Aspiring chefs who arrive in New York with dreams of fame and fortune tend to plot their paths to greatness in one of two ways. Most slink into town anonymously, at a relatively young age, and work their way up the greasy kitchen pole, from commis to sous-chef to restaurant chef to superstar. Then there are those poor deluded souls who attempt to ride into the city from the provinces in mid-career, with their reputations preceding them and all guns blazing. The second path, as out-of-town chefs from Alain Ducasse (from the province of Paris) to Gordon Ramsay (from the province of London) have discovered, is infinitely more precarious. New Yorkers used to blindly worship chefs from far away, but not anymore. Nowadays, we prefer to anoint humble artisans (David Chang, April Bloomfield) who have slaved for suitable periods of time in anonymous kitchens around town. Conversely, we take an almost perverse delight in trashing out-of-town cooks and their lofty out-of-town reputations.
Govind Armstrong (from the province of Los Angeles) doesn’t have an overly inflated reputation, as glamorous non–New York chefs go. He does have his own Wikipedia page, however, and unlike, say, Alain Ducasse, he was named one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful,” in 2004. Armstrong began working for Wolfgang Puck at the age of 13, and now runs an upscale burger joint in L.A. called 8 oz., and his restaurant in Miami, Florida, Table 8. The New York branch of this operation, also called Table 8, opened last month on the ground floor of a futuristic, sail-like structure, the Cooper Square Hotel. The billowing white glass spire (designed by the architect Carlos Zapata), simultaneously arresting and comically out of place, looks like it was left behind, among the raggedy Bowery brownstones, by a receding glitzy tide. But there’s nothing futuristic about Armstrong’s restaurant, which is set in a glassed-off box in the back. The glass walls are stenciled with the outlines of green trees, but the tables are jammed together, the ceilings are low, and late in the evening the decibel level becomes so intense it makes your teeth hurt.
“I feel like I’m back in Dallas,” one of my dining companions said, and it’s true. With its cramped dining bar, generic, washed-out black-and-brown décor, and little outdoor patio scattered with empty wood tables (which appear to have been purchased directly from the Smith & Hawken remnant catalogue), Table 8 doesn’t look very much like a New York restaurant. But then, like lots of new hotel restaurants around town, it isn’t really a New York restaurant at all. It’s an out-of-towner’s restaurant, designed by out-of-towners to give their out-of-town guests (including those from Long Island and New Jersey) the illusion that they’re actually dining in New York. Flatbread is sort of chic these days, so Armstrong sprinkles his with fennel honey, mushrooms, and fateful gobs of goat cheese. Salt was a foodie craze in the city several years ago, so there is a “Salt Bar” section of the menu that features an array of vaguely Italianate small-plates dishes (chunky mortadella, good, soft lamb terrine, shreds of scallop crudo with kumquats), all of which have been aggressively oversprinkled with arcane varieties of salt.
Among the appetizers, I enjoyed my sparrow-size portion of grilled quail (with spring beans and a polenta mixed with wild leeks), but the prawn-and-sweet-pea-shoots salad with a pistachio vinaigrette was drastically overseasoned with Maldon salt and a few too many squirts of lemon. Armstrong is a diligent seasonal cook, however, and he serves up a smooth white-asparagus soup (stippled with drops of balsamic) and tasty, crunchy portions of soft-shell crab served with ribbons of shaved asparagus and a freshly whipped aïoli flavored with spring ramps. Less good are the seared scallops (over a flat, slightly flavorless succotash) and slightly under-grilled chunks of octopus, which were served with slivers of Moroccan olive. The offal freaks at my table enjoyed the sweetbreads, however (they’re piled, with garlic and morels, on sheets of torn pasta), and for those of you who can’t get enough goat cheese, I recommend the Spanish “caña de cabra,” fried in bread crumbs and served with arugula, avocado, and a wedge of red onion sweetened with more balsamic.
Like lots of chefs who are eager to make an impression on the jaded, peevish rabble of New York City diners, Armstrong doesn’t hesitate to use two (or even three) ingredients when one will do. The red snapper I sampled did not necessarily benefit from the little bed of lobster on which it rested (though the lobster sauce was okay), and my portion of grilled baby chicken would have tasted more chickenlike without the accompanying mound of short-rib hash. The best of these busy concoctions (“Everything’s a little drenched,” someone said) was the skate ($19, with fregola, cockles, and saffron broth); the worst was the funky halibut fillet ($22), made funkier by soupy, greenish fava beans and a needless smear of smoked halibut on a slim, wet piece of toast. Both the filet mignon (with charred leeks) and the truncheon-size lamb chops (with a warm bulgur salad) were underdone when I ordered them, but everyone liked the pink sliced duck breast, which the chef plates, in a bizarrely successful West Coast way, with sunchokes and candied kumquats.
There are certain impediments to the enjoyment of Armstrong’s kumquat-accented duck, however. We have already mentioned the incessant, babbling wall of sound at Table 8. Then there are the servers, who bombard the tiny tables like flocks of ocean birds, proffering bread trays and endless jugs of water. And did we mention the confusing unisex bathrooms, which are situated somewhere deep beneath the hotel and require a Sherpa to reach? Should you survive these tribulations at the conclusion of your meal, however, you will find a series of surprisingly accomplished desserts. The de rigueur chocolate item (a kind of cake, I think) is pleasantly chocolaty and decked with candied cherries. There’s a professionally smooth panna cotta, too, and a wedge of plum tart with a spoonful of gently melting ice cream. The coffee parfait is a cool little hockey puck of caffeinated goodness, and the warm crème brûlée is scented, unexpectedly, with cardamom, and crunchy and hot on its sugared top, just the way we churlish New Yorkers like it.