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Spellbound: Illusion, Surprise, Mystery and Spectacle on "Top Chef Masters"

I can't tell you how excited I was that Top Chef Masters finally returned to the airwaves last night after a far-too long two week hiatus.

The series has become a highlight in my telly-viewing week and last night's episode of Top Chef Masters ("Magic Chefs") was no exception as the four latest master chefs--Anita Lo, John Besh, Mark Peel, and Douglas Rodriguez--has to prepare a dinner for actor Neil Patrick Harris and his friends at Los Angeles' famed Magic Castle using the four elements of stage magic: surprise, illusion, spectacle, and mystery.

I was a guest at the Magic Castle, a private club for professional magicians, about two weeks ago and fell in love with the quirky charms of the place, a former mansion turned clubhouse and multi-staged venue where magic reigns supreme. It was only fitting then that our master chefs should have this unique location to use as a backdrop for their most magical meal yet.

So how did the cheftestants do? Let's discuss.

Before the magic-themed dinner, the masters had to fight their way through the Quickfire Challenge, a repeat of a favorite Top Chef challenge in which the chefs have to prepare a perfectly cooked egg with one hand tied behind their back.

The challenge, which recalls both Georges Auguste Escoffier and the more humbling aspects of this culinary competition series, really did put these chefs through their paces. I was surprised to see just how many of them really did underestimate the challenge at hand and didn't really consider timing or plating in advance. An egg is a delicate thing at the best of times and the thin line between a perfectly cooked oeuf and an overcooked one is transparent at best.

I have to say that I was majorly impressed with Mark Peel for attempting to make fresh pasta in such a brief time span as this... much less with one hand tied behind his back, a real Herculean feat if there was one. His dish was a truly ambitious one then: fresh duck egg pasta with an egg and olive oil cream sauce. I feel it would have been a hell of a lot more successful if he managed to get the olive oil in there and had more of a contrast with the fresh herbs. But still impressive.

Less impressive with John Besh, who completely underwhelmed with a slow-cooked egg in a miniature crock pot... that wasn't actually cooked. Besh, whom many pegged as a major player in this competition, scored only half a star for his single egg serving that was still uncooked on one side and lacked any components. Sad, really.

Douglas Rodriguez, on the other hand, prepared perfectly cooked scrambled eggs with ham and an open-faced corn cake that showcased precision, thoughtfulness, and an understanding of the task at hand. But it was chef Anita Lo who wowed the judges with her artful preparation of soft scrambled eggs and shiitake mushrooms with truffle oil and oyster sauce served in the eggshell. Just a dazzling display of ingenuity, playfulness, and art, really, and no surprise at all that Lo walked away with the top spot. That she constructed this amazing dish with one hand is what truly inspires. Well done, Anita!

As for the Elimination Challenge, the chefs would have to create dishes that embodied one element of magic, whether it be illusion, mystery, spectacle, or surprise, and serve it at the Magic Castle to guest judge Neil Patrick Harris and a collection of actors and magicians. Given that Harris is reputed to be a major fan of magic, I expected to see more enthusiasm from the How I Met Your Mother actor but he seemed rather low-key and quiet throughout the proceedings, which struck me as odd.

First up: Mark Peel's Mystery, which was a thai snapper en papillote served with garlic mashed potatoes and leeks. Heightening the mystery of what was in the parcel, Peel also offered up a ceramic spoon of scallion oil and Oassi sake. This dish could have easily backfired if the fish were overcooked (no way to check it without tearing into the pouch, after all, and Peel had let them sit before they went out into the dining room) but the result was a lovely surprise: perfectly cooked fish with gorgeous leeks and creamy mash, heightened by the slightly bitter flavor of the scallion oil.

John Besh's Surprise went a little askew though he did have the forethought to remember his surroundings and play up the theatricality of the setting, crafting a little magic of his own with a fresh horseradish and creme fraiche sorbet that he attempted to solidify using liquid nitrogen. This was a real gambit as it's hard to pull off a liquid nitrogen tableside serving. The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel here in LA does liquid nitrogen-frozen cocktails and it is hard work and time-consuming. Besh should have kept whisking for another five minutes at least to give the sorbet some body and solidity. As for the rest of the dish, he offered up three miniature servings: salmon tartare with a frozen cauliflower blini, salmon roe with the aforementioned sorbet and dill fronds, tempura-fried lobster wrapped in smoked salmon with micro-greens. The judges loathed the frozen blini, with James Oseland complaining that it gave him brain freeze. Ouch. The lobster, however, was perfectly cooked and the most successful of the three offerings.

Douglas Rodriguez's Spectacle tried to bring the pomp and circumstance one might expect from the magic but didn't quite hit the mark with his sterno-flamed coconut shells which did offer some spectacle but also some danger to eating his course. It was also a little too ambitious, to boot, with four preparations of duck on a single plate: there was an oyster ceviche with duck broth, empanada with foie gras and figs, a seared duck breast with butternut squash puree, and a duck soup with young coconut. Way too much going on on the plate, an overabundance of ingredients, and some confusion.

Finally, Anita Lo's Illusion, a crackling sand-based seascape that held up a braise daikon with kombu caviar that resembled a perfect scallop... but actually contained a steak tartare in its pearly depths. The addition of a shellfish stock in a small bowl added some salt and flavor to the tartare when poured over the top. Once again, I thought Lo did an incredible job of going beyond the brief to really wow in terms of presentation and flavor and she absolutely nailed the "illusion" part of the challenge. It was such a dead ringer for a scallop yet conceals such a different story on the interior that I would have been amazed if she didn't walk away with a spot in the champions round.

Sure enough, the judges felt the same way about Lo's Illusion, a perfectly crafted dish that captured the requisite magic and transformed a lowly daikon into a centerpiece of illusory power. I can't wait to see what she comes up with next...

What did you think of this week's episodes? Were the judges fair to give John Besh such low scores? Did you think Anita Lo deserved the top prize? What did you think of the chefs' performances? And was Neil Patrick Harris uncharacteristically quiet? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef Masters ("Miniaturize Me"), four new master chefs--Michael Chiarello, Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, Nils Noren, and Rick Moonen--are tasked with reinventing junk-food classics and then later, they create three-course mini-meals for 100 guests. Plus, Flipping Out's Jeff Lewis and Jenni Pulos guest star.

Comments

Amy Beth said…
I was so disappointed that John Besh didn't do well on this episode. I think that oven is jinxed! He took it in great stride though and was such a gentleman to his fellow chefs. It was so nice of him to help Anita with her egg during the Quickfire round.

I thought Anita deserved to win but her double-dipping grossed me out.

I knew very little about Mark Peel before this episode and I really liked him and his food looked good so I want to know more.

I thought Neil Patrick Harris seemed about normal to me. He did seem repetitve in his comments about the dishes.

I was hoping for a Hubert Keller/John Besh showdown! Drat!
Jace Lacob said…
Amy Beth,

I would have loved to have seen Besh take on Keller but alas... I do agree, however, that he handled his defeat like a true professional (unlike some in recent weeks) and remained classy and considerate throughout. Loved that he helped Lo snip the eggshells as well.

I do love Mark Peel and Campanile here in LA though Lo brought the wow in both courses.
This was a really fun episode and it was entertaining to see the chefs have so much fun with the "magical" aspect of their meals.

I was very impressed with Lo, who I didn't know much about before, and agree that Neil Patrick Harris seemed somewhat sedate. Maybe he was just annoyed that Besh almost gave him hypothermia.
Mimi C said…
I was annoyed with Gail for not pouring the broth on Anita's dish then saying something about the lack of salt. She is the SR judge.
Mike said…
I think if Peel would have not forgotten to put the olive oil in the pasta, he would have had a chance to maybe beat Lo.

I don't think they play up the importance of the quickfire challenge enough. Everyone except for Rick (who was only 1/2 a star off) who won the quickfire won the round.

I also want to say that I think James Oseland has been least favorite judge so fare. He is quite contrite and doesn't offer fair criticism from my point of view. However, I have found Gael Greene to be just delightful and with proper insight to the dishes prepared.
Rob said…
I don't understand why John Besh didn't stay with his specialty, Cajun/Creole cuisine. It does seem though that given all the food challenges he enters, he rarely comes in first place. Why on earth was Paul Prudhomme not one of the master chefs chosen? That would have been a terrific competition. Based on the judge's comments, Lo definitely deserved to win.

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