Top Chef: Masters - This can't be Top Chef. It's too NICE.

I hope you're not mad at me, readers. But I had a wonderful wedding and an even more wonderful honeymoon in Montreal, and I didn't even get to watch the last two episodes of Top Chef: Masters until this last Tuesday morning's re-airing. And even then, I kinda fell asleep during Michael Chiarello's victory. I do know that Roy Yamaguchi seems to have become a restaurateur now and is not so much of a "chef" in the "working in a kitchen" sense anymore.

(If you'd like to read a little more about my mostly food-related adventures in Montreal, you can read about them on my annotated map journal here)

Anyway, this week's episode is the first of the Championship Round, where the six winners come together and give each other shoulder rubs while knocking out precise brunoises. Seriously, last week was collegial. This week was a friggin' church lock-in.

For a refresher, your competing chefs are Hubert Keller, Suzanne Tracht, Anita Lo, Rick Bayless, Michael Chiarello, and Art Smith.

The Quickfire Challenge, it is revealed, will take after the much-enjoyed mise en place relay race from Season 4; you remember, the one where Asian Dale (as opposed to Season 3's Gay Dale) broke both a locker door with his fist, and the sound barrier with his frustrated exclamation of "FUCK!" The teams this week are divided by knife draw into Team Salt and Team Pepper. Obviously, Hubert's on Team Salt. Ain't no pepper up there, sister!

Tom Colicchio and his slightly ill-fitting pants arrive to provide the usual whistle-tweeting and supervision. (Where's Michael Kors to tell him that crotch is a little insane? Oh--Lifetime, that's right.) Like these chefs need it. Each team of three will compete in four events, with one chef going twice: oyster shucking, onion dicing, chicken breaking-down, and egg separating/white whisking.

Hubert goes up against Team Pepper's Suzanne in oyster shucking and makes up almost all of a sizeable lead built up by Chef Tracht in a fairly superhuman display of acceleration. Chef Keller then clears the board and goes right to work on his onions against Art Smith. Using a technique Rick Bayless has "never seen before" (read: amateur hour), Smith nonetheless whips up on Keller.

Chicken breakdown was one of the highlights of the original run of this competition, I'm thinking because at its most adept, it combines seeming brutality with a graceful fluidity of motion. Anita Lo of Team Salt battles Michael Chiarello, showing much more intuition and feel for the weak spots of the bird's joints, and how to cut through them without needing leverage. She eats up almost all of Art Smith's onion lead.

I think I mentioned it in my recap of his winning episode, but I've always had a vague disdain for Rick Bayless. Can't really tell you why. I just have. I think maybe it's his supreme self-assuredness combined with jarred mass-market salsa. But damned if he isn't defeating my ability to dislike him with every appearance. He faces off against Art, who returns to the stage for egg separation. Michael Chiarello cheers from off-camera, "Get those limp wrists going, Art!" I'm not sure if he's sure that'll be received well, or if it was just supposed to melt into the background.

Anyway, Bayless is just so smooth, and he acquits himself so well in the task that even before his whisk makes machine-like work of the egg whites, it's clear that Smith has no hope of holding on to the lead. Bayless goes from gloppy whites to stiff peaks almost before Smith finishes fishing two errant yolks out of his whites. Team Salt (Keller/Lo/Bayless) takes the relay.

As a lead-in to the Elimination Challenge, Kelly Choi tells the chefs that they're to whip up their signature dish for the other chefs as a "getting to know you" kind of moment. What could be a forced moment of inter-chef smooshiness in a show that really isn't lacking for smooshiness, turns out to be the key to the Elimination. After enjoying all the dishes, the chefs will be tasked with recreating one of their competitor's signature meal. As the double-duty chef of the winning QF team, Hubert gets to pick while the others draw knives.

Bayless' reaction sums up why I'm starting to like him so much: "That's mean!" He articulates a discomfiture in having to take the passion of one person and co-opt it. I can't help but love that thoughtfulness.

Anyway, the assignments are as follows:

-Hubert Keller will recreate Anita Lo's seared scallop with bacon, sea urchin roe, and mustard greens over potato purée.
-Anita Lo, in turn, will recreate Keller's lobster and truffle cappuccino with a sweet corn madeleine.
-Suzanne Tracht will recreate Art Smith's seared grouper with hearts of palm and trumpet mushrooms.
-Art Smith will recreate Tracht's chopped sirloin with green peppercorn sauce and a fried egg.
-Michael Chiarello will recreate Rick Bayless' rack of lamb with black pasilla chile sauce and mission figs.
-Rick Bayless will recreate Chiarello's seared quail with fennel and grapes.

The chefs get 45 minutes and $300 to shop, and ample time to chit chat with the confessional. This series really has been a Meet Your Chefs, America kind of experience, and I'm digging it. Suzanne admits that her mother, a great cook in her own right, does a napkin-worthy fish and Suzanne will have to improve on that ability to win this round. Rick chooses to not Mexify Michael's dish, which is impressive (damn you, Bayless!).

Anita's lobster tries to make a break for it; she nabs it, then apologizes for having to do what Bravo actually shows her doing--a proper kitchen dispatch of a live lobster, knife to the back of the neck. Just like the alien/human hybrids in X-Files! Anyone? Up top? No?

Art turns Suzanne's comfort-foody burger with egg into a Scotch egg with lamb, which is fine if maybe a little--ahem--artless. Michael calls the caul fat netting "Sicilian pantyhose," which is grotesquely funny. At the end of prep, Suzanne has finished and plated with more than a couple minutes left, and Art is worried about his lamb being underdone for the sake of making sure his egg isn't overdone.

The critics for this episode are the original line-up--Jay Rayner returns to Gail's well-boobified chair alongside Gael Greene and James Oseland--as well as departed chefs from the first 6 weeks of Top Chef: Masters. It's just one big buddy-fest here, kids! Everyone loves everyone.

Art goes first with his Flintstonian mass of lamb, accompanied by sweet potato fries, a biscuit, and a tomato tart. Chef Cimarusti calls it "Art on a plate," which should not be confused with "art on a plate," as it is most certainly not that. His little comfort sides go over well, but wouldn't you know it--Art has managed to undercook his lamb and overcook his egg. D'oh!

Rick brings out his non-Mexican quail stuffed with parsnips and prosciutto over pancetta-cooked wild greens. Everyone notes two things: Rick has stepped out of his traditional role, and he has married a lot of diverse ingredients really, really well. Everyone loves (even more than they already do).

Next is Suzanne's roasted grouper with gnocchi, bacon, peas, and roasted parsnips. Clearly, her timing issue was more significant than she thought. The fish coasted past "done" well into "overdone" territory, and has cooled off just like her gnocchi. Tough, cold...hard to succeed with those flaws, even with bacon.

Hubert comes next, presenting his seared scallop with cream of sea urchin over mashed fingerling potatoes. Have gone the subtle route with his roe, Keller might have tripped over his own fanciness (as Art might have called it); most diners agree that the urchiny aspects are barely detectable. But the scallop, on the other hand, is delectable and cooked perfectly.

Michael's chickpea-dusted rack of lamb stuffed with fig mostarda and fried rosemary comes through to the diners as a good start on a great dish. They find it a little underseasoned, but love the chickpea crust. Seems to be a safe dish, neither great nor disappointing. The lamb was too rare for Oseland.

Anita Lo, scourge of chickens and lobsters, serves last. She takes Keller's very simple dish into three very creative deconstructive directions: a corn and lobster chawanmushi (kind of a savory Japanese flan), a champange gelée, and a biscuit sandwich of raw lobster knuckle (yes, a knuckle sandwich for the critics). They're all frankly blown away. She clearly suffered no culinary intimidation in facing a classy French dish from a classical French chef.

At the Critics's Table, things break down as you'd expect from the reactions at the dinner table. Hubert's sauce was too subtle, but he defends it well by saying that Pacific urchin is more subtly flavored than French Atlantic urchin. Anita credits her mother's Tennessee education for her perfect Southern biscuits. Art cops to his egg issues (on display in both the Quickfire and Elimination challenges).

Rick's interpretation, displaying what Oseland calls a "fresh innocence" regarding Italian cookery, is hailed by all--and Rick blushes charmingly at Oseland's phrase. Yes, Rick, I like you now. Michael defends his light use of chiles by saying that he'd only do so inartfully compared to Bayless, and wouldn't want to step all over his lamb in the process. Only Suzanne seems a little oblivious to the flaws of her dish, looking a little surprised that the fish was as overcooked as it was. It's not looking good for Suzanne.

The scores are delivered. Rick and Anita are the top two. Rick gets 5 for the QF, another 4.5 from the diners, and 5/4/4.5 from the critics for 23 total stars. Anita, also with 5 from the QF and 4.5 from the diners, gets 5/4.5/5 from the clearly-wowed judges, giving her the one-star victory over Bayless. They should both be considered front-runners, even before this performance.

The bottom four all look very nervous, but really it's a bottom two-and-a-half. There's almost no chance of Keller exiting, and Michael Chiarello should probably be safe for the figs and chickpeas, even if the lamb was a little underdone for the obviously-wussy James Oseland.

Michael scores 4 + 3, with 3.5/4/4 from the critics for 18.5 total stars. Hubert Keller is next, passing through to the next round with 5 + 4 and 4.5/4/4 from the critics for 21.5. Art, jolly but probably doomed, scores 4 + 3, 2.5/3/2.5 for 15 stars, sending Michael on to the next round. Suzanne's score will be truly unfortunate if she's to lose to Art, and when she scores 4 + 3 and 2.5/2.5/2.5 totalling 14.5 stars, you see just how unfortunate her poor performance was.

Suzanne seemed like a strong contender but it's true that she displayed a poor sense of timing in the first round of the competition. This time, it really killed her chances. Art skates by with a shaky performance, and it's on to next week. Looks like the chefs will have to cater some absurd, 5th level vegan celebrity event that makes everyone sad. Good TV, folks!