Top Chef - She don't eat meat

First off, I'm sorry it took so long to get my post up last week. If you know what I mean! Get it?? Oy. It was a long (heh) night full of titters (snerk) and double entendres. Natalie Portman brought more than the twist to this week's Elimination Challenge; she apparently brought sophomoric catharsis for Padma, Gail, and the rest of the grown-ups.

The chefs--yes, still including Robin, who's very happy with the Restaurant Wars result because it means she's still here--arrive at the Top Chef kitchen and meet Padma and guest judge Paul Bartolotta. He's Italian. Therefore, the challenge will be to take an Italian classic and tweak it into another cuisine. Ah, but no. That would have been a good Quickfire Challenge. Instead, they get the official TV Guide Quickfire that has them create a "TV dinner" based on the inspiration of a specific TV show. It's apparently all about the take-over. I don't really get it, but they certainly could have brought in Trump to really sell the idea.

Ugh.

The knife block gives us: Kevin/The Sopranos; Eli/Gilligan's Island; Jennifer/The Flintstones; Robin/Sesame Street; Isabella/Seinfeld; Michael/Cheers; and Bryan/M*A*S*H. Prepare to see what happens when a bunch largely comprised of single-minded social retards have to demonstrate pop culture knowledge.

Robin has almost no clue about Sesame Street, except Big Bird and Cookie Monster. So she makes a burger with an egg in the middle, and a cookie. Hey, if she's mimicking TV dinners, that's not terrible--in that it sounds terrible. Eli, fully aware that Gilligan's Island was like 200 years before his time, just goes into islandy/cornball overload. That's actually not bad, either. "It smells like a Jimmy Buffett concert in here," he remarks as he dumps a bunch of Malibu into a bowl.

It wasn't all tone-deafness. Bryan correctly comments on how M*A*S*H was set during the Korean War, which stymies the common error (that I made as well, truth be told) that it's a Vietnam setting--that's just the allegorical layer. Kevin decides to go with the "family" concept for his Sopranos meal; basing his dish on the kind of food he'd get at home. But poor Jen--she wanted to do something bone-in to look prehistoric, but there were none to be found. So she went with chicken roulades. No, I don't really get it either, but suffice it to say, her troubles wouldn't end there.

So Jen's dish doesn't really work. Eli gets the jist of it with macadamia crusted shrimp with sweet potatoes, cherries, and bananas. Mike's "bar food" of chicken parmesan, braised Swiss chard and apple pie is fine, but hardly strikes me as bar food. Bryan, at least, has the wishing-for-homey-simplicity angle right: he plates a meatloaf with mashed potatoes, asparagus, and apple tarte tatin. Robin's nested egg burger and cookie are just kinda dumb; she says she's going for a visual element of big googly eyes, but really, who wants to think about eating Muppet eyeballs?

Robin and Jen are at the bottom, but the one complaint I have is related to one Michael Isabella. First, he claims to have never seen a single moment of Seinfeld. I question that, on the grounds that Isabella seems like the type who would dismiss something he doesn't know much about because everyone else thinks it's awesome, as a way of deflecting his ignorance. Kind of how he ridiculed eggs Florentine rather than be humble about not really knowing what it was.

The second half of my Isabella complaint is that his dish was completely and totally unrelated to the challenge and he didn't end up in the bottom call-out. Sausage and peppers? Mushrooms and cheese? Warm fruit salad? No dry cereal-crusted meat. No two spectacular eggs, served side-by-side and sunny side up. Nothing with chocolate and peppermint. Nada. A boner-inducing mango would certainly befit the dinner table gigglefest that we'll get to in a moment. But no, he does nothing that even remotely resembles Seinfeld, and it goes almost totally unremarked-upon.

The tops are Kevin and Bryan. I told you to watch out for Kevin after last week. He was pissed, and dude is storming back. He takes the win with his meatball with polenta, roasted cauliflower, and honey-roasted pear. No immunity, but his dish will be adapted and inserted into the lineup of new Schwan's Home Service Top Chef-branded frozen meals. God, they're so not joking. At least no one noted that "schwanz" is German slang for "penis."

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will get to take over Tom Colicchio's craftsteak restaurant to serve for the 4 judges and 7 additional diners. They may also get to capitalize some letters.

After an evening of fantasizing about what cuts of meat they're going to use, and then drooling all over it in craftsteak's walk-in, the chefs are accosted by Tom Colicchio, who immediately takes a big dump right in their immersion circulators: the special guest is Natalie Portman, and she's a vegetablearian. Vegamuffin. Something. Anyway, all the air goes out of the room, and the chefs all start their inner profanity. We've seen this challenge before, with the Top Chef Masters and Zooey Deschanel; she was gluten-intolerant to boot, though, so this shouldn't be nearly as difficult.

Still, they're "cooking vegetarian in a steakhouse--which can be tricky," as Kevin says. Robin's obliviously upbeat. Eli's just nerdgasming over serving anything to Queen Amidala. Over 20 of the 60 dishes at Isabella's restaurant are vegetarian, so there's his excuse to be embarrassingly overconfident. And Kevin, showing there isn't a circumstance for which he isn't eminently prepared, tells us that he and his wife go vegetarian every year for Lent. Tell me this guy isn't going to ca-RUSH these jockeymofos.

Isabella stumbles at boiling water for his leeks, which he intends to prepare like scallops. Bryan's time management is on a razor's edge. Robin can't focus because she's in awe of craftsteak's walk-in and the fresh garbanzo beans therein. Those garbanzos end up on only three of the eleven plates, because she won't shut up about all the things she's doing for the first time. Of course, she's talking to the servers; THE SERVERS DON'T CARE, ROBIN.

It's time for service.

Robin: Squash blossom (GHOST OF HOWIE) stuffed with mushroom duxelle, beet carpaccio, fresh garbanzo beans (occasionally), and a chermoula sauce. The chermoula is very salty. But Natalie thinks it's at the very least visually pretty.

Eli: Radish salad, confit of eggplant, lentils, garlic purée. Bartolotta thinks the plating is thoughtful, but the inclusion of lavender was a minor misstep. Gail and most everyone else are thrilled with the preparation of the eggplant, which Eli won in a dried orange peel flip with Jen in the craftsteak walk-in.

Mike: Asparagus salad, Japanese tomato sashimi, banana polenta. Natalie confused by how bananas go into polenta. That's a missed opportunity for a lewd joke if ever there was one. Natalie and company are generally awed by that dish, even though Gail thinks some of the banana is a little lumpy. And curves to the left. No, she didn't say that. The judges seem more bemused at the amateur diners' amazement at the polenta, a trick Mike learned from a previous boss.

Jen: Charred baby eggplant, braised fennel, verjuice. Jen acknowledged that she should have scrapped her eggplant plan when she didn't get the ones she wanted, but she sticks with the baby eggplants. (This one just wants to know what's so bad about baby eggplants.) She sauces her plates at the table, which would have been a nice touch if her hands weren't shaking like a bobblehead doll--many diners have their pants verjuiced (snort). Gail likes the taste all right, especially the sauce (more brodo mastery from Jen), but everyone complains that the portion is skimpy and the whole dish is a little insubstantial and forgettable.

Isabella: Whole roasted leeks, onion jus, confit of fingerling potatoes, fresh radish, dill. Due to his poor boiling skills, I'm not sure what part of the leeks were roasted. They look like sauerkraut on the plate, and apparently smell about the same. The colors on the plate are pretty, and Natalie wants to like it more, but the implication is that she really doesn't. The execution is iffy at best, with the leeks cooked so improperly.

Bryan: Artichokes barigoule, shallot confit, wild asparagus, fennel purée, garlic blossoms. The garlic blossoms are kind of tossed on at the last second, as Bryan really ran out of time. He also had to leave some elements off his plate entirely. This is when Padma and Natalie really get down to sleepover-caliber girlishness. Padma calls the garlic blossoms a "little prick on the tip of her tongue," which cracks Natalie up. They go on and on, a little too heavy on the blowjob metaphors without much nuance, and even Tom gets involved. This could have ended up on the cutting room floor and I wouldn't have missed it, but hey, I thought this was a food show.

Kevin: Braised morels and hen-of-the-woods, smoked kale, turnips two ways. Kevin's not happy with his plating, either--too sloppy. When you describe the orientation of the plate to the servers by saying that the "dish sits with the brown streak in the front," you know you're in Erik from Season 4's territory. Nevertheless, Kevin's intent to make the diners forget they're not eating meat appears to be a success. One of Natalie's friends even says that very thing. The judges found the smoke on the kale to be a little strong, but they're impressed with the forcefulness of this all-veg dish.

At the end of service, I'm calling for a Jen/Robin/Isabella bottom three. Jen is certainly feeling like that's where she'll end up.

The mid-break vignette just makes me like Kevin even more. He's an eater. Like non-stop. He "didn't get fat accidentally," after all. They're dining off the clock at Bartolotta's restaurant, and after the meal, Jen leans back and sighs in a very post-coital manner (might have been the sex hair, though, too), and Kevin just grins at her and asks, "You wanna hit the buffet?" ATTA BOY, Kevin.

The wine in the stew room is branded "Quickfire"? Really? As they drink their Quickfire wine, Padma comes back for Kevin, Mike, and Eli. Eli really is just happy to be there.

Tom tells Mike he was absolutely unsold on banana polenta, but thought it turned out fun and ultimately successful. Natalie found humor in his food; Mike's response is a deadpan "thank you." Nice.

Gail tells Eli she thought his dish was really beautiful, and from that point on I think Eli must have been daydreaming about a Gail/Amidala threesome, because Tom went so far as to say that it was a "really cool" dish and Eli barely blinked.

Natalie, unlike Gail, totally loved Kevin's smoked kale. Tom calls Kevin's dish a "mouthful of flavor," and amazingly no one laughs.

The winner? KEVIN. Do NOT step to Ginger Santa. Dude will MESS you UP. You'll be receiving this year's full suite of GE appliances. This guy's just plain raking it in. That's his fourth Elimination win, his fourth Quickfire win, his first time winning both in the same week, and all after his first and only trip to the bottom at Judges' Table. He's the T-1000. Stefan who?

There's no shortage of ill-will, however; Mike is downright surly at Judges' Table, and openly pissy to the confessional. He thinks Kevin's dish is a second-year apprentice dish, and he could have made it in his sleep. Well, better snap to, buddy, because while you and your brother continue to measure your cocks, Kevin is snapping up all the victories.

My bottom-three prediction is correct, and for Jen, this can't feel good. Two weeks in a row at the bottom, after three straight weeks at the top. Robin can't be too shocked, and Isabella says "whatever whatever."

Isabella, why no protein element? Because I wanted my leeks to look like scallops, he says. But, the judges ask, you know that leeks don't have protein just because you want them to look like scallops, right? He then blames his pot for being warped on the bottom, and defends his carrots. Tom says the carrots were "...all right," but that they didn't distract from how bad the leeks were. "It's like, whatever whatever." Sure, Isabella. Sure.

Robin comes blasting out of the gate and reminds the judges that she definitely thought of the proteins, and she was just super thrilled about the fresh garbanzos, and she'd never worked with those before, and she'd never done a squash blossom before, and then talks about her inspirations and the directions she wanted to go with the dish and I think I have carpal tunnel syndrome from typing as fast and as rambly as she was talking. The judges just look like they're in a wind tunnel. YOU CAN'T TIE EVERYTHING TOGETHER WHEN YOU'RE THIS ALL-OVER-THE-BOARD, Robin.

The judges ask Jen where her two hours went, because they didn't see it in her meager offering. Plus, some of us wore your verjuice; why so nervous? She's still shaking, she shows them. I think that's classical sign of a nervous breakdown, and Tom comments on it. Jen just says that if she's there tomorrow, she'll do her best to turn it around, but if not, thanks for everything. Really. She said that. Before deliberation.

It's lucky, then, that Robin appears to have worse faults--no plan--than Jen's superdefeatist attitude. But when the verdict is handed down, it is Mike Isabella and his perceived arrogance and dismissive nature that are shown the door! Frankly, I'm shocked. But not sad; dude was pretty lame all season long.

When the chefs get back, Robin might very well have said "Did I do that?" in an Urkel voice. They're all stunned that she's survived another week. So am I.

Next week: Padma orders breakfast in bed over the phone to the chefs; somewhere, CJ's ears perk up and he buys a ticket to Vegas.