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Restaurant Wars Part Deux on "Top Chef"

Okay, I'm depressed now.

Sure, I knew that there was only really one way this would play out, but it doesn't help the fact that last night's episode of Top Chef ("Second Helping") was a bitter little pill to swallow. Perhaps it's the fact that the chef I was pushing for the hardest to win isn't there anymore, or it's the feeling that there now isn't a single clear frontrunner in the series. Either way, I really wasn't all that happy with the judges last night, but in retrospect, I suppose it was better that they made good on their promise to send someone home after the second take of Restaurant Wars than to send two people home to make up for last week's freebie.

Another Quickfire Challenge that didn't involve any cooking, but unlike the food knowledge challenge (farfalle pasta, anyone?), I did think that this challenge--a timed mise-en-place task--was both interesting and appropriate for the competition. I just really do not know why the Restaurant April team would pick Casey to finely dice five onions quickly. Speed is not her strong suit at all and she was completely outpaced by Sara, who proved herself quite adept with a knife. And it was no surprise that Hung manages to break down those chickens with superhuman speed.

The reward for the winning team: an extra $200 and the chance to consult with a sommelier to pair their courses with wine. I don't know why anyone was surprised by the identity of this sommelier. It was clear to me as soon as Padma read the prize that it would be Season One's Stephen; how much more obvious did the producers have to make that before the contestants twigged to the sommelier's identity? In any event, Stephen proved himself to be the one constant in this culinary series; no matter whether he's providing a service or in the competition, he's still going to be the same didactic, overblown guy from Season One. Plus ce change...

(Aside: what the hell was up with guest judge Geoffrey Zakarian, of New York's Town and Country restaurants, last night? He was just really, really unpleasant.)

The teams were also given the, er, privilege of working with Miami interior designer Christopher Ciccone (a.k.a. Madonna's brother) who gave each of their raw restaurant spaces a makeover. I do have to say that I thought that Restaurant April's space looked a hell of a lot better before the transformation (thanks to Casey's original, pared down, simple designs) than after. Stenciling a quote across a wall? Haven't we moved past that mid-90s staple already? Meanwhile, I do agree with Dale that the Garage's new design--transformed into Quatre--did look like Valentine's Day threw up all over the place. Red and white? Ick. But the red carpet? Even worse. (Shudder.)

In terms of the food, I do have to say that Quatre was a full head and shoulders above the other team. They took on board all of the criticism they received last week, both from the judges and that obnoxious food blogger, and transformed their menu into a streamlined and modernized New American bistro menu that was appropriate for the space and forward-thinking. They also jettisoned the dishes that didn't work and kept the ones that did (like Hung's Salade Nicoise take on tuna tartare). Kudos to Sara for running the kitchen smoothly and efficiently, while also keeping some very rigorous quality controls in place. (Pity that can't usually be said for her own dishes on a weekly basis.) Her dish, a halibut with grapes and braised leeks, was a symphony of flavors and perfected poised. Dale's starter--a poussin with mint gnocchi, sweet pea puree, carrots, and hazelnuts--was beautiful; I'm glad that Fresh Market was nearly out of rabbit that day. It was evocative, imaginative, and gorgeously plated, not to mention completely original and unexpected. Howie's lamb with white beans and fried shallots was also stunning and I was happy to see him tone down the robustness and size of the meat course. Their desserts, consisting of a choice between Hung's crepes from last episode and a silky panna cotta with fresh berries, were equally well thought out.

Meanwhile, over at Restaurant April, it really did seem like amateur hour. I was not impressed that Brian didn't cook a single dish and still didn't do all that effective job in the front of the house, leaving Tre to shoulder most of the brunt of the actual prep and cooking. CJ and Casey both contributed a barely more than single dish each--CJ prepared a lobster salad with arugula, capers, raisins, and caramelized cauliflower while Casey provided a carrot, coconut and ginger soup with shiitake bacon and a monkfish with mascarpone potatoes--but both were completely subpar. CJ's lobster salad was oversalted and the individual ingredients didn't ever mesh into a cohesive dish (lobster AND raisins AND capers?) while Casey's monkfish was overcooked and lackluster.

But the judges reserved their vitriol for Tre's house-cured salmon, a dish that judge Ted Allen said was one of the worst he's tasted in years. (Ouch.) I'm not really sure why Tre paired a delicate beet-cured salmon with a macadamia nut pesto, especially when the last combo I'd ever consider is fish, garlic, and cheese. It really was a messy, out there dish that was just so far beneath Tre's skills as a chef and contrasted so sharply with his starter, that gorgeous scallop with corn and truffle pudding.

The same held true for the dessert: a Granny Smith apple bread pudding that was just an exercise in futility: the apples weren't peeled and were just hard and chunky and the bread wasn't properly cooked; a bread pudding is meant to be silky, swathed in a creamy vanilla custard that envelopes every single piece, while this just looked like a bowl of cereal with apple pieces. Not Tre's best effort, but he really wasn't effectively supported by his team, either.

I knew that it would be Tre who would be packing his knives but that didn't make the judges' decision any easier. Sure, Tre was the team's executive chef and therefore largely responsible for (A) pushing the menu and (B) propelling the team forward, which he really didn't do in any capacity. They didn't support him and he had the most to do in the kitchen, on top of deciding the direction the menu would go in. Sigh. I know that it was the only decision the judges could make but I am really sad to see Tre go. I think he had an enormous talent and a fantastic vision and I was hoping he'd make it to the Final Two. But, as in life, things rarely turn out the way you want them to on Top Chef.

In two weeks on Top Chef, the contestants are given an extremely low budget to do their thang, Howie freaks out in the kitchen and then speaks out at the judges' table, shocking the chefs and no one in the audience!

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Big Brother 8 (CBS); My Name is Earl/30 Rock (NBC); Smallville (CW); Ugly Betty (ABC)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); The Office/Scrubs (NBC); Supernatural (CW); Grey's Anatomy (ABC)

10 pm: Without a Trace (CBS); ER (NBC); Men in Trees (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8:30 pm: 30 Rock.

It's Televisionary's favorite new comedy from last season. On tonight's repeat installment ("Corporate Crush"), Liz Lemon feels secure (uh-oh) in new relationship with boyfriend Floyd (SNL's Jason Sudeikis), while an NBC executive (guest star Rip Torn) warns Jack that he's watching him.

9 pm: The Office.

On tonight's repeat episode ("Product Recall"), Dunder-Mifflin is forced to implement some serious damage control when a shipment of paper is found to contain an obscene watermark. Hmmm, isn't quality assurance Creed's job?


rockauteur said…
Was definitely sad - and kind of a shocker - to see Tre go. He never should have been eliminated. I understand that a chef is only as good as his last meal, and if his restaurant fails, no one is going to eat there again. But on the other hand, he was the most talented chef in the competition, and the true frontrunner. Who will I root for now? I suppose Hung is still a front runner, despite being in the bottom of the barrell for a few weeks in the middle. I hate Casey, who should have gone home weeks ago, and CJ seems interesting, but I doubt he can run a restaurant. Howie is a good chef and has the skills to run his own place, but can he overcome his temper? And unless the promo is a fakeout, I think he is a goner in two weeks. Dale has most improved throughout the competition, but can he be Top Chef? I don't think so.
Anonymous said…
All I have to say is - nooooooooo!!!!!!!

I am so, so bummed.

My question to you last night would have been, "Is this the most obviously edited episode ever?"

I thought the writing was on the wall early on, and it was no surprise that he went home. He got the most interview time and when you have him on camera saying "I came here to win," "I come from the school of hard knocks" and professing over and over how easy it is to make a great bread pudding, well - that all spelled doom to me from the beginning.

Still....I was SO bummed. I understand the judges decision, but I think it should have been Brian, who didn't make anything or (gulp) CJ. I guess at this point I am rooting for CJ.

It is beyond me to understand how they could have let methodical Casey do the onions. She seemed like a natural for the eggs.
So sad. And, as Ally said, so obvious. Top Chef usually does a little better job of keeping you guessing but not this week. In fact, I was pretty sure who would be going home based on the teaser from LAST week when they showed the judges talking about how they were upset to be sending this person home but they really had to just base their decision on this one performance. (I forgot how it was worded exactly but it made it clear that it would be a frontrunner who was going home.) At least Tre went out with style and I am sure he'll go on to do great things. I'll definitely miss him in the competition!

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