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Saffron, Paprika, and Tears: "Top Chef" Crowns a Winner

Was it just me or did last night's season finale of Bravo's culinary showdown Top Chef feel a little... anti-climactic?

Maybe it was because Sam really deserved to be in the Final Two and with him gone this final round felt very empty. Or maybe it was the fact that it was just so painfully obvious that Ilan would beat out Marcel in the final faceoff, even before they started cooking. (Well, there was that little matter of the Food & Wine website spoiling the results days in advance, but I successfully manage to avoid reading anything about the show.)

Did I say that I missed Sam? 'Cause I did. As this was the final round of the culinary competition, there would no more Quickfire Challenges, no more restrictions, no more bizarro product integration-fueled tasks. Instead, for Ilan and Marcel, their challenge was completely unfettered: simply cook the best meal they've ever made for eight judges. Five courses, no rules.

I'm actually glad that that's all there was to it. To simply make a memorable, outstanding meal that showcases what each of their styles is about. And I knew that, despite rooting for Ilan at this point, that he would undoubtedly construct a menu around heavy Spanish influences, while Marcel would attempt to wow the judges with his prowess at molecular gastronomy.

But first, these two needed some sous chefs to assist in the kitchens and, this being a reality show and all, it's only natural that they'd bring back six former contestants for Ilan and Marcel to duke it out over. (I did like, however, that two of the returnees would be booted all over again.) Marcel selected Sam and Mike; Ilan erred for friendship and selected Elia and Betty. (Something tells me that Sam was still a wee bit miffed about getting passed over in favor of Ilan.) Leaving Mia and Frank out in the cold once again.

Onto the challenge: both Ilan and Marcel were able to bring ingredients and equipment from home to use in the challenge, and they're also given a budget and time at a local farmers market to purchase fresh ingredients. They'll be cooking for Michelle Bernstein, the chef/owner of Michy's in Miami (and consultant to the Social group of restaurants); Food & Wine's best new chef Scott Conant, chef/owner of L'Impero and Alto; gastronomic guru Wylie Dufresne, chef/owner of WD-50 (and, one suspects a major influence of Marcel, along with Ferran Adria); Roy Yamaguchi, chef/owner of Roy's, an empire of Hawaiian fusion restaurants; and Hubert Keller, chef/owner of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco and Las Vegas (and familiar Top Chef presence).

Using the market produce as an inspiration, Ilan does end up constructing a menu around Spanish themes, but it's not as overpowering as I had assumed it would be and the courses show a nice progression throughout. For a starter, Ilan used the angulas (smoked baby eels) he brought from home, perched atop a Spanish toast: a pincho of pan con tomate with angulas, Osetra caviar and green tomatillos. The dish looked a little too assembled on the line to me; the toast was said to be a little more soggy than crisp and the angulas, while a treat, were really just from a jar, and didn't have enough oomph to be the focal point for what was essentially an amuse bouche.

Next up, pan-roasted moi with a macadamia gazpacho, dressed simply with Spanish olive oil and lemon zest. A really accomplished, beautiful dish, the butteriness of the macadamias bringing out the sweetness of the Hawaiian fish. It's followed by a luxe variation on surf and turf: a dish of seared squab and whole poached shrimp with fois gras and braised leeks in a lobster essence. A really rich dish that showed creativity and promise and utilized the bounty of the ocean to full effect: that lobster sauce was unexpected and divine.

Braised short rib with salsa romesco and roasted hon-shimeji mushrooms followed as the main course; I think it was plated a little inelegantly and could have used a little something more to put it over the top. For the dessert course, Ilan wisely avoided pastry (he lacks experience in that area) and assembled a stunning dish of tangelo soup, with dragonfruit and avocado, topped with a Surinam cherry sorbet and a bay leaf fritter. I was worried about the bay leaf fritter (bay leaf being inedible and all), but it worked magnificently, adding a playfulness and fanciful touch to the course. All in all, a solid menu that showcased Ilan's Spanish influences without beating the judges over the head with them.

Then there was Marcel. His menu couldn't be more different from Ilan's, in terms of plating, approaches, and flavor profiles. Comparing them results in a huge culinary schism between them, with Ilan's food looking like robust, rustic-influenced fare with a flair while Marcel's is elegantly plated "cutting edge" (well, maybe ten years ago) cuisine. Hmmm.

For his first course, an uni and meyer lemon vanilla gelee, topped with fennel cream, caviar, and Kalamata oil. A beautiful, conceptual dish with many different flavor combinations. Very different, and very ambitious start to the menu. Up next: a radish and cucumber salad with yuzu vinaigrette suspended in sugar isomer tear drops. At least, that was the intention. The vinaigrette wouldn't hold together in the Hawaiian humidity, so Marcel had to forgo showcasing this new technique in favor of actually dressing the salad. Like the judges, I'm not sure why--new technique be damned--you'd serve a green salad (no matter how beautifully presented) as one of only five course. Especially when you've been told to pull out all the stops and cook the best meal you've ever made in your entire life. Color me puzzled.

Next: poached kampachi with hearts of palm, sea beans, and maitake mushrooms in a kaffir lime sauce. Or rather, that was the intent, as someone accidentally left the kampachi in the walk-in at the prep kitchen. Marcel began to freak out, but Sam suggested just leaving the recipe as it were and just omitting the fish, leading to a beautifully subtle (if unintentionally light) course featuring hearts of palm and those maitake mushrooms that astonished the judges with its purity of flavor. For the main course, seared North Shore strip loin steak with spring garlic puree, crispy taro balls, sauteed mushrooms, and micro-greens. It was beautifully plated and looked divine.

Finally for dessert, Marcel offered a whimsical play on blinis and caviar: a sweet blini with Kona coffee caviar and a Hawaiian chocolate mousse. I was actually really impressed with the dessert that Marcel created; it looked magnificent and used the island's coffee and chocolate to great effect and injected flavor into what could have been far too conceptual of a dish. Instead, it was sinfully delicious without being too rich.

While I think that both chefs created fantastic menus and impressed the judges with their creativity, it was clear to me that Ilan had won this challenge. While Marcel shows enormous promise as a chef (if, sadly, lacking some skills as a compassionate human being and leader), I don't think he's quite there yet. He definitely needs some "more time in the bottle," as Tom elegantly phrased it, to mature a bit more. He also needs to find his own sense of culinary style, rather than continue to be so slavishly devoted to Ferran Adria's notions of molecular gastronomy. At least I can say that there wasn't a single foam on his menu last night and that at least shows some restraint and progress, I suppose.

If Sam couldn't have taken home the (dubious) title of Top Chef, I am glad that it was Ilan who did instead. I think that he shows tremendous potential and managed to inspire his team of Betty and Elia to victory, despite beating them to the finale. I do hope that he continues to push the boundaries of his comfort zone and step outside the Spanish influences that seem to categorize many of his dishes.

All in all, a somewhat fitting end to a seriously divisive season of Top Chef. Me, I'm going to miss these guys, despite the drama and the catfights and the frat-initiation hazing that went on. But next week brings back another Televisionary obsession in the form of Lost, which returns next Wednesday in a new timeslot at 10 pm ET/PT. Will Ben prove to be as wily as our lupine friend Marcel? Tune in to find out, but it's doubtful that the culinary offerings will be quite so colorful.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: CSI: Miami (CBS); My Name is Earl/The Office (NBC); Smallville (CW); Ugly Betty (ABC); 'Til Death/The War at Home (FOX); Wicked Wicked Games (MyNet)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); Scrubs/30 Rock (NBC); Supernatural (CW); Grey's Anatomy (ABC); The O.C. (FOX); Watch Over Me (MyNet)

10 pm: Shark (CBS); ER (NBC); Men in Trees (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Ugly Betty.

It's Televisionary's favorite new show. On tonight's episode ("I'm Coming Out"), Betty has her hands full preparing for Mode's Fashion Week event, leading to Daniel calling Hilda to help her; Christina is tempted to get ahead as a designer, but will she follow Wilhelmina's bidding to do so? Meanwhile, a shocking revelation brings the show crashing to a halt.

8 pm: My Name is Earl.

On tonight's episode ("Foreign Exchange Student"), Earl pays for a former foreign exchange student, whom he tortured mercilessly, to fly to the States in order to show him all the wonderful things this country has to offer. This will not end well.

8:30 pm: The Office.

Over on The Office ("Ben Franklin"), Michael decides to throw Bob Vance a bachelor party as the women of Dunder Mifflin organize a bridal shower for Phyllis, but ends up hiring a stripper (and a Benjamin Franklin impersonator) as entertainment. Meanwhile, Karen confronts Pam about her feelings for Jim. Trust me, it's gonna be a good one!

9 pm: Scrubs.

Finally! Scrubs is back on NBC's schedule, where it belongs. On tonight's episode ("My Fallen Idol"), Dr. Cox's decision leads to the death of three of his patients, which in turn leads to him drinking heavily and becoming rather uncomfortably like Dr. House. Meanwhile, Turk runs afoul of his new attending doctor's, er, touchy-feely ways, in this episode directed by Growing Pains' Joanna Kerns. Yes, that Joanna Kerns.

9:30 pm: 30 Rock.

I can't get this show off of my mind grapes. On tonight's episode ("Black Tie"), Liz joins Jack at a birthday party for a foreign prince (Paul Reubens), Jack's ex-wife (Isabella Rosselini) shows up, and Tracy tempts Pete with a kegger at the office. Classic.


Anonymous said…
Definitely anti-climactic. Since I really didn't care who won, I had no rooting interest. Yawn.

That Kona coffee dessert was about the only thing I would have eaten in both meals. :)

I can't believe there was no foam! At least there was a gelee....
Anonymous said…
Yeah, wow. Not only did I not care who won, I actively disliked pretty much all the contestants. And I think even Dave from last season could have kicked Marcel's and Ilan's asses. Let's hope next season is better (and with a more reasonable outcome--Sam was clearly the best chef of the bunch).
Jon88 said…
"Earl" is a repeat? Shows up as new on the MyWay listing and
I'm glad Ilan won but I definitely feel like Sam should have taken home the crown. What I would really like to see is a face off between Sam and Harold from last season!
Unknown said…
After the judges decided to boot Sam, I didn't care who won "Top Chef."
Blobby said…
I would have liked to see Betty beat the shit out Marcel.

It would have been great TV - and she could EASILY take him!

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