Okay, I'm depressed now.
Sure, I knew that there was only really one way this would play out, but it doesn't help the fact that last night's episode of Top Chef ("Second Helping") was a bitter little pill to swallow. Perhaps it's the fact that the chef I was pushing for the hardest to win isn't there anymore, or it's the feeling that there now isn't a single clear front-runner in the series. Either way, I really wasn't all that happy with the judges last night. But in retrospect, I suppose it was better that they made good on their promise to send someone home after the second take of Restaurant Wars than to send two people home to make up for last week's freebie.
Another Quickfire Challenge that didn't involve any cooking, but unlike the food knowledge challenge (farfalle pasta, anyone?), I did think that this challenge -- a timed mise-en-place task -- was both interesting and appropriate for the competition. I just really do not know why the Restaurant April team would pick Casey to finely dice five onions quickly. Speed is not her strong suit at all and she was completely outpaced by Sara, who proved herself quite adept with a knife. And it was no surprise that Hung managed to break down those chickens with superhuman speed.
The reward for the winning team: an extra $200 and the chance to consult with a sommelier to pair their courses with wine. I don't know why anyone was surprised by the identity of this sommelier. It was clear to me as soon as Padma read the prize that it would be Season One's Stephen; how much more obvious did the producers have to make that before the contestants twigged to the sommelier's identity? In any event, Stephen proved himself to be the one constant in this culinary series. No matter whether he's providing a service or in the competition, he's still going to be the same didactic, overblown guy from Season One.
(Aside: what the hell was up with guest judge Geoffrey Zakarian, of New York's Town and Country restaurants, last night? He was just really, really unpleasant.)
The teams were also given the, er, privilege of working with Miami interior designer Christopher Ciccone (a.k.a. Madonna's brother) who gave each of their raw restaurant spaces a makeover. I do have to say that I thought that Restaurant April's space looked a hell of a lot better before the transformation (thanks to Casey's original, pared down, simple designs) than after. Stenciling a quote across a wall? Haven't we moved past that mid-'90s look already? Meanwhile, I do agree with Dale that the Garage's new design, as transformed into Quatre, did look like Valentine's Day threw up all over the place. Red and white? Ick. But the red carpet? Even worse. (Shudder.)
In terms of the food, I do have to say that Quatre was a full head and shoulders above the other team. They took on board all of the criticism they received last week, both from the judges and that obnoxious food blogger, and transformed their menu into a streamlined and modernized New American bistro menu that was appropriate for the space and forward-thinking. They also jettisoned the dishes that didn't work and kept the ones that did (like Hung's Salade Nicoise take on tuna tartare).
Kudos to Sara for running the kitchen smoothly and efficiently, while also keeping some very rigorous quality controls in place. (Pity that can't usually be said for her own dishes on a weekly basis.) Her dish, a halibut with grapes and braised leeks, was a symphony of flavors and perfectly poised. Dale's starter, a poussin with mint gnocchi, sweet pea puree, carrots, and hazelnuts, was beautiful. I'm glad that Fresh Market was nearly out of rabbit that day. It was evocative, imaginative, and gorgeously plated, not to mention completely original and unexpected. Howie's lamb with white beans and fried shallots was also stunning and I was happy to see him tone down the robustness and size of the meat course. Their desserts, consisting of a choice between Hung's crepes from last episode and a silky panna cotta with fresh berries, were equally well thought out.
Meanwhile, over at Restaurant April, it really did seem like amateur hour. I was not impressed that Brian didn't cook a single dish and still didn't do all that effective job in the front of the house, leaving Tre to shoulder most of the brunt of the actual prep and cooking. CJ and Casey both contributed a barely more than single dish each. CJ prepared a lobster salad with arugula, capers, raisins, and caramelized cauliflower, while Casey provided a carrot, coconut and ginger soup with shiitake bacon and a monkfish dish with mascarpone potatoes, but both were completely subpar. CJ's lobster salad was over-salted and the individual ingredients didn't ever mesh into a cohesive dish (lobster AND raisins AND capers?), while Casey's monkfish was overcooked and lackluster.
But the judges reserved their vitriol for Tre's house-cured salmon, a dish that judge Ted Allen said was one of the worst he's tasted in years. (Ouch.) I'm not really sure why Tre paired a delicate beet-cured salmon with a macadamia nut pesto, especially when the last combo I'd ever consider is fish, garlic, and cheese. It really was a messy, out-there dish that was just so far beneath Tre's skills as a chef, and it contrasted so sharply with his starter, that gorgeous scallop with a corn and truffle pudding.
The same held true for the dessert: a Granny Smith apple bread pudding that was just an exercise in futility. The apples weren't peeled and were hard and chunky and the bread wasn't properly cooked. A bread pudding is meant to be silky, swathed in a creamy vanilla custard that envelopes every single piece, while this just looked like a bowl of cereal with apple pieces. Not Tre's best effort, but he really wasn't effectively supported by his team, either.
I knew that it would be Tre who would be packing his knives but that didn't make the judges' decision any easier. Sure, Tre was the team's executive chef and therefore largely responsible for a.) pushing the menu and b.) propelling the team forward, which he really didn't do in any capacity. They didn't support him and he had the most to do in the kitchen, on top of deciding the direction the menu would go in. Sigh. I know that it was the only decision the judges could make but I am really sad to see Tre go. I think he had an enormous talent and a fantastic vision and I was hoping he'd make it to the final two. But, as in life, things rarely turn out the way you want them to on Top Chef.
In two weeks on Top Chef, the contestants are given an extremely low budget to do their thang; Howie freaks out in the kitchen and then speaks out at the judges' table, shocking the chefs and no one in the audience!
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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.