Front of House Shenanigans Shake up the Top Chefs

I always love the "Restaurant Wars" installation of Bravo's culinary competition series, Top Chef. After all, it forces 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 so that they never really see the big picture.

Last night's episode of "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," to Howie for his black truffle and taleggio burger with tomato and radicchio, and to 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 handpick 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 cookware. 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 beef tenderloin with smoked fingerling potatoes and port reduction. The potatoes were completely over-smoked 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 team but 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, as a take on the classic salade Niçoise, 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. The same applied to 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.

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. Aside from the mind-blowing 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 kitschy 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 something like service or 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 part two of the fabled "Restaurant Wars": the teams must work together to relaunch their individual eateries and win over some notoriously picky diners, while the judges make a very unexpected decision... like maybe sending two chefs to pack their knives?

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Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionaryblog.com.