Inauguration night at The National

February 5, 2009

It’s no secret, my favorite restaurant in Athens, if not the universe. Five & Ten is a place that changed our dining-out lives from the very first time we went. I’ve been brought almost to tears, on multiple occasions, by tastes of heaven enjoyed in their accessible dining room. Once we experienced it, all other restaurants became a disappointment; so we stopped eating out at the others, instead putting that monthly budget into a savings account, so we could afford to go all-out at the eatery once every 3 months. An anecdote of my near-idolatry: a crisp fall afternoon a few years ago, I ran into the head chef (Hugh Acheson) and, upon recognition, was so starstruck that I stood in the wine shop and pointed at him, mouth agape, totally speechless. As he looked quizzically at the stranger pointing directly at him, and as I came to my senses and found my voice, all I could say, in a barely audible whisper of awe, was, “You’re the chef.”

So a couple years ago, when we heard murmurings of a new restaurant opening with our beloved Hugh at least partly at the helm, we got excited. The story we heard was that his sous chef from the Five and Dime was branching out, starting a new place called The National. We went the first weekend they were open.

The restaurant is beautiful, warm, and comfortable, without an ounce of stuffiness. Oilcloth table covers overlay white linen cloths, lending a unifying white horizon line without the fear of that accidental drop of red wine marring a previously spotless table. It was exactly the level of charm and comfort we had come to enjoy at 5&10; and for the first weekend, the food wasn’t bad. If I remember correctly (it has been a while), the menu was heavy on Mediterranean inspiration. Hummus, pizzas, and the like. It was solid in flavor and execution (the hummus was the best I’d ever had); but it was no 5&10. We went a few times over the course of the next year or so, and while I was never wildly disappointed, I was also never wowed, and always thought of it as a nice restaurant that might make it to the top of the list, in another town — a town woefully without an experience like the one we have right down the street.

So Inauguration night, Tim had a dinner meeting at The National, and I was graciously extended an invitation to join by the powers that be. The mood that night was festive — everyone was charged with the excitement of the historical day. It was frigidly cold, by Georgia standards, and I was thankful to sit down at the table, warm in the cozy atmosphere, and have a glass of red wine poured for my taking. Tim and I had checked out the menu online earlier in the day, and were both encouraged by and excited about the prospects.

The specials were what won our heart, start to finish. For a starter, I’d had in mind to try the patatas bravas, or homefries with spicy-tomato sauce and aioli; but our server convinced us to instead opt for a pizzette, which is exactly what it sounds like — a small pizza. The special one for the night was topped with roasted grapes, gorgonzola, arugula (say no more!), and walnuts. And I’ve had pizzas similar to this before, but somehow this one was better. I was too concerned about getting my second piece of a somewhat communal appetizer without appearing stingy to pay attention to the actual reasons this pizza was able to put a spin on a somewhat done combination. Oh, well. I hadn’t been planning to write about the night; I was caught off-guard.

But that phrase doesn’t begin to describe what was done to us by our entrées; if the appetizer caught us unaware, the main course delivered a knockout punch. Again, two specials: a duck breast and a braised pork shoulder. Over the course of the two weeks that have passed without my being able to sit and fully write about this experience, I forgot many details. So I called the restaurant, and posed my predicament of needing a memory-refresher to the person who answered the phone. He took my name and number, and later that day I got a call from Peter Dale, the chef (not to be confused with The Chef [see paragraph 1], but I was still a bit flustered, speaking on the phone with a person who can create food like what we ate). He was happy to oblige; once he began talking, it was like I could taste it all over again.

The duck breast was scored and crisped in the pan, then finished off in the oven. It was served beside red rice (which is a French variety that is heavy on the starch, making for a creamier texture) with dried currants and pine nuts. Roasted baby carrots, fennel and leeks accompanied the perfectly-cooked duck, with an herb salsa verde (I believe the herbs were mint, basil and parsley) and a pomegranate jus (Peter explained how they made this, and it included a heavy reduction and the addition of pomegranate molasses; but I can’t remember the exact process). As I type this, I think to myself man, it sounds like a lot was going on in that dishalmost too much. But it wasn’t too much. Not at all. It was just right. I started with the duck, and became more startlingly aware of how good it was with each passing bite. I lost the ability to keep up with conversation (we were at a table of 12 people). Even though Tim was verbalizing his characteristic grunts of approval over the pork, I was secretly wondering how to keep the duck all to myself. But alas, we made our half-way switch, and it was a good thing.

The pork shoulder was pre-braised, then crisped in individual portions — and this process must have been the secret to its scrumtrulecent texture. Fall-apart tender, with the added bonus of crispiness in every bite. Served aside: red beans that had been braised in ham scraps and a romaine/cilantro slaw (vinaigrette-based), with an avocado sauce, topped with pickled banana peppers. The pork left me with real, gutteral feelings of pity for the rest of our table, almost all of whom were eating fish (which I’m sure was also quite tasty). It was a moment when I was so happy to be carnivorous and un-kosher, I almost stood on the table and shouted my message to the masses. I’ve mentioned before that I have a bias against cilantro; but I didn’t even know it was there — which tells me it was used in moderation, and in a definitive supporting roll. The pickled banana peppers pushed the whole dish over-the-top, and made it something wholly new and exciting.

The National. It’s not what I thought it was. It has come into its own; probably a long time ago, and I missed the transition. But still, it’s good to know. The knowledge leaves me shaking my head, wondering how in the world a town the size of Athens can support this much incredible food. There are handfuls of cities with not a single restaurant even in the same ballpark as some of our eateries, and here we are with two incredible destinations for high-end dining, and a handful of excellent options for your weekly take-out. I know the town is known for its music history, but what defines it now, for me, is the food. We probably won’t be in Athens forever, and the day we leave will be a sad one for many reasons; but up near the top of the list will be the culinary experiences that will continue, on a nightly basis, without us.

Which leads me to the conclusion: if someone could just get that good bakery going, we might not ever leave.

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