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The Nasty Bits When the Chefs Face Off in Restaurant Wars on "Top Chef"

You know you have a fantastic reality series on your hands when even an episode with a foregone conclusion still makes the action absolutely riveting.

Last night's episode of Top Chef ("Restaurant Wars") was no exception to the above. Given that it was painfully bloody obvious from the start which team would end up praised by the judges (including incomparable guest head judge Anthony Bourdain), I wondered if I'd find myself slightly deflated watching the gang over at Mi Buddha struggle their way through service, burdened with a series of foolhardy culinary choices and botched execution. Ouch.

Antonia won this week's Quickfire Challenge, which had the cheftestants working the egg station at a popular Chicago breakfast haunt. Antonia kept her cool and, above all, kept calm the entire time, turning out a series of dishes quickly and efficiently. While immunity is no longer on the table, as it were, A. does win a very valuable advantage going into the Elimination Challenge this week.

As soon as we found out that this week's task was the long-awaited Restaurant Wars battle and Antonia would be able to hand-pick her team, I just knew in my gut that she would choose Richard and Stephanie and was absolutely thrilled that this troika was reunited for this challenge, virtually assuring the elimination of either Spike, Lisa, or Dale. (Wahoo!) Antonia took control of the kitchen, making herself the executive chef, Richard the chef de cuisine, and Stephanie in charge of front of house; still, this being a team that thrives on cooperation and balance, each of them managed to prepare dishes and they remained a cohesive unit throughout the challenge. I was very happy with their decision to go with gastropub as their culinary inspiration: it allowed them to stay high-end but to make the space and the overall feel of their restaurant--named Warehouse Kitchen--casual, laid-back, and relaxed.

As for their food, they turned out a number of remarkably well-crafted dishes. Their first course was a hot and cold option: a beet salad with goat cheese and frisee with Marcona almonds and Ras El Hanout, simply plated and a clear indication why this dish is a perennial favorite, and homemade fresh linguine with clams, sausage, and a horseradish creme fraiche, which looked absolutely beautiful and absolutely won over the judges and the guests alike. The latter could have gone horribly wrong (the chefs have had problems with pasta in the past) but Stephanie managed to create flavorful, airy pasta that was rolled out and cut by last minute team addition Nikki.

Antonia crafted two fantastic entrees to boot: her "lamb squared," a duo preparation of lamb loin and braised lamb shank with thinly sliced apples and cabbage whose presentation shown like a beacon in the night (stunning), and a skin-on trout with cauliflower puree and roasted cauliflower, itself a play on duality. Two beautiful dishes that showed how promising of a chef Antonia really is (there's a reason she's won four Quickfire Challenges this season). Finally, dessert consisted of Richard's banana "scallops" with banana guacamole and chocolate ice cream (yum!) and Stephanie's Gorgonzola cheesecake with sweet potato puree and Concord grape sauce. I really did worry that the latter would be an unmitigated disaster; I'm not a fan of blue cheeses as a whole but upon seeing what Stephanie crafted here, I was definitely taken aback: here was a dish that was not only inventive and unexpected (unlike, say, Tre's blue cheese and watermelon combo) but actually made me curious to try something with Gorgonzola in it, no mean feat.

There was nothing Zen about the Mi Buddha team of Spike, Dale, and Lisa, who came up with the idea of opening an Asian fusion restaurant in order to draw upon their shared experiences with Asian cuisine. It was a decision that doomed their team from the start, even more than the fact that these three people--who clearly seem to loathe one another with a fiery passion--ended up by design on the same team. To pull off Asian properly is asking quite a lot, especially as they only had five hours to pull together a menu, prep their dishes, and design a restaurant space. It's a big ask, especially when we see how these three cannot function as a team, communicate without resorting to childish behavior, or support one another in the kitchen. Doomed from the start? They were going to lose this challenge before they even put a foot in the kitchen.

Onto the food itself. Their first course consisted of Lisa's horrific and over-smoked spicy coconut laksa with grilled prawns and vermicelli, a gloopy, slick mess of a dish that was overwhelmed by smoke flavor, and crispy potstickers with pork and plum, which sounded incredible but did look a little too greasy into fit into their high-end Asian eatery scheme. But at least they tasted better than Lisa's pathetic attempt at laksa. Ick. For the main course, there was a braised short rib with pickled red cabbage and an apple and Thai basil salad that the judges seemed to like quite a bit. This being the most contentious team on the history of Top Chef, I am still not sure who actually made the dish itself, but Spike seemed to take credit for the recipe, even if Lisa and Dale were the ones who executed the dish. Also on offer: Dale's misguided butterscotch-miso scallops with spicy eggplant and picked Chinese long beans. I was incredibly concerned by this dish: scallops have such a light, delicate flavor so I don't know why you would bury them under the sticky weight of such a saccharine sauce. Was it daring and different? Sure, but it was also incredibly misguided and I knew that the judges wouldn't let Dale just walk away for this culinary atrocity.

Desserts were just a monumental failure for this team. Dale once again created a halo-halo with cantaloupe, coconut, avocado, kiwi, and candied cashews but the judges weren't all that thrilled with the dish, which left a lot to be desired; I also thought that it wasn't plated very well and just looked messy and far too brown-green to be appetizing. Still, it was a triumph compared to Lisa's Thai mango sticky rice with toasted coconut which did look like baby food garnished with wood chips, a disgusting mess of a dish that should have gotten her eliminated.

Sure enough, Mi Buddha ended up on the chopping block and the judges (after awarding the win to Stephanie moments earlier) came down hard on Spike, Lisa, and Dale for a number of egregious errors. Somehow, due to his role in the front of the house, Spike seemed to be immune from elimination, which made me angry as I did not want him making it anywhere near the final four positions. Lisa once again proved that she has the most sour disposition of any Top Chef contestant past or present, standing as usual with her arms folded, a sneer on her contorted face, as she defies anyone in that room to criticize her in any way, shape, or form. And Dale resorted to defensive/aggressive mode, looking to deflect any of Lisa's accusations about rice selection or the smokiness in her own laksa.

So who would go home? I was actually really hoping that it would finally be Lisa for the two truly awful dishes she prepared this week; the sticky rice should have gotten her the boot alone. But I was really quite shocked that it was Dale who got the cut... and even more surprised when he accepted his elimination graciously and then promptly started to cry on-camera during his final interview, admitting his admiration for Richard, Antonia, and Stephanie. The boy does have a soft side, after all. I actually do think that Dale has an amazing amount of talent and potential and I am sad to see him go, though his attitude in recent weeks has grated. Still, it does seem as though a final showdown between Richard, Stephanie, and Antonia is in the cards and that makes me blissfully happy.

Next week on Top Chef ("High Steaks"), the chefs have to clean and butcher a slab of meat during a Quickfire Challenge and then work on the line in a restaurant, creating a series of dishes that exceed chef Tom Colicchio's expectations, and Rick Tramonto of Osteria Di Tramonto, Gale's Coffee Bar, Tramonto's Steak & Seafood, and RT Lounge turns up as a guest judge.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: The Big Bang Theory/How I Met Your Mother (CBS); Deal or No Deal (NBC; 8-9:30 pm); Smallville (CW); Ugly Betty (ABC); So You Think You Dance (FOX; 8-10 pm)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); Last Comic Standing (NBC; 9:30-11 pm); Supernatural (CW); Grey's Anatomy (ABC; 9-11 pm)

10 pm: Without a Trace (CBS)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Ugly Betty.

On tonight's season finale ("Jump"), Betty tries to determine what she should do when faced with a romantic dilemma (oh, just dump Henry already and be done with it) but Henry has a proposal of his own for Betty, just as she is coerced into a charity softball game; Naomi Campbell drops by the Mode offices; an orphaned boy from France turns up with a shocking claim; Hilda learns some jaw-dropping news about Coach Diaz (Eddie Cibrian).


Anonymous said…
I was not surprised at all that Dale was kicked off. Yes, Lisa and Spike are worse chefs, but Asian food is Dale's thing. If he couldn't pull this off--and as executive chef to boot--he shouldn't be there. And he failed miserably.

Viewing the season as a whole, Lisa and Spike should both be kicked off before Dale, but in the context of the single challenge, Dale was the right call.
Anonymous said…
As executive chef, I'll agree Dale was the right choice, but when, pray tell, will Lisa finally go home? What a bad attitude....
Anonymous said…
Don't any of the contestants watch the show? Don't they know that it's always the group captain that goes down with the ship? Why would anyone step up for that? Dale must've known from the start that his team was going to lose.

I, too, wish that Lisa had been the one to go home. She was absolutely terrible this week. I wish it was her this week, Spike the next and Dale after that. How Spike & Lisa are still in this competition is beyond me.
Dale has anger management issues but he does have more talent than Lisa and Spike combined. Surprisingly, I was actually a little sad to see him go. I want Antonia, Richard, or Stephanie to win but Dale would have seemed more appropriate to round out the final four.
Anonymous said…
I love your recaps but it really confuses me when you either lavish praise on how a dish taste or condemn it on how bad it taste when you weren't there. Granted there's some leeway as to the judges' palate but you write as if you tasted them. I don't think that's really fair or correct. Just a thought.
Anonymous said…
As I just wrote to the SR: While I hate that Lisa is still in, and she should have been gone weeks ago, she is never going to win, so I am glad they got rid of Dale while they had a chance. I worry that the longer he stays in, the better chance he has of making it to the finals, and he's won enough things to have me worried. He's a total powder keg. Good riddance.
rockauteur said…
They need Bourdain as a regular judge. He adds so much to the series and is way better than Ted or the magazine chick.

I liked Dale... I wanted Lisa to go home ahead of him. She sucks!
Unknown said…
I was really hoping they would pull a double elimination this round because Dale and Lisa both deserved the boot. I agree with Ally in that the closer Dale got to the finals, the more likely he was to win. There is no way Lisa will make it. If you're going to be such a foul person in the kitchen, at least have the talent and skills to back it up. She has neither.

Also, one correction. It was Sam from Season 2 that created the watermelon & gorgonzola creation, not Tre.

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