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Faced with Comfort Food, Micah Stumbles on "Top Chef"

Cards on the table time. I was really let down by most of the contestants on last night's episode of Top Chef ("Family Favorites"). Am I alone in that statement?

Sure, part of my frustration might be that I was watching this episode around 1 am after attending the Transformers premiere, but one of the reasons I love this series--a full head and shoulder's above FOX's similarly-themed cooking competition Hell's Kitchen--is that on any given week the chefs show an extraordinary range of inspiration, creativity, and talent. None of those things really came through in this week's challenge, which asked the chefs to reinvent stodgy American comfort food and update it with a modern twist and an emphasis on low-cholesterol.

To me, that seems like a really interesting challenge and I expected to see some really innovative takes on dishes like chicken a la King, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, fish sticks and french fries, tuna casserole, and pork chops. I'll admit that I don't eat most of those dishes (ahem, food snob, ahem) but, in my own way, I do love comfort food and would gladly eat something deconstructed and innovative that's based on one of these classic dishes, so long as it wasn't covered in grease or loaded down with macaroni. (Anything involving a can of cream of mushroom soup is strictly verboten in this household.)

In any event, I was interested to see what the chefs would pull out of their hats when faced with such an enticing challenge. However, I can't say that I was really impressed by the dishes or techniques that they utilized. It was hardly a surprise that Howie and Dale--the only two chefs who produced anything that came close to fulfilling the brief--ended up in the top two. (I, like the judges, had a hard time coming up with a third best dish and decided to leave it there.)

Howie's fennel-crusted pork chops with apple fennel salad and sultana raisin emulsion perfectly captured the spirit of this challenge, updating the tired old pork chops and applesauce for the new millennium by ditching the baby food staple for a crunchy fennel and apple slaw while never sacrificing flavor for low-cholesterol. (Take that, Joey!) Meanwhile, Dale took a family recipe for pierogies and transformed it into an update on chicken and dumplings, giving the two generations of Elk Lodge members a memorable dish: chicken-filled potato dumplings with broccoli, horseradish, and celery root.

The other competitors? Not so smart. I thought half of the dishes looked atrocious and must have tasted even worse and the other half just seemed clueless about the challenge and tried to take the easy way out. (Hello, Lia, I'm looking at you!) Brian may have had immunity after his genius performance at the Quickfire Challenge, but that's no excuse to throw the brief out the window and I am glad that the judges took him to task at the judging table for doing just that. His lobster and shrimp roll with lobster broth looked delicious but lobster is one of most cholesterol-laden things you can possibly eat; nor am I sure what the thematic connection to his original dish was meant to be. Odd and disappointing.

Did anyone else notice that the editing of this episode was especially tight? We skimmed over most of the dishes in the Quickfire Challenge, with nary an on-screen caption and the pacing on the Elimination Challenge was similarly mercurial. I nearly missed Casey's rib eye Sloppy Joe's with butter pickle and apricot compote as it went by so quickly.

I'd agree with the judges that CJ's tuna casserole--here updated with whole wheat pasta and yogurt and a flax seed tuile--was just awful looking, comprised of a grassy green mess that resembled nothing less than foodie roadkill. Hung's skinless yogurt-marinated chicken and pasta with vegetables was a beige mess on the plate and didn't recall fried chicken and mac and cheese to my mind at all. Similarly amateurish was Joey's lasagna with turkey sausage, eggplant, and mushroom, a messy pile of pasta sheets, sauce, and color filling a bowl to the brim. (What happened to elegant plating?)

I am, however, stunned by Lia's thinking that she had this challenge in the bag with her grilled chicken sausage with dijon lentils, carrots and onions. Had she made the sausage herself (as Brian did recently with seafood sausage), things may have turned out differently. But she grilled and cooked the sausage with some Guinness, undercooked the lentils completely, and then prepared some vegetables. A winning dish? Hardly. Way too many shortcuts going on here and nothing innovative.

In the end, the two worst perpetrators were hands-down Micah and Sara M. I'm really not sure what was going on with Sara's take on chicken a la King, here presented with a puree of mushroom sauce, couscous, and watercress salad. Sure, Hung messed her up by turning down the oven where she was cooking her chicken to cool down, but the flaws of the dish were in the idea itself rather than the execution; what relevance does this dish have to the original? Color me baffled. But it was Micah's jaw-droppingly bad rendition of meatloaf and mashed potatoes (easily the most versatile one at their disposal) that had me reconsidering these chef's creativity. Her Italian-style meatloaf with smashed garlic potato and roasted pepper sauces was inedible, leaving an odd aftertaste and an even odder texture.

It was only fitting then that she should be the one to pack her knives and leave. I felt conflicted by Micah as she proved herself so unpredictable and inconsistent: the winner one week, in the bottom three the next, she was all over the place. Sure, she missed her baby (did she remind us enough?) but she had an odd attitude this week, even in front of the judges about the food, which probably didn't endear her to Tom, Padma, guest judge Alfred Portale, and Ted Allen--who now seems to be filling in for Gail. Sayonara, Micah!

Next week on Top Chef ("Cooking By Numbers"), the chefs must work together in teams of three, Joey and Lia butt heads, and Howie admits making an error in judgment.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Pirate Master (CBS); My Name is Earl/The Office (NBC); Smallville (CW); Ugly Betty (ABC); Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? (FOX)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); The Office/The Office; Supernatural (CW); Grey's Anatomy (ABC); So You Think You Can Dance (FOX)

10 pm: Shark (CBS); Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC); Men in Trees (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Pirate Master.

On tonight's episode ("Loose Lips Sink Ships"), Nessa proves she'll do anything to stay aboard the Picton-Castle. Hmmm, anything?

8:30 pm: The Office.

It's the first of three installments of The Office tonight. Up first is "Office Olympics," when Michael and Dwight leave the Dunder-Mifflin employees on their own, Jim and Pam launch some games of their own devising, namely the Office Olympics. Get your Flönkerton scorecards ready.

9-10 pm: The Office.

Up next is one of my favorite Office episodes, Season Two's "Booze Cruise," in which Michael takes the employees of Dunder-Mifflin on a cruise, but things get out of control for everyone. Especially Meredith. After that it's "The Secret," where Jim is forced to pretend to be Michael's best friend after telling him about his crush on Pam.


Anonymous said…
Micah has a child? What? The hell you say!

Very disappointing indeed. I can't cook a lick, but even I found my self thinking up ways they could update certain things (fried chicken and meatloaf were the easiest, I thought) and assumed the contestants would, too. Then I saw what they were doing and I was just dumbstruck.

I am glad Brian got called out for his dish, immunity or no. The look on his face was priceless. I like Lia, so I am glad she is still there, but she needs to really step it up. Ditto Sa-ra. I love CJ, so I am glad he lived to see another day.

Howie really stepped it up when he needed to. Micah really didn't. I am not that sorry to see her go.

I loved the look on Hung's face when he got his criticism at quickfire. And then his repsponse. I really don't like him.

You talk about the tight editing, but I am actually finding it a bit of a problem this season, as I still don't know some people. When you mentioned Casey, I thought, "There's a Casey?"
Anonymous said…
Very underwhelmed this episode. I thought this was going to be the toughest, most impressive season so far! Everyone started out so well in the first couple of episodes but it all came to a screeching halt last night.

Howie's dish was okay but nothing mind blowing. I'm glad they called Brian out on his choice to use lobster and that Tom told him he needs to start using meats. He's great with seafood but what else can he do? (We don't want another repeat of Ilan and his one-note Spanish cooking). Hopefully, things will be back on track next week.
Anonymous said…
Meh. Where's the drama? I want to see something happen, whether it's in the kitchen or behind the scenes. People are playing it far too safe this season...
Anonymous said…
This is what I didn't get about this episode and Micah's attempt to update meat loaf.

Micah claims to be South African (some bloggers incorrectly peg her as a snooty Brit). Talk to any South African about their cuisine, and pretty soon you are going to hear about what is virtually their national dish, bobotie, which just happens to be -- wait for it -- a delicious, flavorful, curried meatloaf! Bobotie also has fruit (usually appricot) in it and instead of thick gooey gravy, a light egg custard topping. I know it sounds strange but it is scrumptious.

How could a South African chef, given the challenge of delivering a meatloaf not think of one of her country's national dish?

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