Top Chef: Love means never having to say "Sahana"

I don't know if I can put my finger on it, but this episode of Top Chef did not feel like Restaurant Wars episodes of past seasons. Is Tom normally absent until tasting? I don't think so. Don't we tend to see more of the planning and decorating? What is this, a food show?

To everyone who called it and worried about it and hoped against it after last week's show, I can only say I'm sorry; you were right. The producers are indeed crafting The HoseL to be the overarching drama of the back half of the season. Blech.

The Quickfire opens with a lingering shot of an oven. Must be this week's highlighted sponsor. Padma introduces us to restaurateur Stephen Starr, operator of Buddakan and Morimoto among other luminaries. Here, Padma shows the influence of a British author ex-husband: no one says "restauranteur" but the Brits, Padma.

Everyone already knows what Padma says next: it's Restaurant Wars. So, I guess that means no Rocco this week, eh? (I'll make that joke every Restaurant Wars until the show ends, I don't care if it's not funny anymore) For the Quickfire, chefs, you'll be creating a tasting plate to impress the pants off your money, i.e. the restaurateur. The top two will be the owner/chefs of the forthcoming restaurants.

With 30 minutes and unfettered access to the Top Chef kitchen, the chefs do nothing but seafood. Okay, Fabio also includes a filet mignon sandwich in his lunch sampler plate (it's an aspect he wants to pursue in his restaurant, but it sounds like he says "aspic," which is another thing entirely).

Radhika complains that she doesn't like Quickfires, which is funny because she keeps winning them. Jamie, meanwhile, doesn't want to win because she knows she's more likely to go home as a leader than to win it all. That's the spirit, Jamie! Go team!

So Carla does cod, Hosea does shrimp, Leah makes poussin sound about as boring and detached as a chef ever could, Stefan does trout, Jeff grills some salmon, Jamie goes with (no, not scallops!) sea bass, and Fabio splits time between tuna and swordfish carpaccio and the aforementioned filet mignon sandwich that is definitely not a cheesesteak, no matter what Mr. Bigshot Stephen Starr calls it.

Jeff, whose salmon won't be blowing away any investors any time soon, and Fabio, whose passion doesn't translate into food that inspires an investment, find themselves at the bottom. The winners are Radhika (whose "global influence" food apparently represents a rising influence in cuisine...?), and in a total shocker to me at least, Leah (whose food is clean and forward-thinking).

What exactly does "Sunset Lounge" mean, anyway?

To begin the Elimination round, the team leaders make questionable and highly portentious picks for their Restaurant Wars staff. Leah immediately picks Hosea, while Radhika goes out of her way to not pick Stefan. So Team Leah/Hosea/Fabio/Stefan will go up against Team Radhika/Jamie/Carla/Jeff. There is clearly a talent pile-up on one side of this battle, but Team Three-Quarters Talented also has a black hole of suck for a leader.

Each team will get 30 minutes to plan, $5,000 to spend at Pier 1, and another $3,000 to shop for food. They'll be given six hours to prep, cook, and open. Radhika's team will draw inspiration from the old spice trade (does that run through India?), and takes the name "Sahana." Leah's team decides to go with an Asian influence (what did Tony Bourdain say about a pan-Asian approach?), but doesn't decide on a name until Stefan and Hosea brainstorm in the SEQUOIA and Stefan announces that "Sunset Lounge" is perfect! Um. It's fine, I guess?

Jeff refuses to do front of house. He's here to cook. PSSST...JEFF...you're winking and tossing your locks in the opening credits. Be the face, Prettyboy. Be like Fabio. Fabio grabs ahold of the front duties and runs with 'em. White suit, black shirt, thickened accent...he knows what's up. And Radhika, don't you know by now that if you want to find Carla in a store, you just shout "hootie"?

The decor is typically cheap; it's Pier 1. Good luck finding anything that isn't Asian-inspired there. Sahana goes with anything that doesn't look "Asian," which means their restaurant's gonna start looking like Noah's Ark if they're not careful. Stefan is a smart chef and remembers the lesson about scented candles. Leah is not a smart chef, and gives up on trying to dictate her vision to the members of her team. But no worries; Hosea's there to support her pariah complex and foment discord and tension on HIS OWN DAMNED TEAM. Moron. It was at this point in the evening that I wondered if Hosea wasn't the one to go tonight, for being distracted by being the bestest best friend in study hall.

And then the porn music starts. The peep-show hidden cameras whirr into life, and there's The HoseL, entwinted on a narrow sofa in the apartment after a long day of buying tchotchkes and battling Finns. Cue shloppy kissing noises. I'm wishing Bravo would go the Joe Millionaire route and provide us with a [slurp gulp slurp] on-screen caption. Because then I could plug my ears as Leah turns up the Joey Lauren Adams voice to full squeak.

The next morning, Hosea is shocked -- SHOCKED -- that it went as far as it did. He says they "flirted" too much. Hosea, buddy. I'm gonna break it to you. It's not "flirting" when there are noises like that, overmiked or not. But it's clear that the tension (It's not romantic tension, though! They've both got significant others!) is going to fuck with at least one of them in the kitchen.

I don't know anything about the Bridgewater Restaurant, where this week's prep and cooking occurs, but I think they might need to call in the Maytag -- err, GE -- repairman. No one's frozen items are freezing, and multiple ovens are misperforming. Meanwhile, Leah just can't get those bones out of her snapper (restraint...restraint...), and is forced to cut a big chunk out rather than properly deboning the fish.

Line of the night: Fabio, in discussing the many ways he will woo and wow the diners and judges, sums it up by saying that with his charm and guile, not to mention his white suit, Team Sunset Lounge could "serve monkey ass in empty clam shell" and still win. Fabio, I officially love you.

Radhika's flailing, on the other hand. She's not being enough of a leader, she's drifting through the kitchen without really doing anything, and when diner start arriving, she's obviously out of her element. She serves up commentary for each of Sahana's dishes in a rigid and nervous manner.

-Whole wheat nan (it's fine, but it could just be because the judges are hungry)
-Curried carrot soup with smoked paprika and raita
-Seared scallop over chickpea cake (loving it)
-White lentil tabouli and seared snapper with tomato water and pea shoots (no one wants their fish still swimming, but other than that it's tasty)
-Cinnamon and saffron braised lamb shank on a bed of couscous (couscous bad, lamb good, and it had even been frozen -- amazing!)
-Spiced chocolate cake with crème fromage and cashew brittle (no, no, and no)
-Fig and Minted frozen yogurts (with no spoons at the table, or apparently forthcoming, these melted desserts do NOT do Sahana or Carla in particular any favors)

I've given Toby Young a lot of leeway. He's establishing himself to the Top Chef audience. But I'm done. Officially. Toby, stop. The next time I hear you say "This (food item) is like," I'm going to mute the TV until you're off-camera.

Anyway, Radhika disappears for huge chunks of time, only appearing to make the guests feel stressed out and confused, and the judges decide to see if they can get up and leave without a good-bye or a thank you. They do. Ouch.

Cut to Fabio, melting hearts and lighting candles throughout the Sunset Lounge dining room. Clearly, there's a winner and a loser when it comes to front-of-house. He elocutes, in a luxuriously thick accent, the menu for his team:

-Vegetable roll of mushroom, carrots, and cabage with a sweet chili sauce (while the judges disliked it, one diner stated that "it amused my bouche," bomething tells me that was Fabio, not the egg roll)
-Tuna and salmon sashimi with radish salad (not bad, pretty bland though)
-Coconut curry shrimp bisque (meh, okay; sensing a theme to this menu?)
-Braised short ribs with ginger (well-cooked and demiglace'd)
-Seared black cod with cabbage (this was Leah's dish, and it's a total disaster: undercooked and accompanied by an inedibly salty sauce. The judges don't finish theirs, nor do they want a replacement serving)
-Chocolate rice parfait with grapefruit jelly (loved it, wanted more)
-Lemongrass and ginger panna cotta (terrific)
-Frozen mango, bitter chocolate, and ginger lollipop (this blows the judges away, innovative and perfect)

While Leah's announcement that she doesn't care that the fish was undercooked ("I thought it was cooked") would normally be enough to send someone home, I'm left with the clear thought that Stefan could win (for his desserts) off of the losing team, while Radhika (whose team's food seemed more well-received) could actually go home off of the winning team. Indeed, she says that going home is all she wants to do, although I think she just means the TC apartment. But the way the judges are talking about Fabio's service and Stefan's desserts, it's looking like Sunset Lounge could indeed get the win.

The mid-break vignette is silly and perfect, with no annoying HoseL action (although since it's taking up the main plot now, I'm not sure I like the trade-off). Jeff is apparently a freaky magician, and it blows folks away in the stew room. Stefan and Fabio share a confessional again, which I love.

To begin Judges' Table, Padma calls out Sunset Lounge. By a slim margin, the diners actually preferred their food. Obviously, that's because the desserts were so much better; best final impression goes on the scorecard. The judges make no mistake about it: Fabio and Stefan won this for Leah's team. Her cod, on the other hand, was terrible and should have cost her the competition. Instead, she stays and Stefan gets another win (plus wouldn't you know it, a full suite of GE Monogram appliances!). Stefan, send out the meat.

Radhika, your team lost. What went wrong? "I'm not sure." What the hell, Radhika? You couldn't have thought up a better excuse than "I'm not sure" while sitting in the stew room? For that, you deserve the absolute reaming that the judges proceed to give you. Sure, Carla's desserts were awful, and she should have accepted help when offered it, and she busts out some crazy that almost makes the guest judges want to inflict violence upon her, but other than one brief moment when I thought it might be Carla, it's Radhika's loss from the first word. Carla, "keep the 'love' in the kitchen and send out good desserts." Radhika, you're toast.

Next week, Top Chef All-Stars! Is it any wonder that Carla loves Andrew?