Top Chef All-Stars - Chinese revolt

Howdy, Top Cheffers! It's been two long weeks since the last episode, during which time I still haven't managed to finish the last recap. Yeah, sorry about that.

We return to the Stew Room where anger is simmering--before bubbling over for the confessional camera. Antonia's none too pleased with meddling Angelo, and Richard is being pushed to levels of disdain for Jamie heretofore unseen, apart from maybe his relationship with Lisa. But when the next day starts, that's all out the window. Padma introduces the Quickfire Challenge alone, telling the chefs that they'll have to create a dish against the time set by a renowned chef: our own Tommy Boy Colicchio.

This is pretty big, and the faces of the chefs prove it. They're giddy, terrified, in awe. Tom will make a dish, and in the time it takes him to finish it, the chefs will then be let loose to create their own dish. The winner will not only receive immunity, but a new Toyota Prius. Degree of difficulty will be figured into the decision, so don't just slice up some sashimi.

Tom moves like a panther, and commenters have wondered how many times he practiced making his seared black sea bass with clams, tomato and zucchini before unleashing this performance on the chefs. I ask: what if he didn't at all? Dude does have like a dozen restaurants or something. He knows what he's doing. Anyway, it takes him a measly 8 minutes, 37 seconds, to put together a dish that everyone agrees is a hell of a dish for 8 minutes, 37 seconds.

With no time to prepare, the chefs are cut loose. While everyone tears ass to the refrigerators, Marcel turns a 180 and grabs the rest of the black bass that Tom had just filleted--smart. Richard finds foie gras, Dale wishes for a wok where there is none, and Angelo decides that his technique is so amazing, his kung fu so strong, that he can make a crudo and escape judgment from the man who just said"don't do raw."

Tiffani plates a small pool of New England clam chowder. Fabio borrows most--no, all, really--of Tom's ingredients for his dish. Tiffany's own take on seared bass with tomato relish looks nice, but still resembles Tom's a bit too much for me. Antonia sears some tuna with a tomato salad. I liked the look and sound of Carla's shrimp with mango, cilantro, and mint--but there would have to be some major flavors going on to get that simple of a dish the win. Tre's grilled beef tenderloin and seared foie gras with mushrooms and brandy is very brown. Casey's spice-rubbed filet with tomato relish is boring.

Tom admire's Dale's intent to make pad thai with fresh egg noodles, but the three noodles and a splash of salty broth is obviously incomplete. Jamie had more clams in her pot than in the bowl with the bacon, tomato, and cream (there's got to be a joke there). And Angelo's yuzu branzino crudo with jalapeño and cilantro displays the amazing technique of alliteration, but not enough to save him from the bottom.

At the top are Richard's roasted foie gras with aromatics, corn, fresh coriander, and port (which looks and sounds incredible and I want it); Marcel's black sea bass a la Colicchio, dashi broth, bok choy, and chili oil--a dish Tom notes was not only craftily sourced but impressive in technique; and Isabella's pan-roasted branzino with a tomato, black olive and caper stew. This last dish sounds like the least demanding of the three, but it's tasty enough to get Isabella the win, the immunity, and the car. Feh.

The Elimination Challenge, at least initially, sounds like what Saturday Night Live would write in a Top Chef parody: "make a lot of food for a lot of people." Padma goes on to explain that the chefs will be going to Chinatown, leading to every blogger hoping that something goes terribly badly so he can use the line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" at the end.

Well, the opportunity is there; the chefs will take over popular Chinese restaurant Grand Harmony during the lunch rush, and serve dim sum to a couple hundred people. Tonight's for menu planning, tomorrow's for shopping at a Chinese market. Richard rightly posits that this is basically Chinese tapas, but with an added bloodlust. Really, if these chefs aren't prepared at this point for an unprecedented nightmare--well, they better get watching No Reservations before Tony gets back.


(sorry for the bad A/V sync)

Jamie's not worried about her reputation at this point; she's going back to the comforting bosom of scallops (see: every single challenge from her original season). Isabella's going to use his immunity to expedite, while Casey and Carla volunteer to be the cart pushers for the judges' portions.

After some Real World-esque talk of boobies and diddlies at the Top Chef apartment, the chefs get shopping. We learn that Fabio has a pet turtle that he takes for walks (seriously), Marcel knows to go for the MSG, and Tre breaks out the line of the night, describing the back and forth at a Chinese meat counter: "Whatchoo want?" "What's dead?"

The careful viewer should, at this point, see things teetering on a precipice. Casey, despite her aspirations for butchery fame, is taking on chicken feet. Jamie appears bewildered by wok technology (Dale, meanwhile, is thrilled; "this is my challenge to lose"). And Fabio's usual techniques for short ribs are stymied by Chinese kitchen appliances.

With each dish shooting for around 150 portions, the chefs are scrambling. Jamie's scallop dumplings aren't going well. Casey's trimming chicken toenails. Carla's summer rolls are "fiddly." Tre's orange custard-ish desserts are liable to turn to goo in the heat of the kitchen. But what's this? A "Top Chef MY-racle" (as only Fabio can say it)? His ribs come out perfect! It might not be all bad after all. The Italian, at least, seems safe.

But as Isabella checks in on the rapidly filling dining room, he gets the stinkeye from about 300 hungry Chinese people, and it's getting nasty in the kitchen. (There's also an odd, Guy Ritchie moment where Isabella, Carla, and Casey's roles are spelled out with on-screen captioning and freeze-frames.) And then there's the guest judge: SUSUR FUCKING LEE. There's no skating on this challenge.

Tiffani cooks a cabbage, cilantro, and sesame slaw with crispy chicken curry. Fabio's soy honey glazed pork ribs with peanuts look pretty spectacular. Carla finally finishes some of her vegetable summer rolls with lemongrass dipping sauce. Angelo, meanwhile, goes for a crispy spring roll with shrimp and pork. Marcel's boneless fried chicken wings look a bit like chicken nuggets, but topped with a dollop of scallion mayo.

This is the first service. Tiffani's slaw is good, but Gail's serving is almost all sesame. Everyone digs Fabio's ribs. Carla's roll is beautifully wrapped...and that's about it. Angelo's spring roll doesn't want for a sauce, and goes over well. Susur likes Marcel's concept, but they come off as bland. Richard apparently served something during this portion of the meal, perhaps some kind of trotter dish. But it never gets on-screen explanation and Gail's not crazy about it anyway.

Down in the kitchen, Tiffany's getting pissed about slow plating and service. Tom notes from the table that there's no food coming out. Richard, too, sees that everyone's pretty meticulous with their presentations, and it's not really suiting the speed required for a dim sum lunch service. Jamie and Antonia's shared dish isn't going very well, and Jamie wonders to the confessional if Antonia's got PMS.

Second service. Jamie and Antonia offer a simple preparation of long beans and Chinese sausage (which always looks incredible when I see it on TV, and still I have yet to eat it). Dale and Angelo create an Asian superteam for cheung fun with XO shrimp. Dale also presents sweet sticky rice with bacon steamed in a banana leaf. Tiffany's spicy pork with preserved vegetables on a steamed bun looks pretty classic, and tasty. And here's Tre's orange ginger dessert with fresh water chestnuts, toasted pine nuts, and Thai basil.

As one would expect at this point in the season, the curse of Jamie strikes the long bean and sausage. It comes out greasy and overcooked, reeking of hoisin. Dale and Angelo's XO shrimp roll is super-spicy, but flavorful. Dale's sticky rice, on the other hand, makes everyone unequivocally happy. So too does Tiffany's pork bun--very authentic. Poor Tre's worry about the temperature proves well-founded; his dessert would be liquid if not contained by the orange half.

Gail posits, in a not-so-sensitive fashion, that there's going to be a revolution in this restaurant if the food doesn't start coming out soon. The servers aren't sure what's being served, and one old guy apparently mutters "Caucasian dim sum" to his wife. I expect it was more derogatory than that, but he gets the benefit of the doubt. (Here, I think of Sleepless in Seattle, where Meg Ryan tells Bill Pullman that they'll go out for dim sum in New York and he, not knowing what it is, asks if there's wheat in it. Total tone-deafness for the cuisine.) Above, people are starting to leave, while below Casey's dish is getting mistreated slightly by Antonia, who said she'd plate for cart-runner Casey.

Tom, on orders from the gals at the table, goes to scare some movement out of of the kitchen. Dissent spreads through the ranks. Antonia thinks Dale should have been the expediter, while Marcel--never short on disdain--thinks Dale's dogging it, wiping down his shoes while Rome burns.

The third and final service begins, as the kitchen finally starts to find its pace. Casey's chicken feet over scallion pancake finally come out; they look pretty ragged compared to her instructional plating for Antonia. Antonia's own dish, shrimp toast with pickled scallions and mushrooms, looks much better. Hm. Isabella's meaningless pork and prawn dumplings with spicy soy are, well, meaningless. And at long last, Jamie's scallop dumplings with water chestnuts and Chinese chives.

Aside from Antonia's shrimp toast, this isn't much of a service. Casey's feet aren't cooked properly--not enough, surprisingly--and Padma notes how many are still sitting on plates despite the food shortage. The chili is good in Isabella's dumpling, but the soy is too salty. Can that happen? And Jamie's dumplings are too much dump, not enough ling. (I don't even know what that means, but she shorted the scallops and the wrapper is too much.)

The judges aren't thrilled, and in the Stew Room, Dale doesn't think there's going to be a winner. In the mid-break vignette, Isabella puts it pretty succinctly: "Everyone sucked and everything sucked." Yep.

Padma calls out Casey, Antonia, Carla, Jamie, and Tre--bottoms up, from the look of things. Indeed, they take heat not only for the slow and inadequate service, but the poor dishes. Jamie stands there looking pretty shitty, very Lisa. Susur tells Jamie that she bought the wrong kind of dumpling wrapper for her purposes. Antonia, having only prepped the long beans, doesn't take as much heat considering her successful shrimp toast. Casey tells the judges she was trying for something different, but thanks to Antonia's shoddy finishing, they didn't come out very spectacularly. And her pancake was leaden. Tre's dessert was goo, and Carla's summer rolls were all noodle and daintiness.

The bottom five are sent back to retrieve the top four while their fates are decided. Tiffany, Angelo, Dale and Fabio get the honors. Fabio gets credit for a good imagination, given his total lack of Chinese experience. Tiffany's bun was a savory marshmallow, Gail effuses. Angelo's rolls were downed in copious quantity by Gail and Padma. But Dale, with two quality dishes, gets the win in a nice rebound from a well-intentioned Quickfire failure. He's not exactly bouncing off the walls, though. "Feel like I robbed the bank on that one. We're all morons."

As the judges deliberate, Padma's being very charitable about Jamie even taking on two dishes, even though both failed. Antonia was brought low by her involvement in Jamie's bad dishes. Casey's dish was terrible, a disaster. Carla's rolls weren't worth the calories. Tre's dish evoked hospital food--Tony? Is that you?

Hard to see who's going home among these stinkers. But when the hammer falls, it is Casey getting a ticket home. Jamie gasps audibly. Casey doesn't mind telling the confessional that she, Jamie, and everyone else expected Jamie to go home. Jamie admits in the Stew Room that she took the brunt of the criticism at Judges' Table. All Richard can do is smile in disbelief. I think we're all there with you, Blais.

NEXT: Another double elimination, Long Island (this is the one you call "Strong Island," Dale), and Marcel tries to out-gangster Dale. DALE DALE DALE. This is what you get when you win, buddy. N'un but love, man.