Hollywood and Wine
Chef Govind Armstrong is the Zelig of contemporary California cuisine. He started out spending summers working with Wolfgang Puck at L.A.'s legendary Spago, beginning in that restaurant's inaugural year when it was the seminal spot for modern American gastronomy. Govind was thirteen years old at the time. The prodigal chef then went on to toil under the tutelage of one West Coast culinary luminary after another: Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton at Campanile; Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger at City Restaurant; and Joachim Splichal at Patina. Armstrong also put in a stint at Arzak, a Michelin three-star restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain, but returned home in 2003 when Chris Heyman and Josh Woodward brought him in as their partner at Table 8 Los Angeles. A star-studded clientele helped propel the Melrose Avenue establishment and its handsome, charismatic chef to the top of everyone's A-list (including People magazine, which in 2004 selected the now-34-year-old Govind as one of its 50 Most Beautiful People). This past January, Table 8 opened its second branch, in Ocean Drive's ritzy new Regent Hotel, which runs to Collins Avenue and from that side resembles a giant cruise ship. Hollywood comes to South Beach: A match made in marketing heaven.
If I didn't see any stars during my excursions here, maybe it's because I wasn't seated in the "exclusive fifteen-guest wine room," nor the private 40-guest dining room "for celeb and VIP clientele" (according to the eatery's press release). The restaurant for the rest of us may very well be "a massive space of all things hip, groovy, swell, and sleek," but I couldn't stop thinking of it as dining in coach. The 160 indoor seats are sectioned into small satellites orbiting a semiopen kitchen, and during successive visits, my guests and I were seated in the same cold cranny of a nook; it felt more like a hallway than a dining room. Across from our table were booths that could be curtained off for privacy. Fortunately nobody chose to do so, because that would have made things appear even starker.
I wasn't going to complain about our location, for we felt lucky to get seated at all. A dining companion had booked a reservation for four at 8:00 p.m., but upon arrival, we were told it had been rebooked as a table for seven at 10:00 p.m. Not by us, it wasn't. Another occasion brought another mixup, this time regarding the price of wine. Shaky stuff. So was service, a clan of black-clad waiters performing professionally but with an off-putting perfunctoriness ("uniforms from New York fashion house La Rok"). It took too long to get water poured, too long to get plates removed, too long to get the bread which, incidentally, was much crisper than the service. Too crisp, in fact. Considering that Govind's fame among the fabulously glam is predicated upon principles of wholesomeness, it's a disappointment to bite into crackly white bread croutons, even if they're nattily nestled in white linen and accompanied by a dish each of white bean purée and black olive tapenade.
If two beautifully creamy nuggets of pan-fried sweetbreads resting upon torn triangles of truffled pasta, and a rich, roasted chestnut-and-leek confit were a painting, rather than an appetizer, it would be hanging in the Louvre. A diced tartare of bluefin tuna was luscious, too, but surrounded by trite tidbits of mashed avocado, fried plantains, and hearts of palm. If a side order of stale-tasting potato-and-short-rib hash were a painting, it would taste only a little worse than it did as a comestible. Our waiter, we hoped through misguidedness rather than meanness, highly recommended the hash, which like an awful lot of our foods arrived lukewarm on a cold plate.
Chef Armstrong's approach has been described as no-nonsense, meaning simple presentation of top-quality meat, fish, and produce at the peak of their pizzazz. His effectiveness is therefore contingent on local farmers and producers providing him with the exceptional foodstuffs necessary to create an ever-changing menu of purity-based, market-driven, seasonal cuisine. He has had years to develop relationships with L.A.'s top-shelf procurers, just months to do so here, yet ingredients plated at the South Beach kitchen are fresh and high-end, much of it no doubt purchased from Homestead's finest. Sometimes you can taste the difference, as with the intensely sweet tomatoes that melt into a medley of escarole, roasted asparagus, and crisp bits of prosciutto, and clearly elevate a fillet of Florida grouper. Other times you might appreciate vibrant vegetables, such as mashed cauliflower and braised fennel that ride alongside a slice of local snapper but even with a perky lobster sauce, the overall effect is surprisingly flat.
One can't deny the pristineness of seafood. The snapper and grouper both sparkled, as did a nearly naked fillet of pompano, ever-so-subtly accompanied by moistly wilted leaves of butter lettuce, a sumptuous parsnip flan, cilantro-based gremolata, and a scattering of pomegranate seeds (which are evidently supplanting chopped parsley as the all-purpose restaurant garnish, but rarely contribute much beyond their gelatinous good looks). To call these flavors understated is an understatement.
Meat dishes provide far more pep, especially the American Kurobuta pork chop, a hefty, juicy wedge of pink meat with full, fresh pork flavor, framed by a thin rim of smoky, bellylike fat. It was the best chop I've sampled in a very long time, amply accompanied by the smoothest of celery root purées, the softest of gnocchi, and sautéed black kale. Also superb was New Zealand lamb, presented as a chop, loin steak, and braised shank meat aswirl in a smoky, cumin-inflected mosaic of roasted peppers, eggplant, chickpeas, and yogurt. Table 8's bright spots are brilliant.
Prices are predictable: starters $14 to $22, entrées $28 to $37. Desserts range from $9 to $14, which on first visit seemed a bargain for delights such as a dazzling plate of deep chocolate variations, or ice creams and fruit sorbets bursting with diamondlike clarity of flavor. Our return saw a precipitous drop in the quality of sweets, most evident in the ice creams, which clearly contained fewer carats.
Fortunately the wine list remains fairly constant, a smart, sinewy selection from boutique, estate-grown, mostly California vineyards. A Cab fan at our table waxed ecstatically over a plummy, not overbearing 2004 Hess Estate Allomi Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($65).
The most waxed-about feature of Table 8's open-air, 40-seat lounge, called "The Lounge," are portholes in the ceiling that peek into the Regent's glass-bottom pool above. It is the tranquil and tropical ambiance, though, aflow with breezy curtains and aglow in amber lighting, that makes this area so alluring. The bar out here pours trendy cocktails, such as watermelon-jalapeño martinis. And a small-plate menu, distinct from that of the restaurant, includes innovative lip-smackers like fried olives stuffed with chorizo, tuna confit with Meyer lemon aioli, and tomato shots with stone crab salad.
Among Chef Armstrong's signature dishes is a salt-roasted porterhouse steak, which garnered the Robb Report's much sought-after Best of the Best citation. The tricky part about getting to enjoy this apparently pleasurable porterhouse is that it isn't listed on the menu, nor mentioned by any waiter. I learned, after dining here, about it being available "only to those who know to ask." I can't help but wonder if diners in the first-class seats aren't told about it, though like, maybe, instead of the short-rib hash?
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