Top Chef Texas - War is hell, evil is great

(Heads-up: I'll be discussing the results of tonight's Last Chance Kitchen at the end of this post.)

Two weeks ago, we had the Restaurant Wars episode that for years has been the tentpole of the Top Chef season. This week, an overt media tie-in episode with a celebrity guest judge with unknown or questionable culinary bona fides -- the kind of episode we all sort of shudder at. (Hi, Rocco's frozen dinners!)

Who'd'a thunk that Restaurant Wars would be a total calamity, and the media tie-in (with Snow White and the Huntsman star Charlize Theron) would offer, from top to bottom, some of the most charismatic, adept, and truly appetizing cookery we've seen in recent seasons?

Maybe it's that, as fellow Top Chef analyst Carol Blymire noted, the show was willing to call arancini 'arancini', but settled for calling zeppole 'Italian doughnuts'. Maybe it's the "Battle of the Sexes" theme of Restaurant Week that felt just a little too Road Rules. Or maybe it's that, as I've noted before, the editing seems to be favoring the rope-a-dope strategy of the Japanese Iron Chef in portraying judges' positions one way during the meal, and wildly different during chef criticism.

(I don't know what's worse: that Team Half-Bushel, with Lindsay's vacant front-of-house work, lengthy delays, overcooked halibut from Lindsay by way of Beverly, and Sarah's lackluster Italian doughnuts, still managed to win over Team Canteen, or that Beverly's nineteenth braised short rib was good enough to overcome her deficiencies in cooking Lindsay's fish and beat Grayson's very well-received peach and bacon salad and elegant schaum torte dessert outright.)

The boys had their problems, of course. Chris Jones took the Ghost of Eli's Caramel Apple Peanut Soup to the limit with his sloppy...well, slop of Cracker Jack ice cream, cherry, and frozen peanut butter. And actually, what was with their very trademark-centric dessert courses? (Edward's "Almond Joy" looked and sounded tasty, but the insistence on going the Todd Wilbur route cheapened their efforts.)

And in the end, even though I thought Ty-Lör's dish was appealing, it had nothing to do with the vaguely mess-hall theme of the boys' restaurant; I can accept his dismissal at the end of Restaurant Wars, even though Chris Jones' flaws spoke louder to me.

But you know what it really was that made this week's episode so much more enjoyable than last? Everything. Every single thing about this week's output bested last week's efforts. I hate to say it, but that includes Beverly's departure at the end of a very hair-splitting Judges' Table. At least now Lindsay and Sarah can get over their beef with Bev (who may not be the victim the editors make her out to be, but whose treatment by the other mean girls is nonetheless unjustified) and I won't have to see them talk down to her for using a plastic spoon to plate things.

The Quickfire was fun, with the chefs having to choose at least three ingredients from a conveyor belt of escalating quality. (The gamble: wait longer, and better stuff comes out, but you have less time to cook.) It was nice to see Eric Ripert back again. Everyone always wants to impress the Ripper (remember that nickname, Beverly; it's closer than 'rip-ERT'), and I thought for sure Sarah was trying too hard. Seemed like she was waiting for-EVER at the belt, but managed to pull off a cottage cheese sauce (hurk) for her fried soft-shell crab. Also, Chris: RUN FASTER.

(Padma told Beverly she'd have won had she plated her third ingredient, curried Rice Krispies, but gave the win on technicality to Lindsay's bouillabaisse -- galling, and understandably, but I can't help but enjoy that schadenfreude. "Since we can't give it to Beverly, um....Lindsay, I guess." I had high hopes for Grayson's fun Goldfish cracker-crusted Dover sole, but alas, Ripert dismissed its heavy citrus usage.)

Then Charlize Theron walked in, and the episode kicked into high gear. She's the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Huntsman -- the Snow White movie coming this year that actually looks good, and doesn't involve GOP presidential candidates in any way -- and the theme of the challenge was to cook for a wicked queen.

Lamb hearts. Forbidden rice. Black chicken. Fried fish skin. Even a poisoned apple. I am not kidding you, I was sure up until the point where Padma said someone would be going home that they weren't going to kick anyone off. Every single plate of food brought it. Brought. It. As dish after spectacular dish came out, wife and I were worried about Grayson; she'd chosen the black chicken despite no experience with it, and it just didn't seem like her admittedly-literal approach was going to work with a finicky new protein. It did, though she still ended up at the bottom. Her dish also looked amazing.

Chris Jones' MOTOisms finally worked in his favor. Edward's dual-sauced tuna tartare was right up my alley. I really expected Sarah to bork her lamb hearts and amarone risotto, and while she was nearly eliminated, she nailed the hearts at least. Paul's plating was risky -- his beet/bacon/pumpernickel hash (for lack of a better term) clung to the edge of a very avant garde platter -- and the handprint meant to look bloody could have been gimmicky. It wasn't, and he took home another win and two tickets to the SWatH premiere.

Charlize Theron was an adept judge and a fun presence on the show -- and yes, gorgeous -- and the regulars seemed to appreciate the greatness of the meal in its proper context. The plating and flavors were both terrific. Beverly's gone, but not; I've got no animosity toward her, but this household was really rooting for Nyesha in the Last Chance Kitchen. Beverly managed to knock her off in a challenge that was maybe just a pinch too cruel.

And so, updated odds:

Paul: 4 to 1
Lindsay: 6 to 1
Edward: 9 to 1
Sarah: 20 to 1
[Last Chance Kitchen winner]: 40 to 1
Grayson: 45 to 1
Chris J.: 75 to 1

Next week, the chefs cook head to head, Cat Cora shows up to guest-judge, Chris J. may just lose his shit, and Grayson continues to be adorably blunt.