Top Chef - Restaurant Wars, and one down

Top Chef had the chance to spread some good word this last week, and kind of dropped the ball. The most interesting and important aspect of this year's Restaurant Wars episode--the state of the world's oceans, and seafood sustainability--was only given survey coverage by Bravo's edit. I can't tell you how disappointing that is, and I wonder how Rick Moonen felt about the way it was handled.

Moonen, a competitor on Top Chef: Masters (one of the episodes I missed when I was out getting married or some other lame excuse), was an early proponent of sustainable fishing. He serves this week as the guest judge for the Quickfire and Elimination Challenges. The QF this week? A tag-team cook-off. Totally silent. And blindfolded.

Jennifer and Michael are the only two whose knives have anything written on them ("first" and "second," respectively), so they get to pick teams. Jen takes Kevin, Isabella, and Laurine. Mike selects Bryan and Eli, and is left with Robin. D'oh! I suspect these will be our Restaurant Wars teams, too.

With ten minutes per chef, the teams will have to craft a coherent dish based on their interpretation of what their teammate(s) have left before them. The winning team will also split a $10k chip. I'd like to see them taking it to the 7-11 and asking for change.

This challenge showed the chefs--all of them, to be fair--at their best. The level of understanding and awareness was impressive, even for the bringing-up-the-rear duo of Robin and Laurine.

Jen starts the ball rolling on olive oil-poached black cod, with a sauce of shrimp and mushrooms. Eli puts some strip steaks on the grill, cleans up some veggies, and starts their mushrooms as well. Laurine comes in and, after a moment's confusion, picks up on the poaching idea. Robin follows Eli, is impressed with the amount of work he accomplished, and sees a sort of Caesar dressing in the yuzu and anchovies he's put out.

Isabella comes out for Team Jen and looks a little light-dazzled, but eventually catches up. He replaces the oil, which he thought looked too burned to poach with. Bryan notes an Asian direction with Team Mike's menu, and starts setting Mike up in the typically intuitive way you'd expect these brothers to work.

Kevin and Mike come in for the anchor leg of their respective teams. Interestingly, both point out the same thing: it's a challenge to come in and specifically finish another chef's work. Kevin sees the poaching oil and decides to forego it entirely and butter-roast the cod instead. Mike sees his team's chosen direction and, against his own intuition, goes with the flow.

Team Mike plates a pan-roasted NY strip with avocado puree, miso foam, and a nasturium salad. Team Jen plates black cod (also known as sablefish, but never known as trout--which is what Jen inexplicably calls it to Moonen) with sauteed mushrooms, shiitake broth, and yuzu vinaigrette. The winners of the $10k chip are the members of Team Jen; you know, the team where the last chef went with his gut instead of his team's intent.

Indeed, the QF teams become the Elimination teams, and we are officially GO for Restaurant Wars. They'll be using RM Seafood's two floors as their venues, and since they already kicked off all the gays, the chefs won't be responsible for decor. Use of responsible, sustainable seafood will be a part of Moonen's judging, and the front-of-house will need to have their hands very clearly in at least one dish (SPIKE). The kicker? The QF winners can let their $10k ride and set themselves up to win $10k each if they win the Elimination. If they lose, it's gone.

When the chefs aren't making boneheaded decor decisions, Restaurant Wars shopping is kind of boring. The only thing remotely interesting was Robin's mini flip-out about the other team hearing her plan for offering sparkling water. SPARKLING WATER.

Robin's being allowed to kind of hang herself by her interest in doing a dessert (did you hear, by the way, that there's going to be a new Top Chef spinoff for pastry chefs?), while Team Jen says no way to a dessert course. The teams come up with their restaurant names: Jen's team will be MISSION, as in the detail-oriented architectural style, while Mike's team will be REVOLT, but with a backwards E for that "awww" lemonade-stand sympathy effect. It also stands for their names (Robin, Eli, VOLTaggio); they're willing to take the risk on it also standing for their diners' reactions to the food.

MISSION, picking first as the QF winners, will be uptairs in the fine dining section of the restaurant, while REVOLT will be in the casual area downstairs. Both teams like the their floors, and the arrangement does seem to fit each team's concept.

As the teams prep, MISSION falls way behind. I'm not really sure, but it seems like a poor allocation of effort, with each chef double-tasking him or herself in an awkward way. REVOLT is pushing the team concept, as well as Mike's "don't be a dick" concept. We'll see how that works out, because REVOLT is serving first. The name is confusing the diners, and Tom seems to find the double-meaning amusing in its ill-advisedness.

REVOLT's first course is chicken and squid "pasta", and smoked Arctic char. The chicken goes over very well with Moonen, while the char is one-dimensional at best.

REVOLT's second course is very late. When it finally arrives, it's a cod croquet filled with a billi-bi sauce (which I had to make sure wasn't something out of Dr. Seuss), and a duo of beef. The cod croquets are melt-in-their-mouth brilliant, but Toby for one is underwhelmed by Bryan's beef. Tom could stand it being a little warmer, while diners on the floor are put off by its downright coldness. Yum.

REVOLT's final course is a dessert course, but is preceded in the kitchen by some major verbal duking-out between Robin and Michael. She bristles at his abruptness in finishing off her dishes, and he flips out at her for swearing at him. The mid-break vignette a little later will pull no punches in calling Michael out for his hypocrisy on profanity. The dessert, also a little late, is Robin's pear pithivier with vanilla bean ice cream, and a chocolate mint ganache with caramel. Toby calls Robin's dessert the best thing she's put forth all competition. They all liked the ganache too, though Toby wanted more mintiness.

Eli, as front-of-house, got props from Rick for being intense and enthusiastic. His outfit, an untucked dress shirt under a suit coat, was universally reviled.

MISSION is still way behind as the guests file in. Laurine is still putting mindlessly in the kitchen, boring the servers out of their skulls. Jen is reduced to butchering fish to order. That's not good. It's meltdown time, and MISSION is serving. Strangely, the judges are surprised that there's no dessert on the menu.

MISSION's first course is an asparagus and six-minute egg, and an Arctic char tartare, both from Isabella (this is why they're so behind: each chef is serving each course, as opposed to splitting). The judges can barely pick up their utensils before Laurine hightails it away from the table having given absolutely zero introduction or explanation of the dishes. As for the food, it's underseasoned to the point that Padma waves down Laurine to ask for some salt. That's never good.

MISSION's second course, also delayed a bit, is Jen's course. Laurine's flailing in the back, as the servings aren't coming out at the right pace. Jen's just a mess. As Laurine begins to walk away from the table, (after some really awkward apologies), Padma has to stop her and ask for some explanation on the bouillabaise consomme and seared trout with braised endive. Turns out the bouillabaise is way too fishy; the consomme isn't really consomme but is the tastiest part of the dish; and the trout dish is a total disaster. Jen's sauce has broken, the fish is greasy and sloppily cut, and then Tom cuts the deepest by positing that Jen's boss (oh yeah ERIC RIPERT) would be disappointed at this offering. This is not good.

MISSION's third course, a split between Kevin and Laurine, is a plate of pork three ways, and a rack of lamb with carrot jam that was Laurine's concept but mostly Kevin's execution. Padma's now asking Laurine as she's setting the dishes down to go over the menu. It's inexplicable that she's not doing this on her own. Anyway, the lamb is very rare--too rare--and that had been a point of contention in the kitchen. Kevin wanted it rare, while Laurine was actually the one concerned about it being too close to raw. At least Kevin's pork plate is a winner.

It goes without saying that Laurine completely bombed at front-of-house. It wasn't just the judges' table she was flaking out on.

Service ends, and for some reason REVOLT's servers are handing out suflowers to the diners. Isabella is sure that team MISSION will be on the bottom. You got that right, buddy.

REVOLT gets called to Judges' Table first, and lookit that, you weeen! What's really stunning is Tom's proclamation that this was the best Restaurant Wars offering in the entirety of Top Chef! I'm going to have to go over my past recaps and hit a little Wikipedia to look into that. I find it a dubious statement at best. Toby would have given that restaurant three stars. Whoa.

Robin is straightforward about the argument in the kitchen, and Mike's overpoweringness. Mike takes some issue, but it doesn't really blow up so much as it's a rational explanation of disagreement. Are we sure this is still Top Chef? Ze winner, though, is Michael Voltaggio once again. He gets the $10k chip from Jen's team as a bonus, but decides to split it with his teammates.

And before we get to MISSION, and Isabella doing his damnedest to not just say "LAURINE PLEASE JUST LEAVE NOW," we see Bryan looking surly in the stew room. He's getting pissy about Michael's "unprofessional behavior" being rewarded (I assume he means the tête-à-tête with Robin) and doesn't want any charity $2k. And there's that time bomb, going off once again.

You start to get that knot at the pit of your stomach during this Judges' Table, because it's very possible that Jen will be going home. No one second-guessed the ordering of responsibilities. Everyone's embarrassed. The execution of each dish was iffy. It's a train wreck.

Jen cooked her bouillabaise's halibut perfectly, but with steaming her clams to order (insanity, by Moonen's estimation), and the broken sauce on her trout (which she didn't know about) and steaming her clams to order (insanity, by Moonen's estimation), her only response is "I'm feeling pretty broken right now." Ouch.

Laurine's lamb was way too rare, and Tom calls her on her statement in the kitchen that she'd definitely kick it back from the front if it wasn't coming out to her liking. She didn't, and the dish wasn't very good. Toby comments on her deer-in-the-headlights" look, and she admits she was overwhelmed. Her performance, in my opinion, redefines "overwhelmed" on Top Chef.

Tom says this team really needed a leader, and it suffered for not having one. Padma sounds more and more angry at each deliberation break during Judges' Table. After the chefs are excused, Tom notes their apparent overconfidence. Toby defends Isabella faintly, saying nothing went "seriously wrong" for him. Kevin, while bombing on Laurine's lamb, did a fine job with the pork plate.

It's going to be down to Jen, who is a beaten animal at this point, and Laurine, who opened the show assigning herself success-status by saying that all the chefs that are left are really great, therefore she must be really great. She also basically said that it was a bad idea to learn from the past. Seriously. With those brilliant bits of logic and reasoning, I'm happy to say that the loser this week is Laurine. She says to the confessional that she's realized that she doesn't want to compete with anyone for anything, really. What a total flake. One loser chef down.

Compare that to Kevin, who is furious about something and doesn't want to talk at all about the judges' feedback. I suspect he's pissed at himself for getting into that situation, and at Laurine for being such a dingbat. But that's just a guess; I can only hope, as a fan of Kevin's, that he channels his anger into harder work and not silent frustration.

Next week, we get the A-list celebrity/B-list chef version of Top Chef: Masters' vegan challenge. This time, it's Natalie Portman.