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"Damn, Skippy": Front of House Shenanigans on "Top Chef"

I always love the "Restaurant Wars" installation of Bravo's famed culinary competition series, Top Chef. After all, it might force the contestants into a rather uncomfortable situation--opening a restaurant from scratch in less then 24 hours--but it also gives the judges a real-world proxy with which to view these budding Bouluds.

The results are always shocking to me. Sure, the judges don't give the two teams much credit in way of throwing together a menu, decor, and concept for a restaurant so quickly, but at the same time I am always surprised by the lack of quality and understanding that ends up coming from the chefs. It's as if they're secretly bristling at working together that they never really see the big picture.

Last night's episode of Top Chef ("Restaurant Wars") did show some better teamwork than we're used to seeing for this challenge, but I was really let down by a lot of the dishes the individual teams served and--in the case of The Garage--by the seriously dismal decor and inexcusable decision to overwhelm the atmosphere with vanilla-scented candles. (A big no-no in my book.)

The Quickfire Challenge was another one of those corporate restaurant chain tie-ins: this time for a chain called Red Robin that I've never heard of. The task was to create an extraordinary burger for guest judge Daniel Boulud, who reinvented the humble burger as an elevated $100+ fine dining staple. I do have to say that I was impressed with the chef's dishes for the most part but did think that CJ's scallop mousse and shrimp burger, served with a thinly-sliced tangerine and radicchio garnish was the most successful and was more of a burger than a warm sandwich, a distinction that several of his fellow contestants failed to make. Kudos also to Hung for his shrimp burger with tempura flakes and shiitake "bacon," Howie for his black truffle and taleggio burger with tomato and radicchio, and Dale for his tuna and asparagus burger with a fried egg on top.

CJ didn't win immunity for his success at the Quickfire (immunity is now officially off the menu) but he did gain a major advance in the Elimination Challenge: the right to hand-pick his own team. Ooooh, burn! Naturally, he selected the team I would have chosen too (with one alteration, that is), grabbing Tre, Brian, and Casey for his own team... and leaving the rather difficult contestants (Sara, Hung, and Howie) to squabble among themselves on the other team, along with poor Dale.

The teams immediately cracked on in launching their two restaurants, this time situated right behind the Top Chef Kitchen, a plus in that they're used to cooking in these surroundings, which are already fully stocked with cookwear, and there's no crying foul about the difference in their restaurant locations. CJ's team created Restaurant April (named for his sister) with a New American bistro aesthetic. Their decor--selected by Casey and Brian--was subtle, beautifully arranged, and seemed professional as well as stylish.

I thought that the space looked absolutely amazing. Their dishes on the other hand? Not so much. Their amuse bouche--Bluepoint oysters with ginger and watermelon granita--seemed to wilt in the heat and the watermelon ice turned to a pure liquid by the time they were served. Some of the dishes seemed beautiful--the first course of seared sea scallop on corn and black truffle custard, for example--while others were a huge disappointment, like the mushroom and gorgonzola-crusted beed tenderloin with smoked fingerling potatoes and port reduction; the potatoes were completely oversmoked and overwhelmed the entire dish. I wish that Tre had paid more attention while smoking these as it could have been a very successful dish with less aggressive smoke. I'm undecided about the grouper with shellfish, basil pistou, and artichoke hearts, which looked tasty but had way too much prep work involved upfront. Nice work on the palate refresher--a mango, lemongrass, and sake sorbet--but who complains when sorbet is "too cold"? Dessert looked gorgeous: an apple tarte tatin with brandy sauce and creme anglaise. Yum.

And don't get me started on the problems with the front of the house. Brian, pushed into that role, made a complete mess of the situation; he seemed more cockily obsessed with the fact that he had smuggled a suit into the competition than with the task at hand and he proved himself inept, sweaty, and quickly overwhelmed. People were not seated quickly enough, silverware was taken away yet not replaced, and the dishes were dusty. (Did they not run them through the wash before using them?)

On the other team, Sara volunteered herself as executive chef. I thought that she and loose cannon Howie would clash immediately, but they proved that they were able to function as adults working on a team. Their concept--The Garage--was similar to CJ's teams but they instead focused on much heavier dishes. I thought that Hung's starter of tuna tartar with olive puree, herb salad, and white asparagus with a silky egg vinaigrette--a take on the classic salade Ni├žoise--was beautifully prepared and plated and the perfect starter in a bistro concept such as this. What followed however wasn't as well thought-out. Given that they were basically dining al fresco in Miami in the summer, I thought that Howie and Sara's choice of dishes was just wrong from the start. Howie's overly starchy, gluey wild mushroom risotto with foie gras nage and black truffles was just far too heavy to follow Hung's light and elegant dish; same too with Sara's braised lamb shank with sunchoke mashed potatoes, pistachios, and spring vegetables. Too rich, too heavy, too... warm for such a hot evening. I did think that Hung's sweet crepes--served with dark chocolate and an orange Grand Marnier sauce as well as cocoa whipped cream--was a beautiful finale, however. Simple, elegant, and Dale's tableside serving elevated the entire affair.

While Dale held things together in the front of the house, drawing on eight years of experience as a waiter, the decor for The Garage was vile. It was Hung and Dale's task to decorate the place and it seemed amateurish. Besides for the mindblowing decision to place vanilla-scented candles everywhere (Dale claimed to have a weak sense of smell), the entire thing looked like it was thrown together from items found in a junk yard: tacky mirrors, black tablecloths, and general air of kitchy mess. Badly done there.

Ultimately, it came down to deciding between Dale and Brian, both of whom had made mistakes that contributed to their team's loss (yep, neither team won this one). I would have been amazed--not to mention depressed--if one of these two went home from this competition based on mistakes made, not in cooking, but from some front-of-house shenanigans like service and decor. After all, this is Top Chef, as Tom Colicchio likes to remind us, not Top Design or Top Waiter.

So, in the end, the teams get the chance to do it all over again from scratch, which I think is a fabulous idea. The teams will relaunch their restaurants the following night and have the opportunity to make up for the mistakes they made and try to win the judges over next time. It's a first for Top Chef that this would happen and it shows a commitment to getting things right that the chefs would get the opportunity to put their "soft opening" behind them and hit reset on the entire challenge. Will they learn from their mistakes? Or are they doomed to repeat history once again? Find out next week.

Next time on Top Chef ("Second Helping"), it's a Part Two of the fabled Restaurant Wars as the teams must work together to relaunch their individual eateries and win over some notoriously picky diners and judges alike while the judges make a very unexpected decision... like maybe sending two chefs to pack their knives?

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Big Brother 8 (CBS); My Name is Earl/30 Rock (NBC); Smallville (CW); Ugly Betty (ABC); So You Think You Can Dance (FOX; 8-10 pm)

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 pm: Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares Revisited on BBC America.

Missing a softer side of Chef Ramsay? Watch as Gordon revisits one of his former Kitchen Nightmares projects, La Riviera in Inverness, Scotland, to see if the restaurant has managed to turn its financial problems around. Are they even still open? Find out tonight.

8:30 pm: 30 Rock.

It's Televisionary's favorite new comedy from last season. On tonight's repeat installment ("Hard Ball"), Tracy gives Kenneth the Page a prized spot in his entourage, Jenna is misquoted in a magazine, and Jack negotiates Josh's new contract.

9 pm: The Office.

On tonight's repeat episode ("The Negotiation"), Darryl meets with Michael to try to get a pay increase, while Jim deals with the fallout from Pam's (inane) confession to Roy that she kissed Jim.


Brad said…
I was really annoyed by the blogger's comments that Padma cherrypicked. The producers must have assumed that blogger was synonomous with "snarky, overly critical reviewer."
Anonymous said…
Brad, I thought the same thing. I didn't think that the blogger's comments were even very well written at all and just played up the snarky aspect of bloggers. They should have had Jace sneak in there and review it!
Yes, Jace would have done a much better job reviewing the restaurants as the surprise blogger!

I'm really glad they're having the contestants do the restaurant challenge again. It is impossible to set up a restaurant in such little time and, inevitably, it ends up being a disaster. Hopefully, the chefs will be able to learn from their mistakes and present something more exciting the second time around. The food in last night's episode was completely underwhelming (except maybe for Hung's dish). I expected better from the remaining chefs. Surprisingly, though, the team running Restaurant April did a beautiful job decorating their space. Now if only they can do as good of a job with the food!

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