Restaurant Week 2012 – The National

Today marks the launch of NYC’s Restaurant Week 2012 (‘week’ consistently used loosely by, which lasts until Feb. 10. Kicking off this special event on MLK day, when many employees are off work, might have been intentional or might just be a happy coincidence, but either way, I was excited to take advantage of the holiday and indulge in a 3-course lunch for $24.07.

And the spot I chose?

I was a fan of Geoffrey Zakarian even before he was crowned ‘The Next Iron Chef’. After watching him as a judge on different Food Network competitions, I felt that we had similar palates and could most certainly be great friends. My fandom has only grown since that NIC crowning. I’ve been itching to try Chef Zakarian’s mid-town ‘grande cafe’, The National, for quite awhile and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Nuzzled in the same historic building as the Benjamin Hotel, this cafe styled in the traditional European way, was convenient to get to and a pleasure to be in. The stylish, yet comfortable dining room could not have been more welcoming from the harsh winter winds that practically blew me inside. I seated myself at the bar and began examing the special Restaurant Week menu placed before me.

I settled on my courses and ordered the following, along with a healthy glass of Merlot: Plaintain soup as my appetizer, the Red fish as my entree, and the Brown Butter cake for dessert. Each course was interesting and clean.  As the New York Times puts it, ‘it is simple, but not really.’

The Plaintain soup was naturally the first to arrive, and was a perfect starter to whet my appetite. The silky smooth consistency of the soup was complemented well by the sweet and crunchy grapes, and spicy-earthy chorizo on top. It was flavorful, creamy, warm and yummy.

The entree I chose was the Red fish, which was served atop a lobster curry broth. The fish was tender and had the perfect crisp crust on top. The broth was unbelievably flavorful, salty and deep. I had to resist the urge to slurp the last from my bowl, as I was regrettably given no bread to sop it up with. The accompanying clams, purple baby carrots and eggplant all played their roles well in this masterfully executed dish. The biggest surprise was the eggplant, which was of a miniature variety, and something I really had to inspect to figure out. They were so tasty and seedy, that I thought for a moment they might be caperberries. I actually had to check the menu again to confirm their identity. They were quite good.

My meal ended with a complementary splash of additional wine from the bartender and the Brown Butter cake. The cake itself was nutty, warm and inviting, but it was the trimmings – one of which I would actually call the star of the dish – that really made it shine. Alongside the cake were roasted pears, caramelized pecans, a dollop of caramel and creme fraiche gelato – the star. Together, everything was wonderful, but the only item that could really stand on its own was  the gelato. It was insanely dense and creamy and sweet and decadent. I don’t care the price, I would buy a pint of that.

Taking into account the food, atmosphere, OH yes, and the fact that as I was paying my bill, Chef Zakarian himself walked through the door, made this lunch date with myself pretty enjoyable. The Chef only appeared for a moment and I didn’t want to cause a scene, so I didn’t ask for a picture, but seeing him was like the crema-topped espresso of my meal. Perfection.

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