tight filming schedule also meant that he couldn’t spend sufficient time at his own restaurants. If you look at top tier restaurants like Jean Georges or Daniel, you often spot the chefs roaming around, making sure everything’s going proper, and not necessarily cooking. Without Chef Zakarian, would we taste or feel a difference?
The restaurant was crowded, especially for a Tuesday. With that being the case, service on this weeknight was definitely on the slow side. Most of the fellow diners seem to be local office workers, giving a vibe like a financial district restaurant.
Menu items consists of mainly American causal classics. For appetizers, the special of soft shell crab paired with fava beans, fennel, and a acidic sauce was pretty innovative and tasty. With soft shell crabs being in season, I was thrilled to see this unique approach.
The steak tatare and hamachi carpaccio on the other hand lacked originality, and didn’t deliver as much flavor as the ingredients could have. These two were nicely executed dishes, on a fundamentally unexciting concept.
On this blog I rarely badmouth a particular dish, after all we’re just writers who enjoy food, not overzealous professionals. However the mussels were a disaster. I thought the number of closed shells was a telling sign before I took my first bite, and found many to still be raw. It also wasn’t the freshest mussels, which perhaps explains why some weren’t open. Either way, it’s no excuse.
Entrees were thankfully much better executed than the mussels, though still uninspired. The steak frites was nicely cooked, and the meat charred with proper flavor. Its side was a heaping serving of arugula, lightly dressed, all bitter. There are better ways to get my greens.
The grilled branzino with cauliflower, grapes, endive, and lemon gastrique looked very hopeful on the menu, and was one of the more solid plates for the evening. The special of duck breast was also nicely seared then sliced, though felt slightly under seasoned.
The two sandwiches ordered were perhaps the standouts of the evening. The “Ugly” burger, which wasn’t particularly ugly, was a very solidly made burger cooked a juicy medium rare. The falafel sandwich was pretty symbolic of today’s Midtown Manhattan, and worked nicely with the flatbread.
On the website for The National, under the chef’s bio, it reads: When he’s not battling in kitchen stadium, Zakarian stays busy filming “CHOPPED”, where he is featured as a recurring judge, and highlights his favorite dishes on “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Makes me wonder who the restaurant is trying to attract, food-tv crazed fans or people who appreciate good food. The National is a mediocre restaurant at best, and when your mussels are raw, you tend to not have a favorable impression.
What does this rating mean?
From the Notebook: If you think the restaurant’s website bio about Chef Zakarian is silly, check out the how the bio for Chef de Cuisine Paul Corsentino starts: Runner-up for Eater.com’s “Hottest New York Chef”…… I’m surprised they didn’t do an open kitchen. Deducted half a point in my review for the mussels. I can hear Gordon Ramsay’s voice in my head saying “You can’t serve that…. that’s raw!