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Snail's Pace and Amuse Bouches: It's All En Francais on This Week's "Top Chef"

Classical French culinary training is painstakingly rigorous, but surely all of the chefs among the pack of remaining contestants on Top Chef should have been able to pull off this week's challenge without a hitch, right?

Not quite. I've already raved about this week's episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas (you can read my advance review here), which featured a veritable who's who among French chefs, including chef of the century Joel Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, Hubert Keller, Laurent Tourondel, and Jean Joho. Not exactly small fry.

This week's episode ("Vivre Las Vegas") challenged the cheftestants to work in the classical French style, using traditional ingredients such as escargot, rabbit, and frog legs and deliver dishes to the awe-inspiring master chefs assembled to sample their work. In other words: it was make it or break it time for these chefs.

So how did the contestants perform this week? Let's discuss.

The High-Stakes Quickfire Challenge this week was absolutely fantastic, challenging the chefs to prepare a dish of escargot in an inventive way for guest judge Daniel Boulud, who was clearly looking to be dazzled. Escargot is tricky at any time, much less under the pressure and scrutiny of a Quickfire, where most of the chefs hadn't ever worked with snails before. And there was the threat of elimination hanging over their heads as well.

Several of them rose to the challenge at hand, turning out remarkably well-executed and flavorful dishes that not only showcased the escargot itself but also their abilities and vision. Kevin's dish of escargot fricassee with mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, and candied bacon jam was the perfect encapulation of the challenge, fusing together the traditional and continental with the modern and down-home Southern. No surprise that he should walk away the winner, with immunity and the chance to have dinner with the aforementioned master French chefs.

Jennifer once again dazzled with her dish, escargot with brown butter sauce, grilled ramps, Brussels sprouts, chanterelles, and yuzu, cutting through the earthy headiness of snails and Brussels sprouts with the light acid of the yuzu. And Mike I. surprised with his well-executed dish, sauteed escargot over potato-garlic puree, spring onion and ouzo broth, topped with Meyer lemon and fava beans, an ode to Crete in a bowl.

But not everyone was as successful, with the bottom three comprised of Jesse, Robin, and Ashley who landed their for their "ELT," play on bagel and lox, and escargot mirepoix soup respectively. This being a high-stakes Quickfire Challenge, they were stunned to learn that one of them would be going home. But not quite yet... The trio would square off in a sudden death cook-off where they had twenty minutes to prepare an amuse bouche. In other words: their future in this competition came down to a single bite.

Jesse offered a tuna tartare with sorrel, gooseberries, and a fried quail egg atop a piece of fried bread. Robin served an avocado soup with yuzu, green apple, whole-grain mustard relish, and Peekytoe crab. Ashley composed a dish of foie gras with caramelized pineapple, tarragon, and ramps.

So who would go home? Ultimately, it was Jesse who packed her knives. I can't say that I'm surprised. She's had a hard time with the pressure and time constraints of the competition and she's frequently derailed her own dishes with one small misstep time and time again, whether it was too much cayenne in the soup or and underseasoning of the tartare here.

Elimination Challenge time. The chefs, other than Kevin who wouldn't be competing, drew knives to reveal the names of traditional French proteins and sauces. Pairing up, they'd present a six-course meal for the judges and the dream team of Robuchon, Boulud, Keller, Tourondel, and Joho.

So what did they prepare? Let's break it down by course and pair:
  • Robin and Ron: frog legs meuniere with lemon confit, mache and arugula salad with fried capers
  • Bryan and Mike I.: warm cured trout with deconstructed bernaise with pickled shallots, raw egg yolk, tarragon puree, and fennel pollen
  • Eli and Laurine: lobster, sauce américaine, cauliflower puree, and raw cauliflower garnish
  • Ashley and Mattin: seared poussin and ravioli with sauce velouté and green asparagus
  • Michael V. and Jen: rabbit chasseur with mustard noodle and shiso
  • Hector and Ash: chateaubriand, sauce au poivre with confit de pommes and spinach

All in all, I do say that I was impressed overall, considering most of the chefs are not classically trained but there were two dishes that towered over the rest. (I would have loved, meanwhile, to have seen what Kevin would have done with this challenge. Judging from his expression at the dining table, I dare say he would have as well.) Not surprisingly, Jen and the brothers fared well in this challenge, delivering the top two dishes, both of which majorly impressed the judges.

Bryan took the lead on his team, expertly filleting and then reconstructing the trout to create a boneless cylinder, and he came up with the notion of the deconstructed bernaise sauce, educating Mike I. (who once again took a back seat on a challenge) on how to pull off the complexity and depth of flavor necessary. It was a gorgeous dish as was the rabbit chasseur of Jen and Bryan, meticulously cooked and elegantly served, it showed vision and maturity, fusing together the spirit of the traditional dish with a modern, Eastern approach. I loved seeing the two of them working so closely together and thought that they were a fantastic team. But ultimately, the win went to Bryan, who also received the privilege of being able to stage at Robuchon's restaurant in Vegas, a rare accomplishment.

While some of the other dishes were less successful, two were actually disastrous. Hector and Ash's chateaubriand was undone by undercooked meat, inexpert carving, and a lack of au poivre sauce on the plate. Even if Ash had been able to to expertly master the sauce au poivre, it couldn't have masked the disappointing quality of the beef on the plate.

And then there were Ashley and Mattin. If anyone should have walked through this challenge blindfolded it was Mattin working within his metier, but the Frenchman failed to produce a quality velouté, rendering it more like gravy than a true velouté (which should be velvety, hence the name) and overwhelming the taste of the poussin with way too much bacon. Ashley's ravioli was too thick and dry, the asparagus disconnected from the rest of the dish. (Though I do remember her suggesting an asparagus velouté and getting shot down by Mattin.)

But I knew that despite their failings, it would be Hector who would be sent home. Which is a shame as I think Hector had some good ideas and could cook better than some of the contestants that are still in the competition.

What did you think of this week's episode? Would you have awarded the win to Bryan or to Jen and Michael? And would you have send Jesse and Hector packing? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Camping"), the remaining contestants must cook with cactus, sleep under the stars, and prepare a menu for Las Vegas cowboys; chef Tim Love serves as a guest judge.


Mimi C said…
Because of your preview I was afraid that Jen C was going home at the quickfire. I am so glad she didn't because I picked her as the winner in my TC pool.

Can't say I'm surprised by Hector although I was sure Laurine would go home before him.

Good catch on Mike I. He really needs to step it up in the elimination challenges if he would like perceptions to match his ego.
Amy Beth said…
Wow!! This episode was fantastic. I think they chose the right winner because Bryan's work with the trout was exceptional.

I actually stood up and yelled "WHAT??!" when Mattin denied shooting down Ashley's asparagus veloute.

I simply must find Kevin's restaurant in Atlanta and go. That bacon jam! Wow!

Best episode of the season. So far anyway. I see that Tim Love is on next week's show. I'm looking forward to that. we've had Hubert Keller, Mark Peel and now Tim Love as guest judges this season. I hope John Besh makes a guest judge appearance.
Henley said…
Great episode. So many fantastic dishes! My favorite part, though, was seeing Michael V. and Jen C. work together. They worked brilliantly as a pair! I am glad that Bryan won, though, since he mostly did the dish on his own. Mike I. is pretty useless.
rockauteur said…
I was hoping Mattin would be sent packing. Hector did decently one or two episodes ago, and while not on par with the other great chefs of the season, others deserved to go home before he did... But at least we get rid of Jessy here. Great episode.

They really should just send everyone packing except for Jen C, Kevin, and the brothers. If thats not the final four, then something is royally screwed up.
Tonya Ricucci said…
I'm really enjoying the high quality of this season in which the focus is on the food and not petty bickering. Not at all surprised by who went home. Hector committed a second crime against beef (I haven't forgotten that deep-fried steak) so I was happy to see him go.

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