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High Steaks (and Frozen Scallops) for Final Five Contestants on "Top Chef"

I was literally on the edge of my couch last night, terrified that somehow one of my favorite three contestants wouldn't make it into the final four. After all, there was no way that there would be some divine intervention, some culinary equivalent of a deus ex machina, and the much loathed Spike and Lisa would both somehow get cut from the competition. A boy can dream, can't he?

Last night's episode of Top Chef ("High Steaks") definitely raised the bar for Challenges this season, creating a pressure-cooker environment where the five remaining chefs had to butcher some lovely Tomahawk steaks and cook them for guest judge Rick Tramonto and then work on the line in his new restaurant, creating and serving an appetizer and an entree to a fully booked restaurant and the judges, who this week included previous winners Harold, Ilan, and Hung.

It was pretty hilarious to see those three former winners back on the series, especially as I think any of the current crop of contestants could have cooked circles around Ilan, who completely rubbed me the wrong way by the end of his tenure on the series (the head-shaving incident didn't do anything to alleviate those feelings either). Personally, I would have rather had Dale in the mix in this episode and I think he would have impressed these guys much more than Lisa or Spike.

In any event, Spike drawing on the spiritual guidance of his grandfather, a butcher, was able to win the Quickfire Challenge (which, I'm sorry, should have also been about how the steak actually tasted; after all, this is a cooking competition) and gained a valuable advantage in the Elimination Challenge: he'd be able to choose proteins for his starter and main courses and the other judges couldn't then select the same ones for their own individual dishes. Huh, it's like deja vu all over again. I knew as soon as Spike went for those frozen scallops that it was going to come back to haunt him later; I almost think they were planted in the walk-in just to see if any of the chefs would go for them. I certainly wouldn't ever use frozen scallops in a dish and Spike had to deal with the sub-par quality of the scallops as well as the problems with searing a substance that has thawed and now has far too much moisture in it to get a crust in the pan. (To quote Nelson: "Ha ha!")

But on to the dishes themselves. Let's talk about Antonia first; I was really hoping that she, Richard, and Stephanie would make it into the final four as they are hands-down my favorite chefs of the bunch. (Despite his penchant for tantrums, I also wish Dale had made the cut as well.) For her starter, Antonia offered a warm mushroom and artichoke salad with poached egg and bacon vinaigrette; unfortunately, while the egg was perfectly poached to order (no mean feat in itself), it was a soggy mess of a dish. Eek. However, she completely redeemed herself with her steakhouse-appropriate creation: a bone-in ribeye with roasted fennel and cipollini onions and a caramelized shallot and potato gratin, that looked sinfully delicious and was the judges' clear favorite dish of the entrees.

I thought that Richard did an amazing job at reinventing a classic appetizer with a modern flair, transforming the classic Italian dish of vitello tonnato into "Vitello Tramonto," a thinly sliced hamachi sashimi with crispy sweetbreads, radish, avocado, and yuzu. Elegant, imaginative, and the judges' clear favorite starter. It represented everything about Richard that works: his vision, creativity, and experience were all there right on the plate. I quite liked the idea of Richard's main course, even if Padma felt that it didn't add up to the sum of the strong parts. Richard offered a prime beef filet with potato puree, turnips and red wine sauce with pickled Brussels sprouts. I thought it sounded divine and would have been what I would have ordered, especially with the pickled sprouts, which I've never seen before.

Stephanie once again turned out some delicious and inventive fare that I knew would earn her a well-deserved spot in the final four. Her appetizer--veal sweetbreads with haricots verts and a sweet & sour sauce of golden raisins and pine nuts--was luscious and crisp at the same time; points off for not toasting the pine nuts (time issues, perhaps?) but a truly sensational dish that aptly showed off her considerable strengths as a chef. For her main course, there was beef tenderloin with salsify puree (yum!), wild mushrooms and apple sauce, a well-constructed, conceptualized, and executed dish all around. If anyone was safe in this round, it was Stephanie.

Then there was Spike and those stupid frozen scallops (I still cannot believe that he actually insulted Tramonto about the fact that they were even in the walk-in in the first place), which he served pan-seared on a bed of roasted hearts of palm and oyster mushrooms. The judges complained that the scallops were just plain awful and the hearts of palm seemed reconstituted somehow. Ouch. For his main, there was that tomahawk chop again, here served with sweet potato puree (too sweet) and blanched Brussels sprouts (too boring).

I was a little confused by Lisa's starter: a dish of grilled & chilled shrimp and confit lemon zest salad with baby tomatoes and crostini; I like the judges took exception to the fact that she chilled the shrimp after grilling it, a big mistake as it created a congealed effect with the butter of the sauce, making it rather unappetizing though the confit lemon salad was a definite hit. For her main course, she took more than a few risks, plating a New York Strip Steak with a spicy apple caramel sauce, haricots verts, Granny Smith Apple, and peanut butter mashed potatoes. While guest judge Rick Tramonto seemed quite taken with the peanut butter mash, I found mere thought of the flavor combination literally made me feel quite sick to my stomach. (Even thinking about it now makes me feel a little queasy.) Would Tramanto's interest be enough to keep her in the race? Hmmm.

I was jumping up and down with glee that Richard, Stephanie, and Antonia all made it to the final four; I'm thrilled that these three will be facing off in Puerto Rico and only wish that their quartet could have included Dale rather than Spike or Lisa. Ultimately, I had a feeling that it would be Spike who would be sent home, if only for his inane outburst at Chef Tramonto and his selection of the frozen scallops when he could have chosen ANYTHING in the walk-in first and still went for scallops that weren't fresh. That was absolutely inexcusable in my book.

Sure enough, the judges decided that Lisa would be getting through to the final four (ick) and Spike would be going home. I'm not sure who I would have rather had advance to the next round as I really don't care for either of them and don't think they should still be there. Lisa was been at the bottom no less than five times this season and Spike has stood before the judges SEVEN times so far. Those are staggering figures when you consider that they somehow made it this far after landing so far down for their food in previous elimination challenges.

What do you think? Would you have rather see Spike take a spot next to Stephanie, Antonia, and Richard? Or were you happy it was Lisa who was moving on to the finals? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef ("Puerto Rico"), the final four chefs travel to Puerto Rico to compete for the last three spots in the competition, Lisa shows off her new hairstyle, Richard gets saw-happy, and one of these chefs will have to pack their knives and fly home.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: The Big Bang Theory/How I Met Your Mother (CBS); The Office/Last Comic Standing (NBC; 8:30-11 pm); Smallville (CW); Lost (ABC); So You Think You Dance (FOX; 8-10 pm)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); Supernatural (CW); Lost (ABC; 9-11 pm)

10 pm: Without a Trace (CBS)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Lost.

Ramp up for the two-hour season finale with this repeat ("There's No Place Like Home"), in which the Oceanic Six return to the US and the showdown between the castaways and the freighter's military men reaches a fever pitch.

9-11 pm: Lost.

Unplug the phone, turn off your computer and settle in for the two-hour fourth season finale of Lost ("There's No Place Like Home, Parts 2 & 3"), the Oceanic Six find themselves closer than ever to rescue, Ben launches his masterplan to save the island, Keamy's men face off with the survivors, and Sawyer and Kate possibly share their last kiss.


Ben Rasmussen said…
Good riddance, Spike! I'm so glad he got the boot.

I was shocked when Tom mentioned Spike had been in the bottom three seven times. Seven out of twelve! There's no way he should've made it this far.
Anonymous said…
Agreed that Spike should not have advanced, particularly after his comment about the scallops in the walk-in, but Lisa ... AGAIN? Egad!

And yes, Dale should have been there instead of Lisa or Spike, in my opinion.

LOVE Stephanie, Antonia, and Richard! I think Stephanie is probably my favorite, but I'd be happy if any of them won.
Asta said…
I almost think they were planted in the walk-in just to see if any of the chefs would go for them.

Thank you! I thought I was the only one thinking that.

I'd be angry about Lisa advancing if I thought she had a chance in hell of winning. I think Stephanie is my favorite to win, but I won't bee upset if it's Richard or Antonia.
Melissa said…
It was a great episode. I'm not a Lisa fan and while I think Dale should be the fourth, I'm happy with the final four.

I can't believe that Padma complained that the Hearts of Palm weren't fresh - fresh hearts of palm are hard to get.
Melissa said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melissa said…
A little more on scallop-gate: Check out Tom's blog on the bravo site, he explains why they were there.

"Rick Tramonto took Spike to task over this, which brought on Spike’s feisty reply, “With all due respect, the scallops were in your walk-in.” My heart sunk when I heard this because I’ve known Rick for years and can say with certainty he doesn’t use frozen seafood in his restaurant. Along with the high-end steaks they had provided for the show, Allen Bros. had included a variety of other products to round out the restaurant’s existing stock, including frozen scallops, which is how they came to be in Tramonto’s walk-in. I learned later that Rick knew this when we taped the show, but chose not to make a federal case out of it. But as a colleague and fan of Rick’s, I feel it’s important to set the record straight. "
Anonymous said…
All through ep, we kept thinking that the scallops were a plant/test.

I was shocked that Spike had been in the bottom 7 times. Didn't seem like it was that much. I would've thought Lisa was in more.

Speaking of Lisa - mashed potatoes and peanut butter. Two of my absolute favorite foods. The thought of them together made me physically ill.

I would've definitely preferred Spike in the final four, because that's how much I can't stand Lisa. It's a comfort to know, though, that there's no way she'll win, and I was thrilled that my top 3 made it. Like you, I was on the edge of my seat (or, rather, my friend's seat) nervous that one of them would go.

Rooting for Steph, but would be happy with any of the 3.
Does Dale deserve to be in the final four over Lisa? Certainly. But I would have been quite happy if they just narrowed it down to Antonia, Stephanie, and Richard since they are the real competition. I'm pulling for Antonia but will be thrilled if (and when) any of these three take home the prize.
Anonymous said…
I have to agree that I wish Lisa had been the one going home. Every time I see her before the judges' table with her arms crossed, I just want it to be the last.

Here is one interesting item about last week's elimination of Dale. Anthony Bourdain blogged about it here:
TxGowan said…
I think it's going to come down to Antonia and Stephanie. We all know Lisa's faults and a new haircut isn't going to fix them.

Richard, although I thought he started out as kind of a golden boy, seems to be losing his edge and losing the judges.

It's funny watching the opening credits because I can't remember a thing about quite a few of the contestants that are gone.

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