Top Chef: ¡Qué Rico!

This episode was so supremely pleasing. To borrow a line from Dr. Perry Cox in Scrubs, "it's delicious. It's like a little mini-meal between lunch and dinner." But as with any good meal, we've got to start at the beginning.

The chaff is (mostly) winnowed out of the contestant pool, and the winking pre-Quickfire editing is similarly reduced. After some "gotta stay focused" chatter from Stephanie, we get straight to the meat of the episode. Literally. The chefs head not to the Quickfire kitchen, but to Allen Brothers, a prestigious Chicago meat market (not to be confused with Sidetrack on Halsted, which is an entirely different meat market).

The challenge might be one of the cruelest and most demanding in Top Chef history: take a full rack of dry aged, long bone ribeye, break it down into chops, and french them into a "tomahawk chop." That may not seem so terrible, but just wait.

Spike announces that both of his grandfathers were butchers. Is anyone surprised at Spike's self-aggrandizing anymore? As my fiancée commented, at least he didn't say "all three of my grandfathers were butchers." Regardless of his throbbing sense of self, Spike does a very good job of butchering his meat. But then, the chefs are told to pack their steaks and go--to the Top Chef kitchen, where they meet Chicago restaurateur Rick Tramonto.

After some terrible ADR from Padma (who sounded like she re-recorded in an airplane bathroom), the chefs are tasked with cooking one of their chops not to taste, but simply to a perfect medium rare. Stephanie's chops look like dishrags, thin and ragged, and she doesn't appear to give them enough time. Antonia appears confident, while Richard and Spike both seem to undercook their meat. Lisa handles herself fairly well. In the end, Stephanie's bad butchery and Richard's apparently terrible butchery (by Tramonto's appraisal) doom them to the bottom. Antonia and Lisa are at the top with Spike, whose "amazing" butchery might have covered up for what I thought was a very rare steak. Spike wins. I'm nervous.

Spike is running the show

Notice I said running, not ruining. Spike's shenanigans made no noticeable appearance this week, but he is once again put at the head of a restaurant operation. Actually, so is every other chef. They're being entrusted with running Rick Tramonto's new restaurant, Tramonto's Steak and Seafood, for one dinner serving. Each chef will offer a starter and a main course (did you know that North America is alone in using the word "entrée" to mean the main course? everywhere else, it's the course that precedes the main course). Each chef will cook and plate his or her own menu items as they are ordered by the diners. And as Quickfire winner, Spike gets first choice of protein for each of his courses, with exclusivity.

Not surprisingly, Spike is itching for a "battle of the sexes" in the finale. Good ol' Captain Misogyny. Richard, meanwhile, feels the need to prove himself to the judges. There's no difference to him between going home now and being the first to go.

The chefs arrive at Tramonto's, and Antonia immediately puts the boot in Spike's ass to get choosin'. He takes the same tomahawks that he "fell in love with" during the QF, as well as some frozen scallops. The eyes of every single other chef in the room widen, as they have all realized that those scallops are shit. Not until they've thawed does Spike come to the same realization. It is at this point that Chef Tom strolls in.

After worrying about Richard's "straightforward" ideas for his dishes, and showing us that trademarked patronizing bemusement at Lisa's choices, he lays down the details. There will be around 60 guests, and Tom will be the kitchen expediter (isn't that a movie with Jason Statham?). The judges (Padma, Rick, Gail) will be sitting with three VIP guests, who turn out to be Harold, Ilan and Hung, the first three Top Chef winners. Ilan is mighty frank with his advice to the current contestants: "don't shave anyone's head tonight." The haters will probably interpret that as ego or smarm, but I liked it.

So, Spike starts to worry and second-guess, but keeps on plugging away at those damp scallops. Richard continues to psych himself up by reminding himself how long he's been in the competition. And then, as the chefs begin to round the final turn of prep, Tom pops back in and informs them that the judges' table will want a tasting menu of every dish. one thought of that. Kinda funny. I picture all the chefs with rulers and kitchen scales and compasses and calculators trying to re-cut their dishes to 1/3 size.

The judges get a-chewin'. Lisa offers grilled-n-chilled shrimp with lemon zest and tomato salad with crostini, and a NY strip with an apple caramel sauce and peanut butter mashed potatoes with haricot vert. Opinions are mildly complimentary towards her starter, and mixed on the main. Tramonto actually likes the derided-by-Tom peanut butter mashed, but the strip is underseasoned and tough.

Richard is one of two chefs to use sweetbreads (see the latest Deep End Dining post for more on this culinary misnomer), and makes a pseudo-bacon of hamachi to accompany them. Yuzu, apple, and avocado tie it all together. His main course is a tenderloin filet with potatoes, puréed turnips and pickled Brussels sprouts. While Richard's overall-good main course suffers from stupid disjointed plating, his starter completely wows everyone at the table.

Spike, with his QF advantage, attemtps a seared scallop with hearts of palm and oyster mushrooms, as well as those tomahawk chops with sweet potato purée, Brussels sprouts and cippolinis. Ilan criticizes the starter as feeling dehydrated and boring, while the main course blows no one's mind. The meat is good on its own, but the dish just doesn't come together.

Stephanie accompanies Richard to the sweetbread aisle, pairing hers with golden raisins and pine nuts with haricot vert and bacon. Her main course, tenderloin with a wild mushroom purée and apple sauce, is described as gorgeous, well-blended. The starter is hailed as impressive, and exactly what Spike's was missing.

Antonia puts together a mushroom artichoke salad with poached egg and a bacon vinaigrette, whose only real redeeming feature is a perfectly poached egg. Soggy, somewhat low on flavor, it is inoffensive but mediocre. Her bone-in ribeye with fennel and cippolinis, however, blows Tramonto away. It's rich, but everyone really likes it.

As the scene shifts to the stew rooms, it's very clear that there is just no way that Spike and Lisa both make it through to the 51st state. That's a very good thing, and when Padma calls everyone out together, it was a moment of unusual comfort in knowing that there wouldn't be another early exit travesty like last week.

The opinions expressed at the meal are all pretty directly translated to the Judges' Table. Among the few surprises, Tom applauds Stephanie's level-headedness and calm under pressure (WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH THE REAL STEPHANIE). But the big whopper was Spike. And can I say this? One of the most brazen, ass-holish things he's said in the entire season was the one that I liked the most. Everyone takes him to task for the horrible scallops. If you're the chef, you've got to come up with a Plan B. If you're the restaurateur, Tramonto says, you've got to turn those pencil erasers away at the door.

Spike's (paraphrased) response? "To be fair, they were in your fridge."

Pardon me.

OH NO HE DINT. Oh, but he did. The jaws of his fellow chefs drop, and Tramonto maintains more calm than I'd expect from anyone in that position, but he certainly takes it right back to Spike. It was still your mistake for using them. "Wrong move," he slammed.

Back in the stew room, even Spike is amazed at the amount of foot in his mouth. Out at the judges' table, Tom is happy with the degree to which the chefs' products were self-contained. If I may, Tom? If you want the chefs to be self-contained, stop giving them team catering challenges! Regardless of that little bit of uninsightful stupidity, the judges essentially get it right. Richard's in on the strength of his starter. Antonia's in on the strength of her main course. But Stephanie, whose menu was the most well-rounded and took the right kind of chances, is declared the winner of this challenge. She gets a cookbook, and oh yeah, the full suite of GE Monogram appliances as used in the TC kitchen.

Both Spike and Lisa get the "you're not learning anything from us" chiding. Lisa, having been at the bottom five times, isn't showing whatever is driving her in this competition. She's apathetic and not pushing hard enough. Spike, a basement-dweller seven times (and a bottom-feeder roughly since puberty, I'm guessing), made a huge mistake with the scallops and isn't precise and careful enough to support his "simple food" ethos. And while I had been starting to think that Spike was going to sneak by this week, I was blessedly wrong. Good bye, Captain Misogyny! You can take your "lots of strive," and your stupid hats, and your total lack of scruples, and just walk away. Just walk.

Stay tuned next week, as Lisa appears to have done away with any pretense of non-butch-itude, and Richard has become a murderous psychopath! See ya in Puerto Rico.