At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, the area outside of the Walk on Water Missionary in downtown Athens is lined with chairs. A group of people of different ages and colors fan themselves, trying to stave off the still-oppressive summer heat as a man on the sidewalk addresses them. His topic for the evening is sin and sinners, and it's his opinion that there are a lot of both in this world. Next door, sandwiched between the Missionary and the Ciné art-house movie theater, the National is open for business.
Aegean blue accents and sweet, flowered tablecloths flank the restaurant's cool white walls, and create an atmosphere that feels both modern and lived in, both Southern and Mediterranean. The small bar area combines the main dining room's clean colors with worn-looking wooden shelves filled with bottles and curios. On the wall opposite the bar, a huge, museum-quality framed photo depicts the members of OutKast lounging in shoe-shine chairs.
Perhaps it's the wide-open, small-town streets outside, or perhaps it's that preacher on the sidewalk next door, but the South feels a lot closer in this particular nook of the state than it does in Atlanta's more conceptually Southern restaurants. The National is Hugh Acheson's second restaurant, the first being Athens' highly acclaimed Five and Ten. Acheson, along with chef Peter Dale, is working with a Mediterranean theme to channel the European feel of casual, everyday neighborhood eating. The bar opens at 8 a.m. with coffee and pastries, and stays open until 2 a.m. Wines are delightfully eclectic, mainly European, and served in 3-ounce and 6-ounce servings (or by the bottle, of course). Prices are reasonable – by Atlanta standards they're outrageously low.
The Mediterranean theme extends to all reaches of the menu, but without feeling forced or trying to touch the greatest hits of any one nation's foods. Spain, North Africa, Lebanon, Greece and Italy are all represented in one way or another (the menu sections are spelled out in Spanish, Italian and English), but each provides inspiration rather than recipes.
Early in the summer, a cool cucumber gazpacho brightened with vinegar was as refreshing as a burst of ocean air. By contrast, the broiled Spanish chorizo imparted piquant earth tones softened with sweet caramelized apple.
A recent special of sautéed chicken livers over grilled bread was cloaked in the mellow tune that sherry sings, not heard often enough in cooking these days. Galician green frying peppers are sautéed in olive oil and sea salt. The menu warns that most are mild and some are spicy, and man are those spicy ones fiery. My first bite so thoroughly burned my mouth that every other sweet vegetal bite seemed hotter than it was.
The National offers what may be the best vegetable plate I've ever had. Chickpeas are tossed with crunchy fresh okra and topped with yogurt and harissa, a deep, musky garlic-and-chili sauce. Nestled alongside are crunchy stalks of asparagus, lightly dressed and topped with whole pistachios. Watercress tabbouleh and sugar snap peas round out the plate. The variance of flavors and textures makes eating the dish an experience akin to frolicking through an overgrown summer vegetable garden.
Locally sourced ingredients are twisted cleverly into the Mediterranean theme, like when Dale wraps Benton's country ham around a hake filet, evoking the classic prosciutto-wrapped fish over brandade (salt cod mixed with mashed potatoes). The National's version opts for a mild yet rich brandade, but puckery pickled local tomatoes combat the whole dish's heavy factor beautifully. Balance, flavor, beauty and invention – all the players are here.
Servers are young, professional and knowledgeable, uniformed only in aprons over their varied street clothes. "Is he even old enough to drink?" my dining companion asked me after our waiter told us authoritatively about the low sweetness in a chosen chenin blanc from the Loire. Old enough or not, his understanding of service and tone was perfectly grown-up.
And that's exactly what the National offers – a restaurant that underneath its youthful exterior is quite serious about quality, service and wine. We're starting to see restaurants like this in Atlanta – places that are as fun as they are accomplished, as unpretentious as they are exacting. It's a welcome turn in our dining landscape, but there are still many things Atlanta establishments could learn from looking to the National's model.