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Porcine Pleasures: All About Pigs and Pinot on "Top Chef"

I love pinot noir so this week's episode of Top Chef ("Pigs and Pinot") would have already been a treat but the producers stacked things further in my favor by adding in the pork element, courtesy of Charlie Palmer.

There's a rich chocolate and coffee-spiked earthiness to pinot that makes it the ideal red wine for me; it can be full-bodied without knocking you to the ground like some Cabs and it stands up well to pairings.

Which was essentially the theme of this week's Top Chef, which had the chefs pairing not one but two dishes this week. The Quickfire Challenge was a hellishly tricky one (in my estimation, anyway), with the contestants tasked with pairing a dish with a particular Alexia snack. Food and alcohol pairings have proven difficult for some contestants so food and snack pairing? Even trickier. But it was the Elimination Challenge where the pressure was truly on: they'd have to pair a pork-based dish (the part of the pig decided by blindly drawing knives) with a specific French or New World pinot.

So how did the chefs fare this week? Let's discuss.

As I said before, this week's Quickfire Challenge? No walk in the park. Besides for the obvious time constraints, there was the little issue of working in those snacks--waffle-cut fries, onion strips, etc.--into the dish and having it feel complimentary and not disconnected at the same time.

Here's what the chefs offered for their snack pairings:
  • Ash: a chilled cucumber soup with creme fraiche, crab, and red pepper
  • Bryan: seared rib eye with picked onion, sauteed mushrooms, and chile peppers
  • Eli: potato clam salad with fennel, celery and white truffle sauce
  • Jennifer: sauteed pork chop with tomato sauce and feta
  • Kevin: warm bean and confit tomato salad with fresh herbs and Southern-style creamed corn
  • Laurine: swordfish with spinach, asparagus, and fava bean puree
  • Mike I: chilaquiles
  • Michael Voltaggio: tuna tartare with avocado, pickled onions, and jalapenos
  • Robin: sweet corn panna cotta with avocado mousseline

A mixed bag, really. Some of the chefs excelled at this particular challenge, with Eli landing the win (and immunity) for his masterful preparation of a potato clam salad. Eli's been a bit of a wild card throughout the competition; he's flown pretty far below the radar most the of time but every now and then he has a well-crafted dish that stands out. I do think he will be a tremendously talented chef... in a few years' time. Kevin always turns out a gorgeous plate, so I wasn't surprised that he and Bryan were singled out for praise.

I felt for Jennifer. She's hands-down one of--if not the--most talented chef in the bunch and she cracked under the pressure this week. Her dish was well conceptualized but she cooked those chops way too early and the pork just dried out completely. Perhaps had Padma and guest judge Charlie Palmer made their way to her station first, she would have been okay but, of course, they got to her last. Sigh.

Robin? What is there to say about Robin? I know that if I were in that house or that kitchen, she would drive me up the wall. There's chatty and then there's verbal diarrhea and Robin just can't seem to shut up for thirty seconds, prattling on endlessly about minutiae that clearly no one else there cares about. I don't think it's an age issue; she's just so over the top talkative that it's draining to everyone around her. And the worst part is that she doesn't seem to think she's to blame at all. I really, really, really hoped that she would pack her knives. She's clearly overstayed her welcome in all aspects.

Moving onto the Elimination Challenge, I was very interested to see not only what the chefs would prepare as they not only had to pair their pork dishes with specific wines but also create 150 tasting portions for Charlie Palmer's Pigs and Pinot event. Not an easy task, to say the least.

Bryan once again pulled off a succulent dish, creating a mouth-watering plate of braised pork spare ribs with parsnip puree and mostarda, which he served with a 2007 Rochioli Pinot Noir. And the simplicity of Kevin's dish--a pork leg pate with a mushroom and hazelnut salad and pickled cherries--served with the 2006 Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Pinor Noir from Oregon belied the amazing depth of flavor that he was able to pull off. No surprise that both of them had two of the best dishes of the evening and I was thrilled to see Kevin walk away with the top spot. Well done.

Jennifer offered up a gorgeous soy-braised pork belly with a salad of tomatoes, black olives, apples, celery, and truffles that she paired with a 2005 Chanson Clos de Beze Pinot Noir. (She more than redeemed herself for her earlier performance in the Quickfire.) And Michael Voltaggio stunned the judges with an expertly crafted dish of root beer-braised pork cheek with a steamed bun with truffle and a cherry-vanilla bean reduction, paired with a 2006 Gunvalson Pinot Noir. Loved the fact that the four top-scorers have also been my picks for the Final Four since the first episode of the season. (Fingers crossed it plays out that way in reality.)

Eli's dish, a braised pork belly with raw salad of celery and fennel and roasted carrot puree and paired with the 2007 Terlato Family Pinot Noir, was also a hit with the judges but it didn't quite pair well with the wine or compare to the pork belly dish that Jennifer created. (No surprise there.) Mike I. offered up a pork shoulder stuffed with prosciutto, dates, and pine nuts and an orange blossom yogurt sauce, which he paired with the 2005 Wairau River Pinot Noir. Far too orangey and acidic, it wasn't the judges' favorite dish but it also wasn't the worst they had that evening.

Laurine's pork butt rillettes over arugula salad with a golden raisin and pearl onion chutney on top. Ick. I love rillettes and this was not rillettes at all. It looked vile and was not prepared as one would rillettes, poaching the meat in its own fat and then potting it with a layer of fat on top. Looking at it actually made me nauseous.

Robin's dish of brined center-cut pork chop with a roulade of sweet potato, fennel, and apple and a sour cherry-coffee sauce was a mess on the plate. The colors all seeped into one another, creating an unappetizing and slimy-looking dish that just looked like something you might encounter on an airline. Poorly executed, poorly conceptualized, and just poorly done, the dish had no focus whatsoever and failed to showcase the pork at all, offering just a wafer-thin sliver of meat. Color me confused.

I was just baffled by Ash's overcooked dish, a chilled pork tenderloin with a corn and cherry salad, that he paired with a 2007 Standord Pinot Noir. I was really speechless, especially as his first instinct was to do a warm tenderloin with jack-infused polenta, which would have been delicious. He's been a victim of his own second-guessing for the entirety of the season; I haven't been impressed with any of his dishes yet he always seem to believe that he should land in the winner's circle. When you look at the blandness of his dish, both in terms of flavor, seasoning, and presentation, that seems a total impossibility.

Honestly, I would have sent home all three of them if the decision had been up to me. They've consistently been the three lowest-scoring chefs these past few weeks and their performance in this week's challenge was just shocking. Given the editing and the focus on Robin throughout the episode, I thought it would be her to get the boot or Laurine for that ghastly attempt at rillettes that Food & Wine's Dana Cowin compared to "cat food."

But no, it was Ash who packed his knives. Granted, his performances has often been shockingly bad and he's squeaked by elimination many times this season but I was surprised to see him leave over Robin or Laurine, both of whom just made amateurish mistakes this round. Hmmm...

What did you think of this week's episode? Would you have sent home Robin or Laurine over Ash? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Restaurant Wars"), the much-lauded or dreaded (depending on your perspective) Restaurant Wars round returns, this time in a pre-existing restaurant, and the chefs will have to mind their details, because the guest judge, Rich Moonen, owns the restaurant.

Top Chef: Las Vegas Preview: Blindfolded Relay Race:

Top Chef: Las Vegas Preview: Michael V. vs. Robin:


Sophie West said…
I don't think it's ever been clearer who the strongest chefs are in the kitchen. Michael, Kevin, Jen, and Brian consistently produce beautiful, elegant, challenging, and original dishes. Sure, there have been a some mistakes but these four are always leading the pack and have been winning challenges left and right since the beginning.

Mike I. and Eli have their moments but I don't see either of them taking home the top prize.

And then there's Robin and Laurine who are so desperately far behind in terms of their execution, presentation, and skill that it's only a matter of time before they are sent home. I wish they could have cut Robin and Laurine along with Ash (just get it over with!) but I have to say that I'm looking forward to Robin taking on the Voltaggio brothers next week. I think she's in for a very rude awakening.
Amanda P. said…
Just a small nit to pick, but I don't think Eli won anything with his QuickFire win. I don't recall them saying anything about immunity for this challenge.
ryon said…
I love the idea of mass-storyline-conspiracies on reality shows. I imagine a sterile sound proof room underground filled with producers and writers boiling their hands over carefully manipulated human scenarios and drama to add some juice to the seasons progression. Granted this is probably not true, and most drama and storyline is developed in editing, but when Robin wasn't eliminated AGAIN, I was shocked. Then I saw the preview of next weeks episode involving the brothers and robin on the same team for restaurant wars...I tip my hat, puppet masters.

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