A friend and I ate last night at the National, 910 Market St. in Wilmington. This place has been open for about a month, and is trying for hipness in a big way with an all-white, vaguely 60s-modern interior. High ceilings and floor-to-ceiling draperies recall the decor of the ill-fated Vault.
My best praise is for the dining room staff, who were extremely friendly and solidly competent. But foodwise, the experience was hit or miss.
The menu leans toward Asian fusion, entrees from $16-$25. Theres a large list of what is termed as Asian tapas, including things like dumplings stuffed with duck confit, pork spring rolls, crab-shrimp cakes, etc. The list of entrees is not particularly extensive, and I was a little dismayed to see that almost every entree contained some sort of fruit or other sugary ingredient. Im not a big fan of sweet flavors in savory dishes.
When we arrived, the waiter set on our table a dish of chips made from slices of lotus root (interesting and tasty) with three sauces. The first was ginger soy, which was nice and tangy. A lemon sauce was a little odd (sort of like the inside of a lemon tart), and the third--well, from what I could tell it had been squeezed directly from the little packets of duck sauce that you get at Hong Kong Express.
As a starter we split the coconut ceviche, made with tuna, salmon, and scallops. The dish was plated interestingly, with the three fish mixes stacked in layers in a cylindrical shape, separated by pea shoots. The sauce was not citrus-based, but coconut, which meant that the fish was more raw than in traditional ceviche. While the sauce was a little heavy, each fish flavor came through nicely. Also on the plate was some pea shoot salad (undressed, which I was really happy about) and a stylized arrangement of what looked like tortilla chips with a dot of hoisin sauce on each. Im sure they werent tortilla chips (those would have had some flavor!) but I dont know what they were supposed to be. They didnt add anything to the dish besides making it look interesting.
For entrees, my friend had the lamb shank and I had red snapper. The lamb shank really was pretty good, judging from the fact that I only managed to steal a single bite. It was glazed, and on the sweet side, but not overly so. The meat was tender but had just enough bite to escape mushiness. Mashed potatoes and some braised greens came on the plate--the only quibble was with the greens, which included woody stems so thick that they were inedible. Otherwise, this dish was a winner.
Sadly, my entree was a major disappointment. The menu described my fish as crispy red snapper, accompanied by gingered snow peas and coconut rice cakes. What I got was two small pieces of battered and fried fish, cooked to the point of unrecognizability, and mostly tasteless. The gingered snow peas were nowhere to be found--the fish pieces were set on top of a stir-fry of red and yellow peppers and other vegetables. This was not at all what I wanted, although it tasted OK as stir-fried vegetables go. The coconut rice cakes were there, four deep-fried pieces around the size of golf balls. These were the best thing on the plate, again a little sweet, but not greasy at all and with a good contrast between the crispy crust and the soft rice on the inside. Most bafflingly, my plate was also loaded with a lump of unsweetened whipped cream the size of a tangerine. I presume this was meant to be creme fraiche, but the usual slightly sour taste of that ingredient didnt come through. I didnt particularly want to eat this, but the heat of the plate immediately melted it all over the rest of my food. I suppose pouring a half-cup of cream over any dish doesnt make it taste worse, but it certainly was odd in an entree like that one.
Being pretty full, we didnt have dessert. I did get a cup of decaf, which was nondescript. I like my coffee strong (even if it is decaf) and this was not.
All in all, so far the National didnt give me much reason to transfer my allegiance from Restaurant 821 across the street as my downtown fine dining standby. The food is better at both 821 and Harrys Seafood Grill, and while those places dont have the flashy decor of the National, Ive never gotten a clunker of a meal at either one. Given that the National has only been open about a month, maybe it needs some time to work out kinks in the kitchen. Ill give it one more shot. Hopefully, next time I can go there as a client so I wont have to pay for it myself!