Top Chef - Salty.

Yup. It's Restaurant Wars week. Perhaps the single greatest indicator of fundamental weakness in the entire repertoire of Top Chef challenges. Something told me before this episode that we'd be seeing a lot of fundamental weaknesses on display with this crop of chefs.

But before Restaurant Wars can start, the chefs have to be divided into two teams. A knifeblock draw gives Kevin and Ed the right to pick teams, and Kevin's first choice is, of course, his buddy Kenny. Ed, unsurprisingly, chooses his paramour Tiffany; this irks Angelo, which means I heartily approve. Kevin rounds it out with Kelly and Amanda, while Ed picks up Angelo in (yes) the fourth slot, and then is stuck with Alex in the last pick. D'oh!

It's the blindfolded relay race, and right off the bat, Team Blue (Kevin's team) is a smooth-running machine. Everyone's picking up on the leads Kenny left for them; Amanda blanches the pasta he set out, Kevin works on the mustard cream sauce, and Kelly sears the prawns at the last moment. Team Red, on the other hand, is a total mess. Tiffany starts, leaving the head on her snapper so the next person can easily ID it. But then Alex comes in and salts it way before he needs to, and Tiffany's pissed that he'd leave them open to screw-ups. Ed doesn't do much with the fish, instead tinkering with the broth. Angelo comes in as the anchor, and of course seasons the fish before cooking it. He realizes it was seasoned already, but too late; his addition of dill and cilantro seem unlikely to dull the saltiness as he hopes they will.

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives (and, as Kenny astutely points out, second in line to the presidency), will be doing the tasting for this fairly simple Quickfire meal. She praises the flavors of both sides (as a politician would be expected to do), but notes the saltiness of Team Red's fish. Team Blue gets the win--no immunity, obviously, but they get to split $10,000. Team Red is salty.

Redwood at Bethesda Row in Virginia will play host to this season's Restaurant Wars challenge. Amanda looks like she's gonna barf, despite starting the episode feeling upbeat and even confident. The cause of the barfies? Guest judge Frank Bruni, former food critic of the New York Times. I'd love to have my name cause that much eyeball-bugging and nervous inhalations. Bill and John Terlato come in with a giant bottle of wine; they'll be dining as well, and will contribute both the wines the prize for the winning chef.

So in those TOYOTA VENZAS, Ed and Angelo decide that Alex will be front-of-house because they do NOT want him in the kitchen. I say, putting dude on an island is the worst possible idea because there's no one out there to keep him from fucking up, or just pulling the pan out of his hand to cook something the right way. Angelo naturally takes executive chef responsibilities, and puts my theory into practice by taking away a piece of lamb that Alex is, well, butchering. Team Blue puts Kelly at FOH, with Kenny acting as executive chef.

Activity in the kitchen is a tale of two teams, as Team Blue (restaurant name: "twenty one 21," the number of the Top Chef house) is calm-ish and mostly collected. Kenny's watching in joy-tinged surprise as Angelo gets more and more stressed out. Over on Team Red (who actually had the bright idea of naming their restaurant "EVOO," without irony), Alex is rubbing Angelo the wrong way. He's also rubbing Tiffany's bass the wrong way; she has to descale and debone it after Alex had allegedly prepped it. Alex sees that people don't trust him, but he's confident that it's without reason.

No, Alex, there's reason. See, for example, the smarmy, pretentious, insulting way you're treating the service staff. He shows them how to clean a table and chairs, he speaks condescending Spanish to them apropos of nothing (which I can only interpret as a simmering racism, but that might just be my existing bias against Alex), he even complains about the wine key one of them uses. Team Blue, on the other hand, does a tasting for the server crew so they know the most they can about the dishes. Night and day, kids. Night and day.

Service starts, and as Alex schmoozes with a table whose three orders were screwed up by the wait staff, the judges arrive and are seated by another server. (Sounds like mutiny to me! Good on ya, servers.) Frank Bruni is a black hole for Alex's obnoxious self-assurance; he stumbles over the "welcome to the restaurant" spiel.

Team Red: EVOO (ugh)

1st course: Soup of tomato confit, squash, olive crouton (Angelo). Crudo of black bass and yellowtail snapper, Meyer lemon-caper relish (Tiffany). Angelo's dish definitely takes this course, prompting Bruni to wish for more of Angelo's cuisine. Tiffany's crudo is "amazing salty."

2nd course (served so late that Tom's on his phone calling the kitchen): Striped bass, stewed spinach, fennel salad, chorizo, littleneck clams (Tiffany). Slow-baked turbot, eggplant caviar, black olive jus (Ed). Finally, Ed's jus gets to share space with Tiffany's clams. What? Anyway, while Tiff's bass is a bit overcooked, it's a good recovery from her bad first course crudo. Ed's turbot, however, tastes as Mediterranean as (ugh) EVOO's menu is supposed to be, well-sauced and well-seasoned.

3rd course: Braised--no, broiled pork chop--I mean, pan-seared lamb chop, English pea purée, smoked bacon, parmesan foam (Alex, and that's exactly how he introduced it...moron). Seared ribeye, crushed walnut potatoes, balsamic fig reduction (Ed and Angelo). Alex's lamb is cooked beautifully (more on that later), but there's no texture to the dish. Ed and Angelo's walnut potatoes are the surprising winner of this dish, according to Tom, but there's no Mediterraneanness other than the figs.

The service was hit-and-miss (I'd say that's charitable), Frank's water glass has been empty most of the meal, Alex's food was generally poor and Frank notes that he was (surprise surprise) left on a vulnerable island by the rest of his team.

While Amanda struggles with a wood fire and grassfed beef (two things with which she is apparently-- and shamefully--inexperienced), Kelly's working out the rookie nerves at front-of-house. She is, however, there to greet the judges. She describes the menu as "progressive American cuisine"--certainly a mouthful, but the only way they could think of to describe seasonal foods and preparations.

Team Blue: twenty one 21

1st course: Chilled sweet corn soup with Maryland blue crab salad (Kelly). Salad of beet confit, warm chorizo-citrus vinaigrette, pickled kumquats, almonds (Kenny). Kelly's soup is thin and flavorless. While the crabs are seasonal, the corn is not; "three months later, great dish," cuts Tom. Kenny's salad has too much going on, Tom cites Coco Chanel's rule of taking one thing off (with an assist from fashion-literate Bruni). Gail would prefer at least two things taken off--me too! HEYOH.

2nd course: Oakwood-grilled strip steak, Swiss chard, roasted sunchokes, maitake mushrooms (Amanda). Pan-roasted halibut, slow-cooked white beans, fennel marmalade, tomato fennel emulsion (Kevin). Amanda's steak is (shock!) overcooked and dry. It's also sliced too thinly, which makes it easy to see how unfulfilling the dish will be just by looking at it. The sauce, at least, is good. On the other side, Kevin's fish looks gorgeous on TV, so I can understand how wowed all the judges are as it arrives. There's a lot of flavor, and the sauce is terrific.

3rd course: Crispy aged goat cheese, arugula, strawberry-rhubarb relish (Kenny). Dark chocolate ganache tart, blackberry-chocolate chunk ice cream (Kelly). After getting over just how much cheese is on the ponderous cheese course plate, Frank Bruni minces no words: "this is terrible." It's soapy, salty, and just plain bad. Kelly's ganache (Richard's banana scallops, anyone?) is silky and chocolatey, if massive. The ice cream is flavorless and adds nothing.

Summing up the meal, Frank thankfully comments on just how terrible the name "EVOO" is, and also comments on the mistake of pegging yourself to a theme and then not living up to it at all. And worst of all, the goat cheese plate. Things aren't looking good for Kenny, bewildered to start the episode and about to get hammered harder.

Padma calls out Team EVOO first. Going by the established pattern, this is a pretty unlikely turn of events; suspicions are confirmed when Padma tells the red aprons that they were the winning restaurant tonight. Alex is called out as too nervous at FOH, which he attributes wholly to their table. Angelo's soup was pretty and flavorful. The crispy skin on Tiffany's bass was lovely, if insufficient to save the dish. Ed's turbot was plain and simple a great piece of fish.

Who came up with the lamb?, the judges ask. Angelo gives credit to Alex for conceptualizing the dish, but explains that he and Ed cooked it. Remember, the judges liked the preparation, but disliked the idea of the dish insofar as it lacked a textural element. The win is no surprise; Ed takes it, as well as a vacation to the Terlato vineyards in Napa. Suck it, Alex. Take your second try at pea purée and suck it (even if Tom Colicchio has since posted to Twitter that three contestants have confirmed that he did make his purée the first time around).

When Team twenty one 21 arrives at Judges' Table, Kenny explains that he's shocked; Team EVOO's mess of a kitchen shouldn't have been rewarded. Gail correctly notes that diners don't see the kitchen when they're at a restaurant, and usually don't care. Kelly's charisma was clumsy but appreciated at FOH, though her preference for thin soup displeased the judges. Kenny needed desperately to reel in his beet salad, which Bruni describes as "done through the guise of Hamburger Helper." Everyone smiled when Kevin's dish arrived, and it earned the good vibes. Amanda is told, once again, that good jus can't save bad beef. She actually looks shocked, but it just might be more of the soul-sucking power of a Bruni critique set to "Scathe."

The cheese course part of "dessert" was a nice idea, but the goat cheese is described by Bruni like so: "Ew." Kenny responds by harping completely on the other team's faults. Kenny, this is really distasteful. Focus on your own flaws for, like, a second. But no, this team is convinced that Alex had nothing to do with his dish, or with his team's success. Tom confirms: do you all think that Alex needs to go home? Yes, they respond, almost in unison. It's an interesting defense, but classless.

You wouldn't expect the stew room to be placid at this point, would you? Good, because it wasn't. As the doomy music comes in, Kevin takes it to Alex, saying that his team threw him under the bus by eliminating him from any responsibility in the kitchen (true), and that his ass should be going home (true). Kevin sits, Kenny stands. Each person was required to conceive a dish, he posits; everyone should have had a hand in the preparation of their dish (true). Did Alex? Angelo steps in, telling Alex that he has no reason to defend himself. This, too, is true. He's already escaped this challenge, and getting along with the other contestants isn't a required skill. But being a dick to everyone and taking the path of laziest responsibility isn't going to get you the win in a few weeks.

Team Blue goes back out. Kelly takes the knock for her soup again; Amanda only did one dish and she did it poorly; Kevin didn't have a lot to do, but did it extremely well; and Kenny served up two poor dishes, but carried off the job of executive chef reasonably successfully. Doesn't this sound like Amanda's totally done-for? It sure does to me. That's why it's so surprising that Kenny gets the axe. His goat cheese, to be fair, sounded like it might have been really bad, but no one appeared to have spit it out. Other dishes have inspired that reaction. Kenny, as talented as he appeared to be early in the season, seems to have fallen prey to a sense of invulnerability. See ya later, "Preppin' Weapon."

Next week: the CIA. I'd tell you more, but y'know...