7661 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood CA 90046 (map);
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Another celebrity chef takes on the burger and delivers fare that's just fair
Want Fries with That? Yes, if you are going for the combo as it's a solid deal. If not, the other chefified sides tempt
Notes: Mon. to Sat., 11:30 a.m. - 2 a.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m. - 12 a.m.
Combos can be had with soda or beer before 7 p.m. and there's a Suds & Slider Sampler always on offer at $16
When fine dining chefs take on the hamburger, they seem to head in one of two directions. In the first turn, the burger becomes a canvas for their wild imaginings and ingredient fascinations, resulting in abstractions that demand to be eaten under very specific rules. That is to say, the burger becomes one definitive thing that is to be eaten one very specific way. Think Daniel Boulud's db Bistro, foie gras-filled, ready-for-food-profile creation, or the have-it-my-way-or-get-out version at Father's Office. These iterations tend to be interesting meals, but in the final analysis, don't really qualify as hamburgers.
The second path of 'the chef's burger' leads toward hyper-customization. Cheese? They'll offer you six options (three of them you've never heard of). Toppings? The choices can run into the teens and often include vegetables that could pass as high-end side dishes. It's as though the argument is, "Burgers are good, they just need some high-end accoutrement."
Govind Armstrong's 8 oz. (Burger Bar) falls into the second category. His entrant in the burger-themed restaurant competition is a re-working of the Melrose Avenue location that was home to his former, restaurant-of-the-moment, Table 8. The original spot was the culmination of a culinary career that dates all the way back to the early days of Spago, where Armstrong is said to have begun working at a mere 13 years of age. Child labor laws be damned, Armstrong continued on through some of the great West Coast kitchens (City Restaurant, Campanile, et al) before opening Table 8. It was-for a time-the "it" restaurant in L.A. Set amidst the Melrose Avenue shopping strip (think Bleecker Street-lite), Table 8 had a casual, elegant feel that welcomed the famous, the wealthy, and (of course) the aspirational.
The motivation for the overhaul of Table 8 (and the birth of 8 oz. in its stead) will have to-like most origin stories-remain a web of competing narratives. Let's concern ourselves with what's happening now: burgers. Full of hope and fancy, I stopped in for lunch the other day. What happened is, even now, a puzzling story of missteps and almost there's. Let's sort it out.
Off To A Good Start
Fate smiled on my afternoon as I drove up to 7661 Melrose. An empty meter-spot right in front of the restaurant awaited me. A dollar in quarters for parking feels like a prize in L.A.
Walking up to the restaurant, I know that I am in for a little more than a normal burger stop, as there is a valet stand (lucky for me, dormant during the day) awaiting a dinner rush. How many times has someone parked your car for you at your local burger spot?
I took a seat in a booth at the back of the surprisingly large space. At first, I enjoyed my perch. It afforded me a nice vantage point from which to take in the late afternoon comings and goings of the restaurant. It seemed ideal until it became clear that I was the forgotten patron on this day. I was able to order a root beer float within a few minutes, but after it arrived my ability to blend into the scenery got the better of the waitstaff.
No matter. I scribbled notes and studied the menu. It's a pleasing assortment of burgers, appetizers, salads, and sandwiches. There are many that seem worthy of attention, but we both know why I'm here. I settled on the Classic (6-ounce patty) with fries and a drink (call it a combo and it goes for a fair $12 before 7 p.m.). The House blend is sirloin, tri-tip, short rib, and chuck that's cured in a Himalayan salt-tiled locker. (Holy Himalayan salt-tiled locker! You didn't have to go through all that trouble for me, but I'm happy to try it.)
Eventually my waiter found me hiding in my booth. Along with the burger and fries I asked for the Mini Kobe Corndogs with purple mustard. These folks at 8 oz. don't mess around. Kobe hot dogs? Once again, you needn't have gone through the trouble, but hey, I'm not complaining (yet).
The Waiting Game
So I wait. Again, no big deal. I'm good with alone time, plus I've got all that burger-reviewer observing to do.
Let's talk about the look of the place. I was a bit confused by the mixture of design elements: a pressed tin ceiling, large, beveled mirrors, recycled (unfinished) wood paneling, subway tile, polished concrete floors, and a pleasing jigsaw image of cows in a pasture. All were individually attractive, but they didn't seem to add up to anything. In a restaurant that's lived a long life and undergone ad hoc design changes, all this confusion might add up to warmth and authenticity—in a new space, it just feels like a restaurant designed to look like a restaurant that wasn't designed. I'm not sure what vestiges of my adolescent/indie rock desire for "authenticity" acted up, but it just kinda bothered me. This could just as easily be an aesthetic failing of mine as it is theirs, but since I'm the one writing this, let's say it's theirs.
Still no burger. I ask the bartender for change of a dollar. She's totally pleasant, but feeding the meter a second time killed my whole no valet mojo. Back at my seat, what to do? I know, let's chat about the customization options. I won't bore you with a list; I'll bore you with math: seven cheese options ($1 extra per); 15 sauce options ($1 extra per); 11 "extras" ($2 extra per). The combinatorial possibility is crushing. We're talking well into the four digits of possible burger options. I chose one: American cheese. Did I mention that the Classic already comes loaded with mustard, mayo, ketchup, lettuce, heirloom tomato, pickles, and onion? It does. I leave the additional figuring of this blossoming permutation tree to you.
Back to waiting for my food. The guys at the table closest to me (who ordered two minutes before I did) have finished their lunch. Still no sign of a corn dog, Kobe beef or otherwise. My root beer float (the one I promised myself I wouldn't finish) has become my appetizer. It's nicely presented in classic glassware, but not special. I wonder about its ingredients. A & W Root Beer. Really? In a burger joint that offers cave-aged gruyere and balsamic grilled red onion? Really.
Burger, Round One
My burger finally emerges from the kitchen. My waiter is ensconced in a conversation and doesn't pay it any mind. I make eye contact with the line cook who is trying to get his attention and we agree to handle this on our own. He walks over and sets the lovely display in front of me. He's a young guy wearing an apologetic look.
"Corn dog?" I ask.
"You ordered the corn dogs?"
I nod. He nods and heads back to the kitchen to do what he can.
The burger and fries look good. They're served on a metal plate with wax paper. I like the effect. First taste: the fries. They are crispy and flavorful. My burger travels have convinced me that Kennebec potatoes are where it's at for french fries. 8 oz. seems to agree, and uses them well. They aren't the best I've had, but they're certainly very good.
The burger is served on a substantial sesame seed bun. The first bite is exciting—there's just so much stuff. After a moment of chewing, I realize it's overcooked. The menu says: "beef burgers are cooked medium rare to medium." Except mine, apparently. I'm not interested in setting off another firestorm of comments about what temperature is best for a burger, but I want char on the outside and pink in the middle, not gray, which is what I got The waiter comes over and tells me that he forgot to put in the corn dog order. I assure him that my diet starts tomorrow and I'll happily still have them. Oh, and that the burger is overcooked. He immediately offers to have a replacement made for me. I take him up on it.
The new one is back in front of me in a matter of minutes. This is what I imagine service at 8 oz. is usually like. Sometimes you can just tell you've gotten unlucky, that you've slipped through the cracks of attention at an otherwise solid restaurant. This is what feels like happened to me. The service changes noticeably and I am happy to be digging in. The new burger is cooked nicely, but the bun and toppings are so overpowering that there is little taste of the meat (particularly the fat) that is at the heart of a good burger. The lettuce is shredded, which adds a watery quality that just isn't working for me. I think for a moment. What to do? I know—I'll order two.
Kobe Beef Corn Dogs, Y'all
(As far as you and my cardiologist know) I set aside the rest of my Classic 6-ounce burger and order the 8-ounce version—appropriate named the 8 oz.—to finish off my lunch. In the meantime, I dive into the corn dogs. There are three mini dogs to an order, cute little lollipops of corn dog presented alongside a ramekin of "purple" mustard. I'm told the purple mustard is a combination of mustard, red onion, red wine vinegar. I'm sure it's all of that, but first and foremost, it is spicy.
The corn dogs are well made and what you'd expect: They taste like corn dogs. The Kobe beef part escapes me. Two things you should know: I don't fancy myself a hot dog connoisseur and I think Kobe beef is overrated. That said, I like both. In this case, the addition of the high-end beef doesn't add anything noticeable to me.
Burger, Round Two
The 8 oz. burger arrives alone on the plate looking like a beautiful, minimalist object. The bun on this one is brioche. I take a bite. Chew. Hmm, it's good. But only good. It's doubtless partly a function of the expectation Armstrong's reputation creates, but there just isn't anything special about the burger. This feels like a place where a chef came with the idea of making a burger restaurant, saw what he wanted it to be, and then failed to conquer the dish. It's good—not great. The added couple of ounces of patty definitely help, but the brioche is not a good bread complement. In fact, if you have a burger here, my suggestion would be to order the 8 oz. with the Classic bun.
A Near Miss
As my meal winds down, I am struck by my ambivalence about the experience. I like the restaurant's concept, and the prices seem fair (even drinks are noticeably affordable), but it lacks that special something to push it toward greatness. My initially absentee waiter emerges as a present and thoughtful guy. He knows about the restaurant and the future of Table 8 in Los Angeles. (It's due to open just a few minutes away in a grander location.)
Perhaps my categorizing of the chef's burger is a bit of an oversimplification. Certainly great chefs can make great burgers (Shake Shack, anyone?). In the case of 8 oz., the devil seems to be in the too many details. You can imagine Armstrong initiating the creation of his burger with such careful obsessiveness that what came to me a morass of toppings becomes-in his hands-a balanced and tasty creation. The problem is we don't usually get the chef's hands on the meal we're served. What we need-and what seems to be lacking in 8 oz.'s execution-is the chef's fingerprints (even when he's not around).
When the check comes, the germline of the fine dining establishment 8 oz. once was becomes apparent. I notice that the credit card receipt reads "Table 8." Also, there's evidence that my struggle to get served didn't go unnoticed. My waiter has comped the corn dogs and the first burger. It's excessive, but appreciated. It's what a good restaurant would do. It's what a great burger place wouldn't need to do.
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