Top Chef - Not that kind of crush party

Like the grape harvest festival that lends a backbone to this week's prelude to the Top Chef finale, the seeds sown throughout this season are coming to fruition as well. The final four is as we all hoped/expected it would be: Jennifer, Kevin, and the Voltaggio brothers, Bryan and Michael. They've all been more or less dominant throughout, with no shortage of sniping between the bros. Even Kevin--sweet Ginger Santa!--has been caught in the crossfire, taking some flak from Michael for his simplistic style.
 
It's amusing, then, that we lay our scene in fair Napa--perhaps the current home of farm-to-plate culinary simplicity, if not the birthplace. (Berkeley, CA, and Madison, WI, can tussle over that distinction.) Surrounded by verdant vineyards, the chefs arrive one by one at a quiet train station to meet their challenge. They all speak to their feelings going into the finale, with Jen and Bryan both citing family-based motivation, Kevin and Michael calling on pure determination to win.
 
They say their hellos, shoot some shit, and then a train rolls up. Kevin says, "That looks like a dining car," and after what can really only be called a pregnant pause, the train stops and out walks a noticeably expecting Padma. She's also got new bangs to go with that bump; it's a semi-harsh look for her, but I can dig it. With Padma and her bump is Top Chef: Masters finalist Michael Chiarello. I hear he wasn't invited, he just heard cameras whirring in Napa and decided he needed to be there.

For the final Quickfire Challenge of the year, the chefs will have to prepare a dish highlighting grapes, the signature crop of Napa Valley. A full pantry and 30 minutes to cook await them...on the Napa Valley Wine Train. Turns out Kevin gets motion sickness--bummer, because this is also the last High-Stakes Quickfire. The prize? A 2010 Toyota Prius. Dayum!
 
Space is obviously at a premium, and Michael snags the little prep table that Bryan had been eyeing up (and of course, Bryan bitches about it in the confessional). Kevin decides to go with a dessert, apropos of nothing. Bryan takes an acknowledged risk and goes with the non-Napa (but still part of the provided spread) Concord grapes. With Ginger Santa looking like he might toss his bowlful of jelly at any moment, they serve their dishes.
 
Kevin's honey fromage blanc mousse with glazed grapes, olive oil, sea salt and thyme is a little light on the grapeyness (which Kevin acknowledged ahead of time might be a problem), but tasty nonetheless. Jen makes sauteed chicken livers, clams, Cabernet grapes and wild mushrooms work so well that Chiarello says he'll probably steal it; Jen forestalls the crime by giving him permission. Bryan serves a roasted hen with bacon, Brussels sprouts, a Concord grape reduction, and ruby quinoa, and gets dinged for the non-Napa grape and the strong bacon flavor. That leaves (ahem) Michael, who stuffs grape leaves with couscous and ras al hanout, with a vinegar grape reduction and a grape/bay scallop kabob grilled and served on a grapevine. For his embrace of everything grape, Michael gets the win and keys to the Prius. Or electronic key fob thing. Whatever.
 
The chefs hit the Rutherford Hill Winery and Caves for a crush party. No, not celebrating the foot fetish of the same name (I'll leave it to you to look it up on your own), but the seasonal harvesting of the grapes and crushing them by foot (see, it's similar) as a preparation for winemaking. The chefs will cater this event, using only local ingredients. Excepting salt and pepper, if it wasn't grown or raised right there, it's off-limits. There must be a vegetarian dish and a protein-centric dish on every chef's menu. They shop at Longmeadow Ranch's farmers' market, and everyone has appropriately rapturous glassy expressions as they sniff the greens.
 
As has often been the case throughout this season, we see Jen struggling to focus on a concept while shopping for her wares. She finally settles on duck. Michael is going for a technical knock-out, although that seems to be his thing every week. Kevin knows now that Michael has called him out for his simplicity, but he's not particularly concerned. The chefs take their goodies back to Brix Restaurant and Gardens to cook. They even get a wood-fire oven in addition to all the usual hardware.
 
Michael's doing some crazy shit with foie gras, while Bryan is deboning his grass-fed shortribs to allow them to cook...faster? That's not how I understand cooking bone-in versus deboned, but whatever. Bryan's not sure that Michael has the right perspective for serving locavore-type food. Michael's confessional moment follows, with Michael doing his typical "I'm not going to play nice" routine. Yes, Michael, we get it--you're not here to make friends.
 
Tom arrives to make faces and noises that cause everyone to second-guess everything. But notice how there hasn't been much of that this year? Less, I think, than in previous seasons. Ash was the glaring exception, but these chefs are pretty self-assured. Kevin understands that grass-fed brisket will be difficult to tender up in the time allotted. Michael has plans on a vegetable pistou and a foie gras terrine with turnip soup. Jen has eyes on the wood grill for her duck breast. And Bryan is making pasta, as well as serving his ribs with a shitload of beans.
 
Stuff goes wrong, of course--best laid plans and all that. Jen's coals are dying too fast, and she scraps the grilled breast for confit instead. Kevin's less than thrilled with how tender his brisket turned out. And Mike is flat-out gambling on his slow-poached (in the shell) eggs being done properly, as he won't be able to see them until service. For the gajillionth time this year, the chefs prepare for outdoor service and a bunch of hungry freeloaders.
 
Bryan: Goat cheese ravioli, delicata squash purée, maitake mushrooms, bronze fennel (vegetarian). Fig-glazed shortribs, celeriac purée, haricots verts, cranberry beans and yellow wax beans, wild arugula (protein). The raviolis had a nice texture, but the sauce was a little bland. My pug started freaking out right at this point, so my notes are thin.
 
Michael: Vegetable pistou, heirloom tomato coulis, 63-degree egg, raw squash flower (vegetarian). Foie gras terrine, poached pear, glazed turnip with turnip green soup (protein). The egg, which was undercooked in Padma's instance (don't eat it, pregnant lady!), overwhelmed the pistou. The protein dish, which was tweaked so that the pear looked like a whole turnip and the turnip topped with a slice of terrine looked like a pear, was a little oversauced, but Tom found that the components all came together well.
 
Kevin: Roasted beets and carrots with carrot top purée and Cowgirl Creamery San Andreas cheese (vegetarian). Beef brisket with pumpkin polenta, marinated root vegetable salad (protein). The colors on Kevin's vegetarian dish are striking, and the (ahemMICHAEL) simplicity of the dish belies the complexity of the flavor. Chiarello calls it "brilliant." The brisket, which Kevin tries to pre-defend by noting his intentional choice of shredded preparation, is still noticeably tough. Although he loves the polenta, Tom complains of an almost "tinny" character to the beef.

Jennifer: Chevre with honey mushroom caps, braised radish, basil (vegetarian). Braised duck legs, confit of breast, squash purée, brown butter foie gras vinaigrette (protein). Her radishes are v.v.v salty, but Tom and Chiarello are pleased with the concept and composition. Similarly, Tom's complimenting of the "elements" of the duck dish indicate that maybe it didn't come together entirely well for Jen. But it's got a lot of duckness, and everyone's happy with that. Who wouldn't be?

And that's why there are no more purées in the world--because these four chefs used them all up. Errbody heads out to Judges' Table, where all four chefs get lauded for an admirable effort this week and throughout the season.
 
Kevin goes first. Chiarello repeats his assessment of the vegetarian dish as "stellar," and Tom calls is a "study in simplicity." The camera points decidedly at Michael when Tom comments on some of the other chefs perhaps criticizing Kevin's approach. AHEM. And Gail, noting that it was "bold" to serve brisket pre-shredded, thought that it still came through too tough. Kevin didn't think was so much "tough" as "toothsome," a bit of wordplay trickeration that he cops to when the chefs step aside for judge deliberation. Michael'd never heard of the word. Kevin thinks, that's a word I use on my day off, bitch.

Bryan pulls a Robin and tries to immediately integrate the previous commentary into his own defense, saying that he tried to go a more simple route with his vegetarian dish. The judges wonder WTF?, because it was a fairly complex profile. Gail professes her love for the raviolis once more. Chiarello says he was surprised at how tender the ribs were, and how flavorful, given the time constraints. I guess Bryan's deboning move worked. But for billing the ribs as "fig-glazed," Gail and Tom didn't get much fig flavor. I know my notes on Bryan's stuff earlier were artificially brief, but I just don't have much in my notes from Judges' Table either. I'm not getting down a lot of reaction to his stuff.
 
Michael is questioned from the get-go on his choice to brunoise the vegetables for his pistou. The judges think that he lost the character of the veggies by dicing them so finely, and maybe a little more rustic was the way to go? (AHEM, MORE SIMPLE MAYBE) Mike's not convinced. Padma's unconvinced on her runny egg, though, and Tom's not convinced by Michael's defense that he didn't take enough time to fully shake off the chalazae from his eggs. As for the protein dish, Gail's issue is that the turnip green soup was the last flavor left in her mouth, and it was very bitter. Michael notes that he had a bunch of terrine left over and was maybe too judicious in dishing it out to the diners.

Jennifer's combination of basil and goat cheese gets a lot of props from Chiarello (methinks someone's got a culinary boner for Jen, and it's not just Michael Voltaggio...), but Padma bemoans the saltiness. In rides Chiarello to Jen's defense, deducing that she used flake salt and he struggles with it too--how it doesn't melt right away and how what you taste in the kitchen isn't always what the diner gets at the table. Jen also cops to wanting to grill her duck breast more than she wanted to confit it, and the unspoken message here is that the judges agree.

The comments in deliberation all basically speak to the overt and implicit responses to that point. Jen's veg dish was too salty but well-composed. The best part of the duck was the vinaigrette, but there wasn't enough of it and the dish just didn't come together entirely. Michael's layering of flavors was daring--typical of a young, brash chef--but the egg overwhelmed and was generally too big for the dish. Bryan's ravioli were impressive, but his flavors were somewhat muted; maybe this explains the lack of superlatives in the commentary? Kevin's simplicity sang in his vegetarian dish, squeezing every last drop of flavor out of two ingredients. The texture of the beef, however, was off-putting.
 
The winner: Bryan, for apparently being consistent enough. I guess I don't get it. I thought for sure Michael was going to win, but it seemed like he might have actually been near the bottom of the four. The wife and I thought the judges were just spanking him before handing him the victory, but maybe they really were that critical of his stuff. Anyway, this leaves a tough choice for the elimination, and visibly so. Tom hasn't prevaricated this much, well, ever. It seems like Kevin's at-risk for turning a big protein into shoe leather, but he's safe; it's Jennifer that gets the boot.
 
Given the way the competition developed over time, I'm not upset with the choice. This top four is so solid, there's hardly any way the judges could really get it wrong in either direction. But Jen struggled in the back half of the season, and never really got a handle on quieting those creative monkeys.

Next: the finale! Very exciting.