Hot night heaven: the National's partly sheltered beer garden strung with medicine bottle party lights is a cool retreat. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
Pull up a cocktail, settle in for cider, the National's magnificent eco-friendly beer garden is prime turf.
"It used to be an old man's pub," says consulting chef Jerry Mai. "You know, with sticky carpet, a pool table, a gravel courtyard with an arvo band."
That was until February last year when the "Nash" became the "National Hotel", now sporting a radical makeover and a modern pan-Asian menu.
Braised lamb shoulder. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
Who's responsible? Minh Nguyen, Penny Everett and Rani Doyle, a trio who - between them - own or co-own serious pub real estate, including The Corner Hotel, Northcote Social Club, Riverland, the Boatbuilders Yard, and the Newton Social Club in Sydney.
Breathe Architecture has created a seamless inside-outside design with all the visual cues that mark the pub as a modern-day player - polished concrete, exposed bricks and beams, low-hanging filament globes and reclaimed timbers.
"Almost everything you touch is recycled," Nguyen says of the fitout that's strong on sustainability. Solar panels provide energy for the hot water, toilets use untreated tank water, there's a worm farm, a herb garden on the roof, and Rooftop Honey beehives on the way.
Inside, it's "download a torch app" dark, and hard to read the "sharing is caring" menu that borrows dishes from China, Vietnam, India and Malaysia.
Jerry Mai is the consulting chef with a name-dropper CV that includes Dandelion, Gingerboy and Longrain, plus a stint at Nahm in London. It's Mai's menu but she's in the kitchen only two days a week, so I didn't actually eat her food.
Snacky starters bring steamed pork and ginger dumplings with juicy, tasty inners but too-dry wrappers. Next come ultra-salty, Indian-spiced, panko-crumbed potato croquettes, then chips that have seen too much fryer time, followed by rubbery barramundi fishcakes. So far, not so good. But the spicy lamb ribs land and are sticky and lip-smacking.
Mains are better overall but lack a balanced hand on the spicing, seeming to favour salt as the main flavour driver.
Lamb shoulder - a signature - is cooked low and slow for six hours in a master stock with coriander root, star anise, ginger, and cinnamon. It's served with half an iceberg lettuce, Vietnamese slaw and a dipping sauce. The salty meat arrives whole - ask for something to cut it with or just flake some off with your fork then bundle it all up in a lettuce cup, sang choy bao style.
If you're a chilli fan, the vego green curry, with chickpeas and pumpkin, packs a satisfying wallop.
Wagyu beef cheeks - in a peanutty curry that's a cross between rendang and red curry - need a knife to cut them and could have done with more cooking for that fall-apart texture.
Special events run regularly - anything from "pong nights" when punters do battle on the ping-pong table to pho pop-ups to make-your-own pickles (on Tuesdays) to Young Gun Hospo dinners.
Despite some food flaws, the National has plenty of spark, and kicking back in its amber-lit beer garden, with blossoming maples and good mates, it's an easy pub to like.
Do … Stay tuned for hawker Sunday sessions in summer
Don't … Expect chicken schnitzel; there isn't any
Dishes … Braised lamb shoulder (pictured)
Vibe … The National goes grand
- 03 9429 8811
- Cuisine - Asian
- Prices - Small dishes, $7-$14; large dishes, $18-$28; to share, $39-$42; desserts, $8
- Features - Bar, Licensed, Outdoor seating
- Chef(s) - Jerry Mai
- Owners - Minh Nguyen, Penny Everett and Rani Doyle
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Tues-Wed, 5pm-late; Thurs-Fri & Sun, noon-late; Sat, noon-midnight
- Author - Nina Rousseau