Its a terrible and telling moment when, squeezing into your place along the banquette, your butt manages to tip two big drinks onto your dining companions lap. Your companion isnt happy, but rapidly rallies, through friendship, into forgiveness. What is also telling, of course, is how the restaurant staff responds and at the elegant new Table 8 the other night, they did so with humor, lightness, reassurance and efficiency, as if they actually enjoyed the opportunity to be of particular service. Everything, soaked or not, was swiftly replaced: new tablecloths and full new drinks, a whole new plank of warm sourdough bread. By the time order was fully restored, we were pretty much in love with the place.
Which was not what I had anticipated. The first time I visited Table 8, it was just three weeks old. I was part of a large party, several members of whom were friends and champions of the chef. This, I assumed, would probably get us special treatment. But the kitchen was slow, the staff was not on top of things, and the ambitious Cal-French food was under-realized and underwhelming, full of little mistakes overcooked this, under-seasoned that. If this was special treatment, pity the common customer.
Chef-owner Govind Armstrong had previously been at the beautiful but short-lived Chadwick in Beverly Hills with Benjamin Ford, and what disappointed me in that restaurant very high prices and a lackluster treatment of fabulous ingredients I feared would prove true here as well. Table 8, I thought quite mistakenly was going to be one more club-style restaurant focused on becoming a scene rather than on serious, professionally cooked food. I was not alone in this assessment.
Throughout the meal I could hear the gong, one person said of that evening. That low, steady, depressing gong of failure.
How wrong we were. Now, two and a half months later, Table 8 is up and running like clockwork, the food is terrific, the clientele mixed and lively all of which proves how important it is to give new places several chances.
Table 8 named for the table number at Chadwick where the owners met is located in the space that was formerly Bouchon, a yellow-walled Lyonnaise bistro crammed with tables, chairs and photographs of horses. Bouchons hanging opaque glass lamps remain, as does the dark-wood bar. Otherwise, the space is now sleek, sophisticated, a little formal, even a touch austere. A warm beige predominates; light behind the banquettes is diffused by textured plexiglass screens. The noise level is beautifully inoffensive. The atmosphere is not as stiff as Sonas or as clattery and close as AOCs or quite as grand as Graces. Its bustling, though, and civilized, and thanks to the professional, good-humored wait staff, an easy and enjoyable place to be.
The food, as it came from the kitchen, had the unmistakable aura of skill and competence, starting with a simple oak leaf salad with beets and feta cheese that glistened with excellent oil and the fine filigree crunch of good sea salt small touches that add up.
Scallops, sweet and firm and lightly cooked, were perched on a cauliflower mash whose soft pithiness was punctuated with the pleasurable grittiness of buttery toasted bread crumbs delicious. A Dungeness crab fritter was not your standard crab cake, but more a thin pancake, crisped on its edges, the moist crab interspersed with slippery crepes and served with a dollop of rich mayonnaise and a bracing, salty mixed herb salad great balance.
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Entrées were as intelligently put together. New Zealand venison, cooked medium rare as per the chefs choice, was a double chop sliced into two after grilling. So it was crusty and charred on the outside while dense, ruddy and juicy within. Meaty, not gamy, lean yet incredibly flavorful, it was possibly the tastiest, clearest venison Ive eaten. Mashed root vegetables carrots and parsnips picked up the sweetness of the meat, and savory cabbage was so nicely braised, it was both browned and crisped, bright green and tender.
As testimony to the chefs range, his fluke, a delicate white flounder-type flatfish, came as carefully composed as the venison, but from a completely different angle. While the venison was wintry and hearty, the delicacy and subtlety of the fish was accentuated by a layer of braised leeks and a bed of soft rectangular potato gnocchi as white and almost as fluffy as clouds. Tiny cubes of deeply seasoned celeriac scattered around this construction added sharp, tasty hints of intense, salty celery flavor and a break in the subtlety. The liveliness and play of the food, the smart attentions paid to small details accumulate. Add the excellent service, the pretty room, and Table 8 is against my expectations an undeniable hit.
Sometimes, its a pleasure to be proven wrong.
Table 8, 7661 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 782-8258. Dinner Mon.Thurs., 610:30 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 611 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. Entrées, $18$27. AE, DC, MC, V.