May 18, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Govind Armstrong and Table 8 Move East

Crusty giant shrimp on salad with peas, peashots and pistachio has welcome pizazz. Photo: Steven Richter 
Crusty giant shrimp on salad with peas, peashoots, pistachio and welcome pizazz. Photo: Steven Richter

        Yes, I did love my one dinner at Table 8 on Melrose in LA.  And I found chef/owner Govind Armstrong not just cute – big brown eyes, dreadlocks flying – but remarkably endearing in the week we spent together filming the wild, doomed “Celebrity Cooking Showdown” – a whisking with the stars wannabe that, alas, wasn’t.  There was a certain “we’re-all-in-this-together-ness” as we went under. 

I got to know Govind while filming “Celebrity Cooking Showdown.” Photo: Steven Richter

        So I want this Table 8 twiglet in the new, ambitious 21-story Cooper Square Hotel to be good.  Not just for the new unbound Bowery, or for the city’s vitality, or for New York’s attention deficited gourmands, but for a young Californian who was friendly between takes.  Of course, the truth is I don’t quite remember anything I ate at Armstrong’s place in L.A., so my expectations at this first tasting – five nights old – are not at a dangerous level. Contentment creeps in gradually with the first bite of lime-marinated fluke crudo with a surprise chili kick, and the crunch of crisp soft shell crab with a tangy salad of shaved asparagus and ramp aioli. Sweet pea salad with two juicy, outsize, head-on prawns might be the menu’s catnip for timid eaters.  Thus I’m caught by the delicious surprise complexity of pea and pea shoots with bits of nut in pistachio vinaigrette against the salty crust of the sea creatures.  And while celery heart salad, cherry tomatoes and pitted Moroccan olives are hardly original in the multitudes of octopus pitches around town, a mating of flavor and texture this skilled is rare.
Again a sprightly salad doubles the pleasure quotient of soft shell crab.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Reaching a comfort zone has not been easy for us tonight. We’ve had to switch tables, from the dark of the glass wall in front of the garden, to the full cacophony and a bit more light in the center of the room. Not even padded walls mute the blare. Something in the acoustics of the low-ceilinged space makes it easier to hear conversation at a faraway table than our own. Or is everyone shouting? I will swear there is music but all I hear is the bump of the bass.  “My name is Stefan and I will be your server tonight,” is a preamble guaranteed to put me on edge. Is it the old fogey in me again? I teethed on formal French service and I just don’t want intimacy and folksiness.  Well, okay…in a diner I’ll smile. But in fact, Stefan’s sincerity and cheerleader spirit kind of grows on me. Suddenly it seems almost innocent and very LaLa land. I love when he tells Ava he tried her rejected gingered raspberry margarita and she was right, it did taste like cough medicine and he would inform the management.

Here’s that toss of bird and short ribs surrounded by bowls of “accents.” Photo: Steven Richter

        In a burst of exuberance our friend Barry orders all five “small accents,” as they are dubbed. What great makings for a vegetarian’s dinner at just $3 to $5: raw baby spinach with grilled watermelon, pickled vegetable crudités with garlic aioli, cauliflower a la plancha with dill and capers, thinnest grilled broccolini with chili and garlic, and our favorite, braised turnips and radishes in warm anchovy vinaigrette. Entrees arrive and instantly the table is paved with food.

        Most of the toasted bread crumbs have disappeared by the time I get to taste Armstrong’s lush signature linguine with parsley, lemon and ricotta. And for me a bowl of crusty pan-fried sweetbreads with stewed spring garlic and morels really needs more pasta.  But both dark meat and chicken breast emerge from the grill loaded with juicy flavor in a marvelous tossup on short rib hash with cippolini and arugula salad.  Warm bulgar salad and Merguez sausage make a delicious rubble for two double lamb chops – first-rate lamb, first-rate cooking. These dishes come from Govind’s California sensibility. But once he feels secure that his concept works and Table 8 is humming, he and executive chef/chef de cuisine Willis Loughhead (Modern, Country, the Miami Ritz Carlton) will be creating new dishes together. 

Lamb again but perfectly cooked and suavely decked out on a tasty rubble. Photo: Steven Richter 

        Nothing on the menu is revolutionary. I see no techniques likely to be patented.  But halibut with favas and smoked halibut toast or wild tilefish with warm potato salad and lobster sauce, and duck with sunchoke, hazelnuts and kumquat are just different enough to make me think about returning, dim and din notwithstanding.  The savvy and compassion of the pricing certainly helps.  If Armstrong and his hotel partners had a more upscale concept in mind when he signed on to handle all food service four years ago, good sense prevails at the moment.  

        Starters range from $9 to $12 with marinated small tastes of crudo, salumi and terrines, and rabbit sausage or venison braesola listed under the rubrique, “Salt,” tagged at just $3 to $6.  Entrees start at $19 and run to $29 for a filet mignon. Pastas are $14 and $18; half portions are half price. An addition recited by your waiter, not on the menu – where it might pollute the aura of gentle pricing is a porterhouse for two “cooked in salt with three different salts on top” at $58 per person, “huge” the chef promises. Desserts are $9.

Almond apricot pie with caramel ice cream, salted of course. Photo: Steven Richter

        One for the table is our usual indulgence.  I choose a spirited apricot tart with caramel ice cream – salted of course, in the current vogue.  But then from the kitchen come gifts – warm chocolate cake with cherry compote, a coffee parfait with candied kumquats and malt ice cream, and a plate of irresistible cookies, and yes, more salt on chocolate wafers. 
        Speaking with Govind on the phone next day, I discover he has fallen in love with the city – smitten with the street culture and the idea of not needing a car. “I’ve moved to New York,” he announces.
        Spontaneously, New York chauvinist that I am, I shift from my critical journalist mode to a kindly great aunt voice. “You must do something about the salt thing,” I warn him. “On your menu it says ‘Salt.’ What does that mean?”
        “We plan to have more items,” he says “Items we cure ourselves.”
        Clearly he has not been a New Yorker long enough to notice New York City’s announced campaign against excess salt in restaurants and packaged food. Having saved us from smoke and trans fats, the city’s chief medical officer Dr. Thomas R. Frieden recently singled out salt as his next cause. Of course that was before swine flu and being summoned to Washington by Obama to lead the Center for Disease Control.
        “Frieden may leave us to cure in our own salt,” I admit.  “And not everyone thinks salt is harmful.  But it wouldn’t hurt to find a more politically correct name. And your porterhouse in salt with three salts on top.  And the salty desserts… Just something to think about.”
        What could he call it?  Raw and Cured. No Holds Barred. The Chef’s Whimsy. I didn’t offer any suggestions.  If I were a restaurant consultant rather than a critic, I might be rich.

        I left him thinking about lunch. It begins officially today. In the garden when weather permits. Breakfast is next.  And then brunch.

25 Cooper Square between 5th and 6th Streets. 212 475 8200. Open daily, 7 to 11am, noon to 3:30 pm, and 6 to 11 pm

Patina Restaurant Group