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At a time when competition for potential diners’ dollars is so intense that most new restaurants are even harnessing the marketing potential of Twitter, the owners of The National have taken the opposite approach. In fact, barely a peep about the 30-seat Lower East Side eatery’s opening last month can be found anywhere — but that’s intentional.“We are perfectionists, and we wanted to make sure everything was right,” explains Julie Dickstein, who co-owns The National with boyfriend Jeremy Hogeland, about flying under the radar.The first-time restaurateurs have been careful to take their time, and their personal touches are everywhere. Five years ago, before they had even found a space, the duo began collecting the items that now fill the subway-tiled, quirky interior. They then spent over a year renovating the Rivington Street space (next door to Freeman’s) and opened first as an all-day espresso bar serving cult favorite Counter Culture coffee. Then a month ago, they quietly began serving dinner. The menu, which changes daily, is based on the couple’s love of travel and memories of favorite meals: the name is a spin on the Hotel Nacional de Cuba and the Baja fish taco dish was a special request from the pair to their head chef Zoë Feigenbaum. (It’s the first time at the helm for the French Culinary Institute-trained 27-year-old, a former book publicist who left publishing to do a stage at Per Se).
Feigenbaum’s own tastes are represented as well. Her eclectic offerings recently included jerk pork ribs with potato salad, rainbow chard and pineapple, alongside a Maine lobster roll and French bistro-style mussels. “It’s meant to capture the schizophrenic nature of how New Yorkers eat: dim sum to Korean barbeque to Southern food. There are no boundaries,” says Feigenbaum. She also recruited bartender Cervantes Medina, an alum of Von and Little Branch, to create the cocktail menu, which includes stalwarts like a whisky sour, caipirinha, Sazerac and the house creation, the VG — a gourmet reinvention of the run-of-the-mill vodka and grapefruit juice. So far, it seems Dickstein and Hogeland’s quiet approach has paid off, as crews of downtowners have been flocking based on strong word of mouth reviews. “It’s been a labor of love and now everything is falling into place,” says Dickstein.
This story first appeared in the August 31, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The National, 8 Rivington Street; 212.777.2177