Cooper Square Hotel, 25 Cooper Square, New York NY (at 5th Street; map); 212-475-5700; table8restaurants.com
Service: Curiously slow considering the number of servers, but friendly if not especially knowledgeable about the menu
Setting: Sleek modern room ensconced in a sleek, modern hotel
Compare It To:Apiary, Freemans, Allen & Delancy
Must Haves: Cauliflower, rabbit sausage, red snapper, coffee parfait
Cost: Salt bar items, $3 to $6; appetizers, $9 to $16; mains, $22 to $29
Table 8 is ensconced in the back of the recently opened Cooper Square Hotel, the gleaming glass edifice that towers over its tenement neighbors and is surely one of the most stark representations of the "new" Bowery. It is one of those ambitious projects that would never be contemplated now because of the recession. It is, paradoxically, both thoroughly modern and an anachronism, conceptualized and executed in a time before we knew the true perils of our prosperity. In a way, Table 8 suffers from the same problem.
The menu is a fairly ambitious New American–California affair with strong Mediterranean influences, featuring a "salt" bar (cured meats and crudo) as well as composed dishes. Prices are somewhat lower than might be expected given the relative complexity of the menu, but the portion sizes are quite stingy and the execution leaves something to be desired. Certainly it is not in keeping with the value-minded zeitgeist of New York diners, but perhaps being situated in a high-priced hotel mitigates this.
The proceedings started on a positive note. A rabbit sausage was delicious: tangy, smoky, peppery, and laced with citrus. The cauliflower—cooked on the plancha and served with dill, capers, and parsley—was equally delicious. But the fluke was unsettlingly fishy, not even the crunchy chili could mask its insipid flavor, and the duck prosciutto was too oily, its flavor perhaps a tad too intense, lacking the sweetness and subtly that the process is capable of eliciting. Try the versions of the dish at Belcourt down the street or over at WD-50 instead to taste the dish's true potential.
The flatbread, which has its own section on the menu, lists honey, mushrooms, goat cheese, and thyme—as though you had a choice of one of the toppings, but actually all of them are piled on. The dish was disappointing, the bread refrigerator-cold, the toppings a bit of a hodgepodge of flavors, and, because the bread was so soft, virtually no textural distinction. A linguine with parsley, oily breadcrumbs, ricotta, and lemon could better be described as death by citrus. Unfortunately, of the two pastas on the menu, it was the least disappointing.
The pan-fried sweetbreads served over torn pasta, stewed garlic, and morels had far too much going on—none of it particularly compelling. The thick, waxy sheets of pasta tasted as if they had sat around a bit too long, and the sweetbreads were so heavily crusted in breadcrumbs that they tasted like little else.
A similar malady plagues the soft shell crabs, whose primary flavor is cornmeal. Table 8 focuses on seasonal ingredients; with the city being awash in soft shell crabs, they are, not surprisingly, available on both the lunch and dinner menus. The lunch serving is rather expensive for one crab over some mushy succotash for $16.
The grilled baby chicken served over a soupy and tepid polenta was a resounding disappointment—the stingy portion of meat being either slightly rubbery or overcooked. Most cloying was the $22 price.
The red snapper served on a warm potato salad with a rich, creamy sauce dotted with morsels of lobster was probably the highlight of the mains that I sampled. Aside from the fish itself being slightly dry, it was a pleasantly composed dish.
A perfectly cooked duck breast was marred by a bizarre saucing that tasted like bouillon cube. Paired with sunchokes, hazelnut, and kumquat, the dish causes sensory overload; there are so many different flavors going on that you can't fit them all on the fork at the same time.
Things at least end on a positive note. The most delightful and delicious thing I ate was the coffee parfait that comes strewn with candied streusel, candied kumquat, and a dollop of malt ice cream. But the almond apricot tart and complimentary doughnuts were also enjoyable. If only the rest of the menu could have been as pleasurable.
There is something somewhat safe about opening a restaurant in a hotel, since a lot of the people who eat there are from out of town and might not necessarily know how good the food in the immediate neighborhood is. And the food in the East Village can be very good.
Take Apiary, a few blocks to the north. As with Table 8, Apiary offers seasonal New American cuisine in a sleek modern environment, but the result is far more successful. I suspect that if Table 8 were a freestanding restaurant, away from the nurturing womb of a hotel, it would soon go the way of Armstrong's Table 8 in Los Angeles—it would become a burger joint.
The high-minded intent of the cuisine does not translate in execution, there are far too many lapses in consistency, and the prices are high (especially for the rather meager portion sizes that are served). But given its location in a swank hotel, Table 8 will have an audience that, if not exactly captive, is at least embedded.
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