We have eaten at The National several times since we moved to Athens, and it has always been both fantastic and disappointing. Our first visit was for our anniversary dinner about four years ago. Back then we were poor recent graduates, so shelling out a lot of money for food was a pretty big deal. My husband ate a perfectly cooked pork shoulder. I, however, was served a well done lamb chop. Well done! To me that was unforgivable, and I boycotted the restaurant for several years. I agreed to give the restaurant another chance last summer, and was served what was probably the best fish I've ever had in Athens. My whole meal was amazing; everything that a restaurant in this price point should be. My husband, however, was served an under-cooked piece of steak; he ordered it medium-rare, and got a steak with a very cold center. Since it didn't happen to me this time, no boycott was necessary. My husband has always had a soft spot for The National; he frequently goes to the restaurant for business lunches, orders the smoked salmon, and apparently it is delicious. He raves about it constantly.
We decided to go on a date to The National this weekend. I was excited; mainly because of the recent accolades the chef, Peter Dale, has been getting. Food and Wine magazine just named named Dale the Best New Chef of the Southeast. We arrived right on time for our reservations (absolutely necessary on weekend evenings), and was seated after a 5 minute wait. Our waitress was courteous and knowledgeable, and when asked questions about the menu, clearly was not just spouting off memorized lines--you could tell she knew food. This is pretty rare in a town full of college-student waitresses that likely subsist of diet coke and vodka.
Let me take a minute to talk about the decor. When the sun is still out, the restaurant is bright and cheerful. It is not, however, a romantic spot. The seating is cramped, and you are almost elbow-to-elbow with your fellow diners. The conversations are often loud and boisterous; it is certainly more of a social restaurant than a romantic one. However, when the sun sets, the restaurant gets incredibly dark. You can barely see your food; I had to use a flash on my camera for the food to even be visible in photos. If it was a quiet, intimate restaurant this might be excusable, but it is not. So it creates kind of a strange atmosphere. I personally would prefer to be able to see the food I am eating.
Okay, onto the food! We were served complimentary bread and olive oil, which was tasty. We ordered an appetizer of sauteed shrimp, which was fresh tasting.
We also both ordered pre-dinner drinks, and were both pleased with our choices. My husband ordered The National Tonic, and I ordered the Cucumber Cooler.
So far everything had been top-notch, and I was beginning to feel really confident about the rest of our dinner. When our entrees arrived, I was almost giddy with anticipation (hey, what can I say, I love food!).
I had the Crispy Pork Shoulder, served on black rice with avocado crema and hearts of palm.
The black rice was delicious, and the accompanying vegetables were crisp and fresh. The flavors went together beautifully. However, my pork shoulder was overcooked and dry. I was incredibly disappointed. It could have been a perfect meal--so close! But once again, the protein was not cooked appropriately. If this had happened only once in all my visits, I would let it slide. But this has been an issue literally every single visit to the restaurant, indicating a real problem.
My husband ordered the special; a pork chop topped piquillo peppers, on a bed of potatoes with a creamy dill sauce and fresh mixed greens.
It was phenomenal. The meat was tender and succulent. I had a bite, and it was the best pork chop I have ever eaten. It was so much more moist than my pork shoulder. A chop more tender than a shoulder--who would have thought that was possible?
I usually order a dessert, but after what I now refer to as the "Pork Debacle of 2012", I wasn't feeling it. We opted instead to go to Aromas and get their amazing cheesecake in order to finish the meal with something that always delivers.
So how do I rate a restaurant like The National? Most of what I ate was great; but the proteins are routinely cooked inappropriately. And when taking ratings into consideration, I always factor in the price. The National is not a cheap restaurant. My overcooked pork shoulder cost $25; I have gotten a better pork shoulder at Taquiera del Sol for $10. Still, I'll probably return to The National; and I'd definitely still recommend it, though with a bit of caution. Perhaps stick with vegetarian fare?