Govind Armstrong is not the first high-end chef to try his hand at the humble burger. In L.A. alone, we have Sang Yoon at Father's Office, Neal Fraser at BLD, Tim Goodell at 25 Degrees, David Lentz at Hungry Cat, and David Myers at Comme Ça. Not to mention all the examples on the menu at other restaurants, including Spago and Tavern.
But Armstrong may be the first to turn his original fine-dining restaurant, Table 8, into a dedicated burger bar. He did have a good reason: After a disastrous makeover transformed the once light and airy Table 8 into a dark goth vision (the better for celebrities to hide themselves?), his flagship restaurant had begun to falter. Soon after, Armstrong and partners redid the space yet again, this time reopening as -- ta-da! -- 8 oz. Burger Bar. (Meanwhile, Table 8, which was slated to move into the old Moustache Cafe quarters farther west on Melrose Avenue, seems to have vanished into thin air.)
Finding its legs
It wasn't an instant success. When I first dropped in, the place was virtually empty -- not good, since you noticed how slapdash the décor is, glossy white subway tiles and reclaimed wood wainscoting slapped on the walls, roomy but basic booths, simple tables and those aluminum chairs originally designed for the Navy you see featured in the DWR catalog. It looked like an anonymous college bar just waiting for a passel of roommates to wander in with their textbooks and angst.
Flash forward six months or more, and it's a different story. The place is thronged -- and I mean packed -- with a casual crowd, some of whom look as if they've just stumbled out of bed just in time for lunch -- or dinner. The place is funky and loud, and no reservations are required -- or accepted.
There's music, but you can hardly hear it over the constant percussion of the bartender's martini shaker. Cocktails created by Ryan Wingo are well-crafted and quite generous for the bargain price of $8. They've got classics like Sidecar and Greyhound, but also more intriguing concoctions, such as a delicious Basil Elderflower Daiquiri made with fresh lime and cranberry juices, and Aquamiel, which combines tequila with Lillet, fresh lime juice, honey syrup and a touch of almond extract.
Beer sommelier Christina Perozzi has put together an inspiring list of beers -- on tap at $5 a pint, bottled at $6, and, for those who insist on cans, PBR-Schlitz-Olympia at $3 a can, with even better deals available at happy hour. It's not the most comprehensive beer list around, but it is well-chosen and well-priced. Wines almost seem an afterthought, just eight whites and eight reds, all $8 a glass, $16 a carafe or $32 a bottle.
The best deal here is the trio of sliders and suds for $16. I was expecting the burgers to be 2 inches across, but these are only slightly downsized from the regular, in other words, just about perfectly sized. You get one each of lamb, beef and wild boar (yay!), though you'd have to taste the burgers bare in order to really tell the difference between the beef and the boar. The lamb's sweetness gives it away. Each is paired with a small glass of beer, but don't necessarily be a slave to that combination: Have some fun mixing and matching.
The signature burger is, of course, the 8-ounce burger, a blend of house-ground beef -- sirloin, short rib and chuck from animals that are "humanely raised and hormone-free" and grilled over oak. The bun is just right, not too squishy, the patty thick and juicy (but do ask for it rare if you're hankering after a medium-rare burger), and it comes with the classic fixings -- tomato, iceberg lettuce and a slice of white onion.
A smaller, uptown version dresses it up with wild baby arugula, garlic-roasted tomatoes and a red onion marmalade. There's also a grass-fed version, maybe a bit drier than the original, with its own garnishes, including charred escarole (good) and mushrooms.
But you can custom tailor your burger with a zillion other condiments, cheese, and sauces for $1 to $2 each. Time to dream a little if you've always wondered what your burger would taste like with fried green tomatoes, and a heap of sunflower sprouts or some fried mozzarella, say.
Fry, fry again
Hey, the kitchen fries just about everything at this place, including thickly sliced dill pickles, which got a thumbs-down from everyone at our table except me. I kind of like their cool acidity against the warm, crunchy batter.
But everyone had a crush on the stout-battered onion rings, which are deliciously greasy. Kennebec potato fries are a deep, crispy gold. You can get sweet potato chips, too, and olives stuffed with chorizo and fried.
The oddest item (at least to a Californian) has to be the fried Wisconsin cheese curds, which here are little nuggets of Bel Paese cheese, battered and fried, ready to dip in a very smoky tomato sauce. Guess you had to have grown up in Wisconsin to appreciate these babies.
With all that fried food, I guess you've got to have a salad, too, and of the four choices, my pick would be the Caesar made with that wavy escarole (as opposed to curly frisée) with lots of crunchy torn croutons and terrific firm white anchovies. Get one to share.
The other item to share -- and for me, it's the best thing on the menu -- is Armstrong's short rib grilled cheese sandwich. It's incredibly rich, so a bite or two will do you. Ask to have it cut into finger widths in the kitchen. Here's that Bel Paese cheese again, this time grilled in a panini press with braised short ribs off the bone. It's such a hit that Armstrong did a command performance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
His idea of the tuna melt, made with olive-oil poached albacore instead of canned tuna or albacore, just doesn't make it, though: It melds into an oozy mess; you can't distinguish the fish from the cheese.