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The Early Word on Zakarian's National Bar & Dining Rooms

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In November, Geoffrey Zakarian's The National Bar & Dining Rooms was unveiled to the public. Not only was this his second restaurant to open this past fall, it was also the second to be situated inside a hotel, this one at Benjamin Hotel in Midtown. Despite the name, the restaurant's menu had a decidedly more international flair - European and Asian larders are used for embellishments and seasonings - while featuring traditional European bistro dishes as well as the sort of fare you'd expect to see at a hotel. His first fall opening, The Lambs Club, was mostly well received; would he go two for two? To the early word:

The "Study in Inoffensiveness" News: Gastro Chic visits and hardly sounds overwhelmed by greatness. Let's start with the decor. "The space is pleasant enough. Tile floors plus wood-paneled walls plus flattering lighting create a nice environment for an after-work dinner or a quick bite... But about halfway through the meal you might notice a certain emptiness - there's no art on the walls, no sense of a singular personality behind the design or food, and a focus-grouped feel to the final product." Then there's the menu. "The National's dinner menu could be a study in inoffensiveness. Salads, chicken, steak, squash soup - are you still awake?" Boring menu aside, it sounds like the food's at least solid. "For a non-Italian restaurant, gnocchi can often present a challenge, but the National's were nicely turned out, with a mild sauce of chewy wild mushrooms perfect for autumn... Of course the National has a classic steak frites for all those business customers, and this too was done according to the book. A very good cut of steak arrived cooked perfectly medium-rare to order, with a red wine sauce pooling on the plate and a cone of decent fries alongside." Dessert sounds like it should be passed on. "Desserts were attractively presented but disappointing, with a pumpkin cake that tasted like ordinary squash bread and a chocolate malted cake that had all the lightness of a huge, dense Godiva chocolate." The final verdict is a sad one. "As it is, the National is worth visiting if you happen to be in the area - otherwise, stick to your local." [Gastro Chic]

The "Mixed Bag" News: Meats n'Beats had an uneven experience when they visited. "A new restaurant is going to have its issues but the tempo of our meal was terrible. I went on a Wednesday night and the restaurant was half full yet the service moved like the kitchen had been backed up for hours." Then there's the unmet expectations. "The first course was a delicious soba noodle soup with crab, pork belly, and mitake mushrooms. The broth had a nice delicate flavor that was enhanced by the fattiness of the belly and the earthy mitakes. The only complaint is that the website boats this picture of the dish. That was not at all what mine looked like. My soup had small bits of belly rather than the large chunks from the picture. Misrepresentation makes meatsnbeats an angry eater." After a delicious mushroom gnocchi, the meal goes off the rails. "After these dishes our wait for the next course began. It seemed like an eternity before I finally got the nerve to say something to the manager. Our waiter was clearly avoiding eye contact as the two flanking tables were served entrees and finished eating before we were addressed. Apparently the chef was "unhappy" with the way the octopus looked and was re-doing the dish. If you are going to make me wait an extra 30 minutes because you are re-firing a dish, make sure it is amazing. Instead the grilled octopus was cold and the fish was lost amongst the strong flavor from the chorizo. This dish is definitely not worth your time. Another addition to the list of let-downs would be the fries. The fries looked amazing but after getting past the first few spuds, I came to the horrible realization that they were salty beyond repair. Seasoning isn't an art form but the National makes your typical fast food joint look like Warhol." But salvation? It comes in the form of pork. "The pork chop was incredible. I could eat this at every meal for the rest of my life. The enormous chop was cooked perfectly, extremely flavorful, juicy and was just absolute pork perfection. The pork was served with creamy, cheesy grits and chives that made me dream about a life in the South." [Meats n'Beats]

The "Really Yummy" News: An anonymous Eater commenter is nuts about this place. "Had dinner there last night - feels like a great bistro - not as plugged in as Pastis but kind of Pastis for midtown with MUCH better food. Everything was really good - the salmon tataki, the squash soup (though a bit too much cream for me), the skate grenobloise (really yummy - and only 20$ !) and the brussel sprouts. Will definitely go back - soon." [ENY]

The "Nice Option" News: Yelper Jim P. really enjoys a good hotel restaurant and it sounds like he thinks this is one of them. "The appetizer I enjoyed was the ribs. This arrived in a large bowl with about 7 or 8 large size BBQ ribs. Very meaty, and the meat basically fell off the bone. I've had better, but this was very good. Almost a meal in itself. Main course was skate, with capers, which was very tender, but a little salty for my tastes. Beautiful presentation, in a crescent moon fillet shape. For dessert, the pumpkin cake with a nice lump of gelato topped off a really nice evening. Service was good and prompt, and very helpful. This is a nice option, for after work, or if you're shopping over on 5th avenue.and you remember that you can bounce over here as an option." [Yelp]

The "No Personality" News: Yelper Vi H., on the other hand, finds the place to be lacking. "The biggest disappointment was the lack of variety in the menu. Steak frites, but no good steak (steak frites? who wants to eat that!) ? Mostly fish dishes, and unimaginative sides... They didn't give us bread till we asked for it, and it was literally cold. Like it had been sitting in the fridge. We had the ribs with pomegranate for appetizer, which was good. I had the squash soup, which was good as well--neither were mouthwatering or great. My fiance had the branzino, which is apparently their most popular dish. It was tender and cooked nicely, but nothing to get excited about. Because there wasn't anything that stuck out to me in the menu, I had the roasted chicken, and I only ate 1/4 of it... I ordered a nice Italian prosecco, but their "prosecco of the night" was a German one. Really? German prosecco? I tried it, and it was boring--like the food here. All in all, the food was good, but restaurants like these are a dime a dozen in New York... Give me SOMETHING to rave about. Maybe if they did a menu overhaul, I'd come back and try it, otherwise, don't waste your time. There is nothing "national" about The National. Just boring American food with no personality." [Yelp]

The "Horrible Meal" News: Over on Zagat Buzz, commenter Ifischer weighs in with their thoughts. "Nice atmosphere, decent service but the food was just not good. Pumpkin Soup was bland and syrup like. Artichoke Sandwich sounded great on the menu. Artichokes, roasted eggplant, hummus, feta cheese and peperoncinni. Now doesn't that sound good? It wasnt. The only flavor you could taste was the artichoke and it tasted like it came right out of a jar. Skate was covered in this thick batter like fish and chips but the flavor was so tart. Just a terrible meal. I realize most people who are not staying at the hotel would not eat here but just in case you are in the hood, dont." [Zagat Buzz]

The Twitterific News: @GaelGreene tweets, "Geoffrey Zakarian's latest hotel eatery,The National,looks great, like the smartly refreshed oldie it is,not too noisy,light on each table" @RMManhattanEd likes what he sees. "Fairly simple menu, but tasty and good for a winter's night." @fairchildonfood thinks this place is aces. "G.Zakarian has another winner in The National. Great brunch dish: poached eggs on crispy pork belly. La Caravelle Champagne perfect with it!" @007LouiseOB thins this is just what the neighborhood needed. "I love The National, Geoffrey Zakarian's new place @ The Benjamin. Have you guys been yet? It is such a breath of fresh air for Midtown East." [Twitter]

The Foursquare News: Folks over on check-in site Foursquare post some tips along with their check-ins. Jessa says, "the porkchop was very good. overall one of the best meals i've had in quite some time in new york for the price. service was also excellent!" Jahee S. also favors the pork chop. "The roasted chicken is really soft, juicy and flavorful ^^ the pork chop is well cooked with nice jus, and the squash soup is sweet..I think it's to watery.. But other might like that.." Alex Z. checked in well before the opening but still has a breakfast tip to pass along. "The Beef Hash is to die for! Also, some of the best french toast I have ever had." [Foursquare]

The National Bar And Dining Rooms

557 Lexington Ave., New York, NY