Monday, March 12, 2012

The National

What was once called The Bowery is now known as The Lower East Side. Growing up it was a derelict area of old tenement buildings and abandoned theaters. The lighting and restaurant supply stores, as well as Gus's Pickles, were the main reason anyone would venture there during the day. CBGBs and Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse were about the only reason to head there at night. Obviously, that has changed.

Starting with The Bowery Ballroom and culminating in The New Museum, The Bowery, and the LES as a whole, has seen a remarkable transformation. Gone are the homeless men huddled around open fires in trash cans trying to keep warm. Now you have brand new condos as well as a booming bar and restaurant scene.

Freeman's Alley was the trailblazer. It was the first destination restaurant in the area. Hard to find, hard to get into, in a neighborhood people did not go to. Now the area is filled with restaurants like La Esquina and Osteria Morini that are as much about the scene as the food. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of good food in this neighborhood now. One of the best meals I had last year was at the popup "What Happens When..." and lunch at Freeman's Alley, away from the dinner crush, is a treat. Still, Freeman's now has a bespoke tailor, barbershop, haberdashery they call a Sporting Club. It can be a little much.

My old friend GK was in town last week and we made a plan to have dinner and catch up. He was going to a show at Bowery Ballroom after dinner so I decided to look for a spot near the club. First and foremost I wanted really good food and a nice cocktail. Second, I had to be able to make a reservation. None of this waiting for an hour for a table that has become a badge of honor for so many restaurants. And I wanted to be able to talk and catch up with an old friend. After much scouring I had my answer: The National.

The National sits on Rivington Street between Bowery and Chrystie Street. It is next door to Freeman's Sporting Club but a world away. The National is a small, brightly lit restaurant. White tile walls hung with mirrors set a warm, welcoming tone and make the room feel bigger than it is. A beautiful bar, lined in white tile with a dark wood top commands the right side of the restaurant, always a good sign when you are looking for a drink.

The lovely hostess (who was also our waiter and bartender) welcomes you with a smile and makes you feel right at home. First up was the drink menu. Out of the eight or so house cocktails on offer the Rattlesnake was the drink that called our names. Rye based, with sugar, lemon, egg white and an absinthe rinse, the Rattlesnake was exactly what we wanted. A refreshing cocktail with the right balance of sweet and sour so it wasn't cloying and just enough of a hint of the absinthe for a perfect final note. It is the kind of drink I would return for.

The menu at the National could be considered comfort food with a global view. We started with Braised Pork Tacos and Duck Rillette. Finding pork tacos this good in a Mexican restaurant in New York is hard enough, but to find pork tacos this rich and bright at The National was truly a surprise. The tacos start with two tortillas stacked on top of each other, a good call considering how juicy they are. They are piled high with moist, spicy pork and topped with pickled cabbage, hot yellow pepper, cilantro and crema. Any fans of pork or Mexican food should search them out. Fish tacos are also on offer and I will definitely be returning to try them.

The Duck Rillette came piled high in a mason jar, served with toasted baguette, mustard and cornichons. The duck is rich and meaty, a rustic French country treat. Two countries represented in our appetizers, two winners

While looking at the menu, the tantalizing scent drifting from my neighbor's dish made the main course decision for me. Jerk Pork Ribs. Slathered with a sweet, spicy sauce, the ribs were thick and generous, topped with roasted pineapple. This is finger licking food. The ribs come with sauteed Swiss chard, a nice counter point so the sweetness of the ribs sauce.  They also come with side is a deviled egg potato salad. An unusual choice and all the better for it. Do they go together? No, but I devoured it anyway.

Truth be told, I was too full to even consider dessert, though a few were on offer. The National serves lunch and has an espresso bar all day, so a nice array of Counter Culture coffees are available as well.

Standing on the sidewalk after dinner, fully satisfied, I was looking back into the restaurant through the big front windows. The warm glow of the restaurant bled through and the title of a Hemingway short story popped into my head. "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." Sometimes that is exactly what you are looking for. The National is that and more.

  The National - 8 Rivington Street, between Bowery and Chrystie Street.


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