Top Chef: I've got one ostrich egg fiasco and an order of sour grapes at table 17!

(heh. habits die hard. now correctly titled.)

This episode begins with a little shout-out for the gays in the crowd: a shirtless Prettyboy, and a shot of Ariane (Miss New Jersey, as some have called her) taking a frighteningly large bite of whatever it is she's eating for breakfast, and mowing down on it like there's hyenas in the foyer ready to pounce on the leftovers. (see, boys=cute, girls=gwoss, that's what I'm going for here)

We also learn that Stefan and Fabio are becoming #1 bestest buds, by virtue of both hailing from European nations shaped vaguely like parts of the human anatomy. They see each other as the prime competition. Also, they like to touch each other. No, really, it's true. They're handsy.

I had to rely on Padma's narration (and a little Wikipedia action for the spellcheck) to know that Donatella Arpaia of many restaurants and occasional Food Network appearances would be the guest judge this week. I had to do that, because Bravo kept their promo banner on-screen over the top of the TC caption. I don't care about housewives, Bravo, and neither does anyone else.

The Quickfire challenge will be to craft a signature hot dog (a NY staple, natch), and their weiners will be measured against that of hot dog maven Angelina D'Angelo. I had a smoke alarm incident as the details of the challenge were being laid out, but I think the chefs were either instructed or encouraged to craft their own sausage. Winner gets immunity.

Never has a populace been bred to be unable to pronounce its own homeland more than those from Long Island. And if you couldn't tell, that's where Daniel's from. He told us. At least, I think he did. It was pretty hard to understand. Anyway, the other male foreigners (Stefan and Fabio) are both doing panini-style dogs. Kooky. Indian Radhika continues to show that she's not just a one-note Indian chef by making an Indian-themed hot dog. Wait, what?

The judges breeze through the sampling, noting that Jill decided to use store-bought dogs and didn't do much with them. Radhika's is messy, Eugene's sushi-inflected creation results in the "Hm, thank you" response no one wants to hear. Hosea blends hot peppers and smoky bacon into his flavor profile, and I'm won over. The judges like it, too. Stefan rocks the Wisconsin cheese (reprezent!), but doesn't impress. And Jamie's dog has a bone. Literally. And it's in Padma's mouth. I better stop.

Anyway, the bottom performers are Jill and Stefan, with Radhika (she's Indian), Fabio, and Hosea as the stand-outs. Radhika's Indian hot dog takes the prize, and Radhika gets immunity. Angelina, apropos of very little, tops her dog with mustard, kraut, and relish. Looks good, judges like it, means nothing to the competition.

False starts and Craft

For the Elimination round, the chefs will team up to serve lunch at Tom Colicchio's Craft restaurant. This would be truly fascinating if it hadn't been done last season. As it is, the challenge will be to not only serve up a "New American" lunch menu for 50 diners, but to please the most bitter crowd of never-were douchebags since the I Love New York reunion show: failed applicants for Top Chef.

The breakdown of course responsibility immediately devolves into the friggin' NY Stock Exchange at opening bell, and Prettyboy of all people is the one who steps in and corrals all the mustangs. They all divide into three segments (Fabio, Hosea, Jamie, Melissa, and Leah for appetizers; Stefan, Alex, Eugene, Jill, Jeff for the main courses; and Carla, Ariane, Daniel, Richard, and Radhika as the dessert team), and get 30 minutes and $2,500 to raid Whole Foods.

Hosea's a seafood guy, and decides to try a dish familiar to him but with canned crab instead of his preferred dungeness. I'm sure there's no difference. Jill sees ostrich eggs and decides to take a flyer on this flightless bird for her quiches rather than use standard chicken eggs. I'm sure there's no difference. And Ariane gets the "I'm not a (fill in a dessert-related profession)" out of the way early this season. I'm sure she'll pull it out, though, right?

Back in the kitchen, surprise surprise, Jill's never worked with ostrich eggs and can't even get the fucker open. Tom comes in to deliver the specifics of the challenge (Craft, Top Chef no-calls, whatnot), and we go to commercial break.

Except in the middle of the commercial break, we get Hosea and Leah getting mighty comfy on a bed, chit-chatting with some other chefs. Leah talks about how much she likes having boyfriends, and Fabio chimes in from the confessional that they're getting awfully close. Y'know, to Bone City. And then back to commercials. Wha-ha-happen?

So let's pretend that that little tiny segment, semi-promo, aborted whatchamacallit didn't happen, and get on with the TV show about cooking. Eugene, at this point, makes a swear, and it dawns on me that last season really was as foul-mouthed as we thought it was. This is a group of choir members by comparison.

Carla the caterer, who should be in her element, is making delicate little apple tartlets. She's happy with the crust, but not as much with the filling. Fabio, while expressing his love for Tom and his flamboyantly Italian last name, is doing some arcane and (frankly) frightening thing with his kalamata olives that involves liquefying the insides while leaving the outside almost eggshell-hard. I'm scared of these olives, but it's a bold move similar to the one that Marcel couldn't pull off in the Season 2 finale.

Richard borrows a move from his gay, bearded, reality competititor named Richard counterpart and tries to sabotage Ariane by not telling her her dessert's too sweet. But everyone else does, so it's a non-issue. The 50 worst attitudes in New York (and I believe that's saying something) file in for lunch, and the meal -- expedited by Tom and his Craft head chef -- gets rolling.

Jamie
Dish: Chilled sweet corn soup with mint and chili oil
Feedback: Tasty, diners liking the mint.

Hosea
Dish: Chilled crab salad with citrus vanilla and avocado
Feedback: Slimy, yuck. Hosea...they know it's canned!

Fabio
Dish: Beef carpaccio with arugula salad, aged parmesan, and those freaky kalamata olives
Feedback: The judges, at least, are absolutely digging the olives.

Leah
Dish: Yukon potato and scallops
Feedback: I missed the detailed description, but it's clear it's a bad dish. Scallops are sandy, presentation is 80's.

Melissa
Dish: Grilled avocado, peaches, vinaigrette
Feedback: Boring.

Jill
Dish: Ostrich egg quiche with a rice-pecan crust, asparagus
Feedback: Tastes like glue, looks like dog food. Color me shocked--SHOCKED.

Eugene
Dish: Open-faced meatloaf sandwich with polenta
Feedback: Cruddy presentation, difficult to eat. Of course, the failures were unimpressed with meatloaf (their monocles fell into their cocktails and everything).

Stefan
Dish: Seared halibut with microgreens and ravioli
Feedback: Light and rich (from the same person, who didn't appear to realize that the two are generally contradictory), presented very well.

Jeff
Dish: Chicken with honey mustard and chorizo, corn spoonbread
Feedback: Chorizo wins anyone's heart, even if he was the slowest service in the kitchen.

Alex
Dish: Pork tenderloin with potatoes and fresh vegetables
Feedback: Terrible. As in, actually bad.

Radhika
Dish: Citrus-avocado mousse, chocolate wontons with Kahlua
Feedback: Basically sweet guacamole. That's not a good thing. Although, it's not Indian! See?

Daniel
Dish: Ricotta pound cake with pistachios and a strawberry coulis
Feedback: A respectable effort, fairly tasty.

Ariane
Dish: Charred lemon meringue martini over cherries and a cookie crust
Feedback: Like all the other chefs said, it's way too sweet. Oh, and PADMA SPITS HERS OUT. On-camera. Damn.

Richard
Dish: Some peanut butter, banana, and jelly-ish sandwichy thing. There was another false alarm because of our weird oven, and I missed some of the description.
Feedback: Seemed to think it was fun, after-schoolish.

Carla
Dish: Rustic apple tart with ginger-peach tea, apple chips, and a slice of yellow (her word, not mine; I'd assume cheddar) cheese
Feedback: Cheese was sweaty and unappealing, but the tarts were great.

Shockingly, the Sour Grapes Squad is thoroughly unimpressed and disappointed. Not much more surprisingly, Tom is disappointed too. He describes the collective effort as setting back the New American cuisine movement by 20 years. It went from New AMERICAN to New OLD, REGIONAL American. That's a bad thing.

So, at the Judges' Table, Tom commends the service and setup in the kitchen, but tells the chefs that their food was generally not so nice. Jamie, Hosea, Ariane, Fabio, Carla, and Jill are called to the table.

The judges indicate that there were a few bright spots. Carla is first. They loved the pastry, but Tom wished the cheese had been incorporated more, rather than just plopped down. Regardless, it was Padma's favorite dessert. They then turn to Fabio, who at first opportunity starts blathering about how strongly he felt about his dish and he was surprised that he was here. Of course, it was clear that the judges liked his dish, and he didn't give them the chance to say so. But once they do, they hail his fresh and bright flavor profile, and the grilled lemon in particular. The olives, Tom tells him, will get you noticed. Jamie's corn soup has good balance, clean flavors, and appropriate seasonality.

The winner is Fabio, for most surprising, best overall dish, and best absurd grasp of language and cultural convention. Euros 2, everyone else, 0.

The stinkers are led by Hosea, who honestly thought he was in the top 3. He wasn't. The diners found it too sweet, the judges found it underseasoned, and everyone thought it had a funny taste. Amazingly, no one breaches the subject of fresh vs. canned, including Hosea. The good idea on paper just didn't come together. With Ariane, the judges found no real vitality to the dish, and of course there was the spit-take.

Jill has, to this point, struck me as a doofus. Probably trips a lot. Thinks Borat isn't just funny, but is a great documentary. But her appearance at Judges' Table has me completely convinced that she isn't even a chef. I'm told that her audition video is the one we saw a snippet of in the premier, with a bikini-clad chickypoo sunning herself. I'm thinking she amazed her TA in college by cracking an egg over her Ramen, and that gave her this false impression that she's a chef, or, like, something.

Anyway, the judges indicate that Jill's dish could have been special, but was painted into a corner by the insistence on working with ostrich egg. I'm wondering if Tom's ever had ostrich egg. I haven't personally, but I know a little bit about 'em, and I doubt that an ostrich egg quiche could ever be even good, much less special. Anyway, Jill appears to be on the verge of a dissociative state as she begins to fumble through her defense, which says nothing about the specific dish, nothing about her specific philosophy, and instead is a bunch of catchphrases akin to athletes talking about taking it one game at a time and giving 110%. Her inability to express herself in any meaningful way makes Tom grimace.

Clearly, the biggest strikes among many are as follows. Hosea: overconfidence. Ariane: Padma's spit take. Jill: as Gail put it, "the lamest defense of any food" in Top Chef history. Combined with a really terrible dish, and you can tell who's leaving. Jill, don't trip over the seam in the carpet on your way out the lobby.

Ariane cries in the stew room, weeping "I don't deserve [to still be here]." Well, don't worry, sweetie. Your performance has been uniformly bad so far, and your luck can't hold out forever. Next week, Thanksgiving dinner...for the Foo Fighters...in an outdoor, makeshift kitchen...? Plus, "vegetarians don't eat fish all the time!" Brilliant!