Govind Armstrong Trips Up at Cooper Square's Table 8
'If someone made this for me in their toaster oven, I'd be happy," remarked one of our party, as we peered down at a plate of flabby flatbreads perfunctorily topped with mushrooms, goat cheese, and honey. "Taco Bell," mumbled another, under her breath. Alas, we were not cozied up in the kitchen at home or cruising the drive-through. We were ensconced in seats at Table 8, the restaurant in the new Cooper Square Hotel, and things were not going well. A plate of foie gras pâté unadvisedly paired with cacao and grapefruit was passed around as a curiosity, each of us trying to figure out why it tasted so much like Bailey's Irish Cream.
It's not that the restaurant didn't have promise. Californian chef Govind Armstrong got his start at age 13, working summers under Wolfgang Puck at Spago, newly opened at the time. As Armstrong moved up, he cooked at Campanile and Patina, two of the most important restaurants in Los Angeles—his bona fides are undisputable. I was living in L.A. when Armstrong opened the first Table 8 in 2003, and word spread that his cooking was stellar. S. Irene Virbila gave the restaurant four stars in the Los Angeles Times, gushing, "I think we have a star in the making." Even the L.A. Weekly's Jonathan Gold, the most credible critic in California, seemed somewhat charmed, characterizing Armstrong's cooking as "beachy, vaguely Mediterranean California cuisine with impeccably sourced meat and fish, plenty of organic farmers-market vegetables, and a rather generous notion of the places where bacon might be appropriate." He also said that Table 8 was "painfully hip." That, at least, cannot be said of New York's branch, which seems to be mainly populated by the Real Housewives of New Jersey.
Armstrong has another Table 8 in Miami, but he's closed the L.A. restaurant in favor of a fancy burger joint called 8 Ounces. According to his bio, he's also a consulting chef for Air New Zealand and Macy's, a "culinary ambassador" to New Zealand, and a frequent guest chef aboard the Queen Mary 2 and Crystal Cruises. It seems as if he is now more invested in his brand (à la his mentor, Puck) than in his food.
There are decent dishes to be found at Table 8, but not enough of them. Although I spotted Armstrong several times in the dining room, no one seems to be minding the kitchen. Oddly, many plates are unnecessarily rich, which is certainly not a characteristic of California cuisine. Mayo is everywhere—glopped next to orbs of already unctuous burrata; flavored with ramps and squirted next to a deep-fried soft-shell crab; and zested with lemon and poured in great quantity over a pea-shoot salad.
Many plates are messy and lack focus. The roasted baby chicken might have been good, except that it's partnered with a pile of short rib ragù (overkill), roasted root vegetables, and wilted arugula—everything thrown on the plate in a heap, with no contrasting textures to speak of. And the white asparagus soup tastes mainly of butter and cream, though the bigger problem is that it's saltier than a merchant marine after a long day topside.
Speaking of salt, the "salt bar" is a confusing little gimmick—not a showcase for various salts, as has been reported, but a weird mash-up of charcuterie and ceviche appetizers. Nevertheless, a few offerings from that part of the menu are some of Table 8's most successful dishes. The lamb terrine, a pleasingly gamey puck of meat served with pickled tomato, is delicious. The jamón de Iberico, sliced thinly, is extravagantly porcine, and the rabbit sausage is tasty and lean.
Of the main courses, most of the seafood dishes are made with overfished species (red snapper, skate), leaving us with the meaty fare to choose from instead. The filet mignon, served with fresh horseradish scattered on top like snowflakes, is just fine, cooked to a nice, bloody medium-rare. Rack of lamb is also a good choice, featuring fat, bone-in chops with a bulgur salad that harbors scrumptious nuggets of spiced lamb sausage. A gigantic pork chop with mustard has deliciously crisp, fatty edges, but a dry interior. For lunch, the eight-ounce burger is a mess, but in a good way for once, dripping bloody juices and topped with blue cheese.
Some dishes have been transplanted directly from the menu of the original Table 8. Torn pasta with pan-fried sweetbreads, morels, and garlic should be great, but is a fright in execution. The pasta is overcooked, and the sauce so over-reduced and salty it reminded me of cornstarchy Chinese takeout. The sweetbreads are underseasoned and tough, and the morels, poor things, are chopped into unrecognizable bits, obscuring their lovely, honeycombed texture.
When the hotel was being built, I gaped at it from our Voice offices across the street. The white-ish glass tower, bulging from the center like a sail in the wind—or a potbelly—looms over the old brick apartment buildings and low rows of shops in the neighborhood. At street level, the yawning entryway looks like the jaws of Mordor, without the charm. The stark curve of the building is graceful in its way, but also conspicuously out of place, like it was dropped from the sky by alien invaders. Because several long-time dwellers in a nearby brick tenement refused to move, the architect was forced to redo his design to accommodate the building. Those residents' windows are now mere inches from the patio bar. (They probably wish they had settled.) I sat on the patio one night, while three businessmen loudly discussed the fact that Lamborghinis make your ass hurt.
Table 8 might have peddled skillful, sunny California cuisine to warm our blackened, crusty New York hearts. But the restaurant offers nothing but mediocrity, in a showy, shiny package.
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