Andrew Zimmern's 90-minute wait, or Do you know who I am?

Madison played host to Travel Channel personality Andrew Zimmern and his Bizarre Foods crew for a couple days over the last week. While he was here, he recorded an episode of his podcast, Go Fork Yourself.  The comments he made about dining on the Capitol Square rubbed me in a couple ways.

Apparently, Zimmern and a small production crew arrived at The Old Fashioned on Monday night. They were greeted, he says, by a young hostess with a deer-in-the-headlights expression who told him that there would be an hour and a half wait for a table. Zimmern described his disbelief at this kind of delay, and said he confirmed a couple times that this was indeed the real wait time. Given no quarter, he and his peeps heel-turned and alighted upon Graze. There, the wait was similarly long, but his party was offered space at the bar and an assurance that they'd get seated in short order -- if possibly broken up between multiple tables.

Zimmern's complaint is two-fold, and my appreciation of his argument is similarly split.

1) When a restaurant is "red-lining," as he puts it, the youngest and least-experienced server should not be working front-of-house; the managers should take over, to handle the crowd and to take the brunt of any customer dissatisfaction rather than a poor kid. Zimmern describes seeing manager-types behind the hostess on Monday, doing the "menu shuffle" and looking like they were hovering rather than helping.

I agree with him 100% here, and I've noticed the same thing about The Old Fashioned. And Graze's offer to see what they could do while his party waited at the bar is a good move for any restaurant dealing with customers expressing a need for a quick seat.

That said...

2) "If I'm wandering around Yountville, California, and it's ten o'clock at night and it's on New Year's Eve, and I'd like to eat at The French Laundry, I pretty much can guarantee you I can get fed there." This is how Zimmern begins his tale of facing The Old Fashioned's infamous 90-minute waits. And if you haven't heard of The French Laundry, it's a three-star Michelin restaurant with a $270 prix fixe tasting menu. So, y'know, not that different from The Old Fash on two-for-one cheeseburger night.

 Disingenuous?

Disingenuous?


Zimmern points out that the beleaguered hostess had an expression that seemed to indicate she "couldn't quite place" him. His cohost, Molly Mogren, reminds everyone at one point that Zimmern had "done [The Old Fashioned] a solid" by including them in a previous episode of Bizarre World.  So in other words, he was due for a little back-scratching of his own, but that damned college student didn't recognize he was a celebrity! Quelle horreur.

Zimmern and Mogren acknowledge, at another point in the conversation, that The Old Fashioned is staffed by a lot of college students, yet the idea of a college student not being totally well-versed in the world of cable television hosts doesn't seem to cross their minds. And let's not forget, Monday is indeed The Old Fashioned's biggest promo night of the week, when their lauded cheeseburgers are buy one, get one free. It's highly unlikely anyone'd get a quick spot at the bar on Mondays, to say nothing of a table for three or four.

Maybe I was predisposed to be at odds with Zimmern over another comment in the early-going of the podcast, in which he complains that no restaurant, regardless of its artisanal intent, should put a hot dog on the menu. He doesn't "want to see that." Mogren reminds him that he liked the hot dog at Tilia, a hot (and yes, terrific) new Minneapolis restaurant. He immediately excuses that item -- a product, like he is, of the Twin Cities -- as being presented as a Chicago-style dog, not some twist or modernist take on a dog.

Ahem. Tilia's menu reads: "BLT Dog: Bacon, tomatoes, dill pickled cauliflower, mayo & mustard." So, sure. Exactly like a Chicago dog, no tweaks.

As a fan of the late Underground Kitchen's pretzel dogs, and an aspiring eater of Butcher and the Boar's footlong hot dog, I take issue with the claim that a hot dog has no place on a restaurant menu. For Zimmern, it appears that only Twin Cities restaurants get a pass. Homer apologism just kinda rubs me the wrong way.

Maybe I'm doing that with The Old Fashioned, whose M.O. for seating precludes reservations, thus bottlenecking the entire operation at their cramped entrance. But I think Zimmern's "Do you know who I am?" indignation kneecaps any legit argument he could make against The Old Fashioned's unaccommodating behavior.

LOST - I've been thinking about Walt

You know what Tennyson said about Spring. It's when a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of telepathic children in TV shows that have been off the air for two years. And so, like the swallows alighting upon Mission San Juan Capistrano, I turn my thoughts once again to figuring out just what the heck Walt's deal was on Lost.

We all wanted Walt's creepy is-it-a-superpower control of the world around him to be fleshed out more. The birds slamming into the window of his stepfather's home in Australia, the polar bear that he just might have telepathically summoned, the Others' fascination with him (hello, Room 23) -- all of those things and more made Walt a pretty tantalizing segment of the mythology of Lost.

It'd be easy to say that he had to be written out of the show because he was hitting his growth spurt and the year-after-year filming schedule couldn't accommodate the changes to his appearance and voice considering a narrative schedule of a couple Island days per episode. But I don't think the showrunners, all strapping lads themselves, were so blind to human biology as to not see puberty coming. I take Damon Lindelof at his word: "We've always known Malcolm was going to grow faster than we could shoot the show. And we planned for it. Trust us."

So let's consider what actually made the cut before Walt left the regular cast. There's a specific question that we all found pretty fascinating back then that I think points to what was going on with Walt and the Others and all those tests. Beatrice Klugh, interrogating Michael, asks him about his son, "Did Walt ever appear in a place he wasn't supposed to be?" This just about sums it up if you ask me.

Walt and Michael are allowed to leave the Island at the end of Season 2, just as we find out that people are looking for the Island (most notably, Desmond's gal Penny). Throughout his lifetime, Walt is shown drawing things to him with the apparent power of his mind, or will. Things happen when he wants them to happen, if he really wants them to happen.

What would happen if he really wanted someone to find the Island?

Now you see why Ben and the Others were so terrified of him. First, they wanted everyone to stay on the Island so no one could disclose its location. But then they got wind of Walt. They wanted to test his abilities, discern the liability to their need to keep the Island's location a secret, and then pound it all out of him with Room 23-style brainwashing if necessary. When they found this wouldn't work, they cut him loose -- and in such a way that neither he nor his father could ever reveal anything about the Island.

And at the end of Season 3, when a freighter approached the Island and discovery of its location was imminent, who showed up on the Island, where he wasn't supposed to be?

Boom.

L O S T

(Unless you think the manifestation of Walt standing over that DHARMA grave wasn't actually Walt, but I digress...)

I think it's a great way to write an arc for an actor you know can't last out the full sweep of that arc. In a show full of stories told but never really concluded, I don't know that the Walt story could have been handled any better.

Though, I should probably get around to finally watching "The New Man in Charge" before I say that. I'm just not sure I want the show to end.

Top Chef Texas (-ish) - Finale

So, was it just really obvious, or am I getting good at this finally? Paul was one of my guys from the get-go, and at the top of my odds from gate to gate. Congratulations Paul Qui; you're Top Chef.

It works that maybe the quietest, meekest chef to win this competition served some a final meal of fairly soft, squishy dishes. Chawanmushi, congee, and ice cream topped with foam? Sounds pretty good, but Paul's skills with textural punctuation (puffed rice, pea shoots) were what kept his courses from being mush after unrelenting mush. The congee, noted as weakest by most of the judges, had the least dimension.

I won't slight Sarah for her output in the finale. She did a pretty solid job, with a first course that deviated startlingly from her usual milieu. Squid ink and coconut are not the usual tools in German/Italian/Chicagoan/Texan Sarah Gruenberg's toolbox. She and Paul both carried themselves really admirably in the kitchen during this challenge. For being easily the most starstruck chef I can recall ("OHMIGOD ITS ________ !!"), Sarah got her shit together and ran a tight and professional ship in Vancouver.

As far as narrative, it couldn't have been written any better than to have Tyler -- he of the toothy smarm and exceptionally poor butchering skills -- not only reappear in the finale, but be blind-selected as one of the competing chefs' teammates. He didn't, at least, appear to submarine Sarah's efforts, but how much better would her team have been with the unselected Master Chef Marco Canora? Paul seemed to really thrive thanks in part to Master Chef Barbara Lynch's presence.

Final thoughts. Smarty Paul bought those prawns when he didn't need them -- and then he needed them. (What exactly happened to that crab anyway?) It would have been great to see Nyesha competing in the finale rather than assisting. I think Paul would have really been given a run for his money with her, even as well as Sarah performed. A lot of this year's challenges were pretty mediocre. I don't think Top Chef should return to the "Last Chance Kitchen" concept, if for no other reason than because it won't carry the same surprise. (And this season's surprise was blunted by, I think, chefs who were just plain worn out by the season's rigors.)

Go forth, Paul Qui -- executive chef at one of GQ's 10 Best New Restaurants of 2011, and now Top Chef -- and bask in your new fame. And dude, don't sit anywhere between Heather and Beverly during the reunion special.

Top Chef (Texas) - Keep the hot side hot

After a first round of the finals wherein the chefs were inexplicably dropped in Vancouver (y'know, where they had the Olympics once?), chefs ran biathlon (poorly) to win ingredients for a very important dish, Beverly's luck finally ran out, and Paul and Lindsay returned at the end of the episode both wearing white like indoctrinated cultists -- after all that, we started tonight's action with our three remaining chefs twiddling their thumbs while Top Chef Masters loosened the lids on their pickle jars.

This, my friends, is a snapshot of this season.

But hey, Paul made it to the final finals like we all knew he should. You could make equally valid arguments for either [Lindsay's repeated low degrees of difficulty] or [Sarah's willingness to make a shitload of fiddly pasta] being the main reason why Sarah's moving on and Lindsay's going home.

Either way, Sarah's got her work cut out for her. In a challenge where Paul has no choice but to focus, his nattering creative monkeys are likely to be silenced. No stray arugula -- as it that could possibly have sent his dish packing this week over raw kale randomly slapped on Lindsay's halibut.

And tonight's Elimination challenge: was it giving anyone else flashbacks?


So next week is the real finale, I think. I have to hand it to Sarah; she's got more culinary chutzpah than I expected out of her. She's kind of a competition chef after my own heart, trying things on a whim when she's got zero experience with 'em. But I can tell you, you run a strong chance of flaming out with that philosophy. Paul's only got the Coco Chanel rule to remember; his kung fu is strong.

Every season, one judge says that that season's finale is the best one ever, so I don't put a lot of stock in the preview snippet from Tom Colicchio. Still, I'll be sticking it out just to see if he's not putting us all on.

Top Chef Texas - Ketchup

Let's just lay it out quick and easy.

-Grayson Schmitz has the honor of issuing the single greatest verbal takedown of Tom Colicchio. "Like a meatball?", she spat -- and won a spot in my heart forever. Sorry to see her go, and even sorrier to find that she didn't look upon her Last Chance Kitchen opportunity with much anticipation.

-Chicken salad was a terrible idea.

-Chris Jones is no Richard Blais.

-Peach is without question the ingredient of this season. Tell me otherwise.

-"Bike, Borrow and Steal" was a brutal-ass Elimination Challenge.

-I didn't mind Pee Wee. At least he wasn't pitching anything, and if you're looking for something non-obvious to tie the Alamo into the action, what's better? "In honor of the Last Stand at the Alamo, create a dish that stands up on the plate"? Come on. I'll take Pee Wee.

-I don't think Grayson had any business going home at the end of "Bike, Borrow and Steal".

-Of the five chefs that competed in the mentor challenge, I didn't particularly care for three of them -- and it's not a gender bias thing. I don't think I'm alone in wishing that it had been Grayson, Nyesha, and even Heather in that round instead of dour Lindsay, unstable Sarah, and spastic Beverly. Still, the tears and nerves and hugs were genuine this week, and that's appreciated at the tail end of a somewhat dry season. Nice to see Tony Mantuano (Wisconsin native, dontcha know), even if his mentee didn't have anything to do in the challenge.

-Packaged oysters? Oh, Edward.

Dude, have you never watched this show?
-Is there any question that Paul's going to have to give this one up for anyone but him to win?

-On January 19, I at least nailed the final five. I'm willing to accept that Beverly has another gear she can shift into -- if the sound of the transmission grinding doesn't freak her out and force a fatal error.

Paul: 3 to 1
Lindsay: 5 to 1
Beverly: 9 to 1
Sarah: 15 to 1, 14 to 1 that she develops frostbite in British Columbia and has to retire.

See you in the final round!


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.

Top Chef Texas - Hot links, weak links

Super-sized episode, super-late recap. Let's just hit the highlights.

-I like both the decision to extend a barbecue-centric episode, and to preface the Elimination with a Quickfire centered on Modernist Cuisine.

-The worst thing that could have happened to Chris Jones' culinary career was getting a job at MOTO. Take away Richard Blais' foundations in Southern cuisine, and you have Chris Jones, pulling out trick after trick to impress people, but without a real understanding of what people want to eat, not just look at.

-Chris Crary's apartment. He is so The Todd.

-Beverly's little technology meltdown during the Quickfire. Cringe.

-It's kind of ridiculous how much Sarah seems to be carrying Heather's torch. Not trusting Ed because he sold out Heather's use of his cake recipe after she was gone was just petty.

-An all-night barbecue challenge that culminates in a mid-day Texas-in-the-summer service is downright cruel. I'm shocked that Sarah was the only one to poop out. Though, I wonder if Grayson even remembers telling Tom Colicchio their food would be "like sex in the mouth". Heat delirium?

-On the other hand, not even Tom could argue with the triumvirate of Texas, Kentucky, and Kansas City -- aka Sarah, Ed, and Ty-Lör. Ty would not receive vindication after his steak debacle, however.

-Glad that Ed wasn't quite the cold-hearted complainer that the promos made him out to be after Sarah had to bail.

-I didn't care for the editing of commentary at the table and then the real thoughts at Judges' Table. A little rope-a-dopey.

-What in the world was Grayson thinking with her little frog song?

No, Grayson. Just, no.
-Paul, Lindsay, and Grayson pick up the win for their Asian barbecue. I like how barbecue translates from continent to continent, so I was happy to see them take a geographic chance.

-Chris Jones continues to be lucky that someone else screws up worse than him.

Sorry again for the lateness; I was in Minneapolis for four days, eating. I assume by now you've watched "Last Chance Kitchen", and saw Nyesha move past outgoing barbecuist Chris Crary with a strong dish made of gas station food. Love that girl.

Tonight's episode, "Restaurant Wars", has finished; I'll try to get my recap out  a little sooner.

Top Chef Texas - Kindly Tom, Bigfoot, and other legendary creatures

Much like Jesus and his role in Tim Tebow's success, I feel like karma's got bigger shrimp to devein than delivering some humility upon Heather for her shitty treatment of Beverly.

But boy, that did feel good, seeing Heather brought low for stringy, greasy mystery meat and not doing the smart thing that Beverly did.

I know I put Heather at 5-1 odds to win last week, and I wasn't fading you all. I think she could have won the whole thing, but her flaws (giant ego, constant desire to get over on a perceived opponent) were definitely going to get her in trouble. This first episode set in Austin wasn't nearly as boring (not Ty-Lör) as I thought it'd be after all.

Beverly could do it.
The Elimination Challenge was finale-grade serious: cook a dish inspired by the person who inspired you to cook. The reason this kind of challenge is normally saved for the finale was elucidated by Tom Colicchio at Judges' Table; no one here wants to send a chef home for a dish with this much heart at its core. It was a thoughtful and kind moment from Tom, a week after he was as incisively critical as I've ever seen him.

Of course, he did mention to Heather that if she'd really wanted to tenderize the ribeye for her beef stroganoff, she could have used a pressure cooker like Beverly did. And the Last Chance Kitchen segment broke with the template and showed a montage of all of Heather's worst bullying moments. It was kind of awesome.


(As soon as Heather lost, my first comment to my wife was that I couldn't wait to see Nyesha crush her like an empty can of soda.)

The Quickfire Challenge was a bit of a throwaway; Twitter users who had no idea who was at the kitchen end of the conversation were tasked with offering suggestions for what ingredients to use, how to cook them, and what twist to throw in. One takeaway from the Quickfire: had any of you non-chef readers heard of hon shimeji mushrooms before this season of Top Chef? They've appeared in at least four dishes so far.

(Okay, Sarah's burrata-stuffed squash blossom was pretty appealing, and Paul's assemblage of blackberries, bacon, clams, and chorizo was at the very least striking and avant garde; he ended up with his second QF win of the season.)

Where the Quickfire was doomed to produce some Frankensteinian creations of minimal culinary worth, the Elimination was all soul--and not just because guest judge Patti LaBelle said so. Paul's adobo quail and Ty-Lör's duck fat-fried chicken tender a la Japanese nanny were both good enough to be in the top three, but fell just short. That's how good the top half of the competition was this week.

Edward's poor childhood resulted in a meatless bibimbap that you just hoped would be appreciated by the judges (it was); Beverly pressure-cooked beef short ribs (her second pressure-cooking of the evening) and turned them into a classy interpretation of classic mom food. But it was Sarah, who seemed to be on an emotional mission from the opening bell, who made pork sausage-stuffed cabbage not only tasty, but good enough to stand out visually opposite the bright colors and flavors of Paul's dish during service.

Grayson's giant and nasty steak didn't do right by Wisconsin, and Chris Crary's spoogy filet of salmon was almost bad enough to be worse than Heather's mess (that Patti called "Bigfoot" for its unidentifiability). I'm thinking it's a blip for Chris, but Grayson's been on the bottom two weeks in a row; that's not a good streak. Lindsay, meanwhile, toils in obscurity, which could be just the trick to last into the final five or six this season.

And in the secret fight club basement, looking cute and cooking smart, is Nyesha, whose work was never so bad on its own to merit dismissal. I've got a feeling about that girl.

Next week, Grayson finds out how meats really get grilled (at The Salt Lick, which I'm frankly proud to say I recognized by its pit alone), Sarah needs oxygen, and Heather's still gone! So it can't be that bad of an episode.

Top Chef Texas - Don't hate the player...

Heather has heard that you might have opinions of
your own; she's got a better, more rustic idea.
Remember how Heather was kind of butthole last week? Yeah. Good times.

This week was Heather's ego going critical mass. And I'm frankly kind of pissed, because this episode should have hit my sweet spot. A Quickfire featuring food/booze pairings (tequila, specifically), and an Elimination of game meat cookery? Sign me up.

But noooo, instead I've got to witness Heather bossing Beverly around -- because you know they just happened to get paired up for the Elimination Challenge. And of course this was a double elimination episode, and one where there was no real sure-thing team and all of our favorites were paired with someone who could bring them down.

It was a good episode for one fella, though: the umlauted one, Ty-Lör. His confidence with tequila (he's been to Jalisco!) resulted in a Thai-style clam dish with Don Julio 1942 that took home the $5,000 Quickfire win. Beverly's cold-smoked oysters outdid Heather's popcorn shrimp, as they should. Grayson stepped up with her Wisconsin roots, repping beer instead of tequila; her sesame-crusted cod still sounded decent.

The Elimination pairings were announced as essentially random (the person next to you is your partner), and each team had to prepare a game meat for a renowned chef at guest judge Tim Love's restaurant. Our chefs would be the judges, though. They were tasked with selecting the bottom three teams to face elimination, with both members of the losing team leaving.

By the time we got to that selection process, we'd seen a number of chefs comment on Heather's shitty 'tude, and the camera lingered for a not-brief moment on Edward as Heather railed on Beverly to make sure the dish didn't end up "too Asian". I feel like that's a dangerous direction to go, tiptoeing around accusing Heather of even a little bit of racism. But clearly she's getting on everyone's nerves, and I could see it going in any number of directions.

We also saw Chris Jones come up with another ridiculous MOTO-style concept before the recipe's finalized -- this one some sort of sweet potato chain that I still don't entirely understand -- that ended up failing miserably and tanking the elk dish he and Grayson put together. He's on thin ice in this competition.

But worst is Dakota, who fussed over her venison rack and ended up putting Nyesha's butt on the line for a seriously underdone chop. They were almost spared by Heather's bizarre ego meltdown at Judges' Table, wherein she brought up last week's challenge and her opinion of Beverly's shrimp processing skills, overall work ethic, and sense of self-esteem. It was skin-crawlingly awful, and I don't see how Heather's behavior could possibly be explained away by Bravo editing.

If it wasn't for the nearly-raw venison, Dakota and Nyesha could have won this week's challenge, I'm sure of it. Instead, because this was ultimately a game challenge, they're the odd team out this week. Of course, there's always that Last Chance Kitchen...

With ten chefs remaining in the active competition, and one more in the basement Top Chef fight club, I'm still going with Paul as my overall favorite. Chris Crary is coming on, and Ty-Lör (who took the Elimination win with Edward for their quail with pickled cherries and eggplant) seems to have his confidence back. Sarah is faltering, and Chris Jones has no consistency.

So here they are: my first odds picks for the winner of Top Chef 9.

Paul (4-1)
Heather (5-1)
Edward (8-1)
Lindsay (15-1)
Ty-Lör (17-1)
Chris C. (19-1)
Grayson (20-1)
[Last Chance Kitchen winner] (30-1)
Sarah (35-1)
Beverly (50-1)
Chris J. (60-1)

Next week, the show heads to Austin. Patti LaBelle does some singing, and Emeril's back. Let's see if the lack of sizzle in the preview means that it's a boring episode. I'm betting yes.

Top Chef Texas - Burned at the [insert pun on steak]

God is watching: how many of you heard Chris Crary talk about how other chefs don't use roux for their mother sauces because they're too old-school -- and didn't roll your eyes? I better not see any hands, because that dude is a self-aggrandizing nut.

And then the judges come around at the end of the "riff on a mother sauce" Quickfire Challenge, and two chefs reply to the creepy-looking guest judge that they didn't use a roux for their sauce, and how in the name of god is it possible that Chris was right?

There were a couple "...holy cow" moments in this most recent Top Chef, in which the chefs had to first draw knives in the mother sauce challenge, and then group up to serve a boatload of steaks to a bunch of Texans at the Cattle Baron's Ball. No pressure there.

One such moment would be how much of a jerk Heather appears to be in the broadcast edit. She's busting Beverly down at pretty much every opportunity. She and Lindsay are turning into the villains of this season in a hurry; Lindsay sold Ty-Lör (cooking injured) down the river by blasting the steaks he'd par-grilled far too early, and she skated while he got put up for elimination at Judges' Table.

So I'm kind of rooting for Beverly now, what with the potential shitty treatment by the producers pre-shooting, and the crap she's getting from Heather for not going fast enough on 400 whole shrimp. (Those shrimp, by the way, were praised by the judges.) The fact that Heather ended up getting the win -- and a new car -- over Nyesha and Chris Jones by using Edward's cake recipe again only makes her superior attitude more galling.

(That peach cake with mascarpone and pecan streusel did look mighty tasty.)

The other "holy cow" moment was how brutal Tom Colicchio was with the chefs at the bottom during his final commentary. Whitney's gratin was sloppy and not up to Top Chef standards;  Edward's asparagus salad was too simple and boring, and Ty-Lör got dinged for Lindsay's steak mistreatment. But Tom wasn't in a charitable mood.

"We chose sixteen chefs, and quite frankly I'm starting to think maybe I chose the wrong chefs. Usually it's really difficult to send someone home, but tonight, you really made it easy."

And with that, Whitney is sent out in the most gutting, blunt elimination I think I've seen in all of my seasons of Top Chef watching. Which makes her win in the Last Chance Kitchen all the more surprising. You did watch that, right? I really hope someone sticks around long enough down there to at least generate some momentum that justifies their eventual inclusion in the finale.

Tonight, more Heather-on-Beverly bullying, Heather-on-Grayson bitchiness, and a double elimination. Can Heather go home twice?

Top Chef Texas - Too rich for my blood


Here's the problem: this was a pretty cruddy episode. Added to that is the fact that I've been pretty busy this last week, and you've got a late recap for events that I can barely force myself to remember. How awful were those "dinner party" scenes? How much did you empathize with Tom Colicchio? And how nasty does a cheese-stuffed salmon fillet sound? Come on, Chuy!

I don't watch the Real Housewives shows, not even ironically. They're horrendous, made worse knowing that even when the cameras and production trappings and sweeps schedules are stripped away, these people are probably still not very good people. Certainly not a crowd I'd willingly lower myself into. So this episode, with its vapid caricatures of Texas power couples, just made my brain shut down a little.

The juxtaposition of an Elimination round that catered (literally) to the Texas upper class with a Quickfire that had the chefs cooking with the meager fare and hardware of a survival pack could have been handled with some winking social commentary. Could have. It wasn't. Instead, we got the ewwws and yukks and "boy I ain't never seen this" of a Saltine/tuna/sardine sandwich standing in a pool of french onion soup with Vienna sausage chunks--like a stack of boxes you want to stay dry in a flooded basement. Congratulations (or something), Lindsay.

John Besh as a guest judge is okay, I guess. He strikes me as a slightly more down-to-earth, though no less toothy version of Bobby Flay: a golem of a chef, brought to shambling life solely for food television's sake.

The Chrisses got off really lucky this week. Chris Jones proved that not just any chef can throw MOTO technique and aesthetic out there and succeed; his "cigars" proved that really no one should ever make anything described as a cigar on Top Chef. (...Howie.) Meanwhile, Horny Chris Crary, when not cooing over the handsome John Besh, served up a ridiculous melange of various sweet things around a sweaty-looking cupcake. 

My boy Paul Qui took home the win for fried Brussels sprouts with prosciutto; it's his second time at the top. Dakota served, with zero confidence, a tasty-looking and crowd-pleasing banana bread pudding; her dessert chops will either typecast her with the other chefs (her fear), or keep her around longer into the competition.

Look for Ty-Lör (RULER OF OMICRON PERSEI 8!) to either shape up or ship out; he's been scraping the bottom since the start of the real competition. The two Chrisses won't be far behind. Or ahead. And...if you've been keeping up with "Last Chance Kitchen", you know that big Keith finally ran out of steam and lost the secret chef's coat to newly-dismissed Chuy.

So, yeah. That was the rich folks episode. Coming up tonight, more blood, more big Texan meat, and from the looks of it, more beating up on Beverly. Stay tuned!

Top Chef Texas - The delicious sound of chili being poured from a height

What did we learn in the pre-Thanksgiving episode of Top Chef? Well, we learned that Mary Sue Milliken would make a great recurring guest judge. We learned that Susan Feniger likes acid--probably not a surprise. We learned that Beverly is a total nut.

I'll tell you what I wanted to learn, but never did: whose breast milk is in the Top Chef House's fridge?? Seriously: did anyone else catch that, off-camera, when all the chefs were running in to start cooking their pots of chili? "Nobody touch my breast milk!"

Hey, maybe breast milk is the best relief for the burning heat of chili peppers (the star ingredient of this week's Quickfire). Maybe someone is lactating--my bets for most hormonal are Chris Crary, who appears to have a boner for anything that walks by; Beverly, who probably would cry if someone spilled her breast milk; or Richie (see previous).

Richie made an inoffensive Quickfire dish of scallops, and an apparently-delish cornbread side for the Elimination challenge, and then made a fine looking Frito-breaded pork dish for the "second chance to save your season" portion of the Elimination round--and still got sent packing. He wept. A lot. Into the bosom of his MOTO buddy Chris. It was a little awkward, especially with Richie's shuffling, looks-like-he's-got-to-poop gait.

This week's Quickfire was fun: prepare a dish highlighting one chili pepper, choosing from the selection in the kitchen. From anaheim to ghost, they covered a wide range of Scoville ratings. In addition, the hotter the pepper, the higher the cash reward for the winner. A nice concept, and the gamble paid off for one of my horses (Paul Qui of Austin, who was the only chef to use the ghost chili).

The Elimination challenge had the chefs teaming up in threes to cook a pot of chili for the Tejas Rodeo. This was hard for us Sconnies to watch, particularly my wife; we're Midwesterners, and not only do we like beans in our chili, but noodles as well. Elbow macaroni. If you're my wife, you like them as an independent bottom layer under the chili, a la Cincinnati style. In Texas, we'd be run out of town on a rail for that.

(That the White Team of Ty-Lör, Lindsay, and Grayson made a three-bean chili and managed to survive the rodeo, is a mystery to me.)

Blue Team (Heather, Paul, and Edward) made a winning pot of chili in my estimation--the pickled peaches sounded great and it was disappointing that Tom's Tom-ness in the kitchen took Heather off her game. But Green Team (Chuy, Sarah-who-is-from-Texas-by-the-way, and Chris aka The Todd) took the collective win.

It was another week with no individual winner; this--combined with the relative cruelty of making the losing team cannibalize their leftovers to salvage their competitive lives that the judges themselves acknowledged--makes this very loss-heavy season a bit hard to manage. The "Last Chance Kitchen" is maybe the counterbalance to all the dismissal-happiness, but it still represents another kick to the teeth of a chef who's been eliminated at least once already.

And speaking of "elimination", who loves to hear chili being poured from one vessel into another one a foot below it? Anyone? Yum!

Next week, Dallas. No, really, it looks like they're visiting the TV show Dallas. Timely!

EDIT: From an anonymous commenter (so take it for what it's worth) at The AV Club's recap of this episode:
I spoke to Beverly's sister, who happens to run the San Diego Asian Film Foundation. She says that Beverly had a new baby, still in the breast-feeding phase, when she got the call from Top Chef to get on a plane within 24 hours. Apparently this batch of chefs weren't allowed to contact their families during the filming, so she was an emotional wreck.
If that's the case, the Top Chef producers should be a little ashamed for leaving so much crying and breakdown in the final edits. It's cheap and exploitative.

Top Chef Texas - Goat rodeo

Well, I sure put the whammy on Keith, didn't I? Pre-cooked shrimp and pre-made tortillas? To say nothing of being the wrong kind of tortilla? I'd say something about prison food, but dude had to have earned his James Beard attention for something other than nutraloaf.

(I'll give you time to look that up.) (Also, do check out the second Last Chance Kitchen.)

I thought the Quickfire was cute, making all the squeamish chefs think they were not only going to have to dispatch a live rattlesnake, but coax it out of a friggin' mailbox. It was good to see the guest judge stick to his guns, giving the three simplest preparations of rattler the top spots. Dakota Weiss BS'd her "when I think of rattlesnake, I think of beer" line into a victory, but I would have picked weepy Beverly Kim's rattlesnake nigiri.

This season is clearly not going to be about outsized personalities; there are some real bummers in this cast. Chuy "Official Mexican Palate" Valencia, Paul "The Lone Lone Star" Qui, and Heather "Does Anyone Have a Mallet for This Cake" Terhune struck me as having good temperaments for the competition and all of its oddities.

It was nice to see the show return to elevated Mexican food; it seems like the last time we had this kind of challenge was Season 4, when Erik expressed doubts of Mexican cuisine's upper limits. Fortunately, everyone played nice for young Blanca's quinceanera. Beverly was clearly working through some personal issues, serving Mexican-by-way-of-Korean food, and totally losing her shit over the daddy-daughter dance.

Chuy cranked out two fine-lookin' dishes: a pasilla-balsamic BBQ rattlesnake, and braised goat birria just like abuelito used to make. MOTO's Chris Jones (total nerd, by the way, and not the cool kind--the Star Wars-quoting kind) impressed with a cumin-breaded rattlesnake in a Jackson Pollock presentation, and a really appealing mushroom empanada.

The Team With the Mexican took the win, though no single chef was credited with the grand prize. But then, being given a pass from standing at a really whiny, blame-gamey Judges' Table--way too petulant for the first real week of competition--was reward enough.

Sarah Grueneberg and Lindsay Autry botched the cochinita pibil that Blanca requested, and used store-bought tortillas to boot. Sarah gave up Keith Rhodes' shrimp screw-up (which would have otherwise been invisible since Lindsay never served them), and Keith had to own up to it with the judges. Ty-Lör Boring served a bad fritter, but his carne asada ensured that he was never in danger of elimination; his umlaut stayed in place.

At the end of deliberation, Keith was sent packing for a mushy, unrefined enchilada that didn't live up to regional standards of construction anyway. His poor judgment on the shrimp was probably what spared Lindsay the axe. Ah, but then the Last Chance Kitchen... I'll say that it's definitely the right choice to not tell the chefs about it until after they've been cut.

This week we got the clowns; next week the real rodeo--and more tears from Beverly!

Top Chef Texas - Deep cuts

So now we have our familiar 16 chefs; it only took us two weeks to get there. Anyone else think we're going to see more double-eliminations than usual this season? (This "Last Chance Kitchen" online shadow competition seems interesting, but are they hiding the surviving chef away from the rest of the contestants? How did it work in the real world of filming?)

It seemed like there was a little more focus on the food this week, or else last week's food was really that underwhelming. I liked a lot of the big flavors at play, even if not all of them made it through. The seared trout with Asian tomato salad from Paul, Edward's duck chawanmushi, and Beverly's octopus nakji bokum all speak to some strong Asian dishes to come. (The eliminated short rib and oxtail were victims primarily of the cooking technique rather than their Asian flavors.)

This was the gut-punch round, though. Only four chefs were eliminated in the first and second rounds combined; today, five of ten competing chefs were eliminated before the bubble round even started. Another four were booted in that bubble round, including the 51-year old Laurent. I could almost hear Colicchio thinking, There's only enough room for one bald-headed, soul-patched chef in the Top Chef Kitchen, and it ain't you, Laurent.

Lots of references to the old ball and chain back home--or in Janine's case, the heartless bitch who dumped her over the phone after a commitment ceremony that fell short of a Shakespearean sonnet. And actually, everyone who focused on their significant others this week got booted: Janine, Chaz (whose 40-minute risotto never made the plate), and Ashley (wife of a Filipino man whose mother will have some disapproving comments over the strength of her oxtail kare-kare).

Happy to see Wisconsin-born Greyson make the cut in the bubble round--even if she never mentions her New Holstein roots on-screen. (They're right there on the Bravo website, Greyson. Just embrace 'em!) Beverly seems fun, and Lindsay reminds me just a little of another Lindsay I know; she also appeared to really impress Tom with her braised veal.

So at the end of these preliminary rounds, we can draw a couple conclusions. Seattle is down (0-for-4, Chicago is up (6-for-6). Gender is split 50/50, and everyone's under 40--though, in fairness, only Oldy McOlderson Laurent was over 50. Paul Qui all by himself carries the home state's flag going into the real competition, unless Andrew brings his A-game to the D-league of the Last Chance Kitchen.

And Edward, in slicing up his hand but good, proves that every single chef is tougher and more dedicated than Jamie Lauren. (Sorry Jamie, but we shoot straight here in Texas.)

Looks like a good crew this season, and if Hugh Acheson can get over his verbal affectations the judges should do well, too. Me? I'm reeling from the previews, just waiting to see Padma say "motherfucking snakes on these motherfucking plates" again.

Top Chef Texas - Pack your speech quirks and go

Howdy, Top Chef fans! I bet you didn't see this coming; frankly, neither did I. Let's make some blog magic happen.

Things are going to run a little differently than they did in seasons past. I'm not taking notes, so this will be more analysis than recap. Call it a spoon-drag of consciousness approach. And anyway, there's no way in hell I'm going to try to keep up with the bios of all twenty-nine preliminary contestants.

Many of these early hopefuls were pretty obnoxious, and the knobbiest of those range knobs was shown the sad side of the glass doors exiting the Top Chef Kitchen: Tyler Stone, toothful braggart who would have been subject to numerous Justin Bieber jokes from me had he advanced. (Let's see how long chin-wobbling Edward Kim and Janine Falvo's clenched jaw survive in the Stew Bubble.)

As a Seattle fan, I'm bummed that 75% of that city's chefs were dispatched. Especially Nina Vicente, who had the worst case of timer blinders ever, leaving the rabbit off of the plate in her rabbit challenge. My two early favorites--or at least the chefs I'm rooting for--are Nyesha Arrington, whose resume is impressive; and Keith Rhodes, who turned a prison education in cooking into a successful career as a chef.

Of the rest, I have mixed emotions. Two MOTO chefs are among the official 16; Chris Jones has an odd attitude, and Richie Farina walks like he has to poop. But I dig MOTO's head honcho, Homaro Cantu, so I'm hopeful that these guys can pull off some intriguing plates. Chris Crary is shaping up to be this year's Angelo, though I find it unlikely that Crary will grow on me in any way.

I am fervently hopeful that Ty-Lör Boring sticks around, because I want to see if that ridiculous umlaut wanders around onto other letters in his name, like Richard Lewis' mole in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

But this is a show that's at least 50% about food. I thought Dakota Weiss (a chocolate/vinegar combo?) and Ty-Lör (who, seriously, looks like he should be bare-knuckle boxing with John L. Sullivan, and it was a fish-sauced rabbit that raised my eyebrow) did way too much monkeying with their food, and yet the judges loved both plates. Both my wife and I are dubious of Emeril's ability to be a stern judge, but I'm looking forward to Hugh Acheson's critical debut. Should be fun. [Edit: I'm told he was a guest judge on Season 2 of Top Chef: Just Desserts, but I wouldn't know, because I've steered totally clear of that hot mess.]

I liked Keith's trio of rabbit preparations, both for how appealing it sounded and how challenging it must have been. Molly Brandt (fighting the preconceptions about cruise ship cuisine) seemed to be a real sourpuss early, but Tom's cold-blooded axing of Tyler and his butchery of butchery scared her into a more circumspect mood. I wished she'd made the pork cheeks more prominent; everyone loves a prominent pork cheek. (Don't think it's just me.)

This episode ended with the final one-third left to cook, plus the bubble round to fill out the official 16. With 11 already slotted, that leaves (by my estimation) four chefs from the last group and one from the bubble chefs yet to move on.

Reserving final judgment on this season's cast until then, I bid you adios until next week. Here's hoping for a strong season!

A tale of two faces: George Duran and the Sotto Terra Incident

I'd like to tell you the story of two food personalities. I won't say "chefs", because for different reasons the label doesn't fit either one.

They're both a little portly. They've got an Everyman kind of charm without being either clownish or misogynistic. They each get a television show wherein they interact with innocent bystanders and challenge people to eat things they wouldn't normally eat.

Except one man's show only lasts a single season before being cancelled. The other man's show, which started two years after the first, has lasted for three years and four seasons.

This is the story of George Duran and Adam Richman.

So how unlucky does George Duran feel today? His Ham on the Street for Food Network was this close to achieving the success Adam Richman has with Man vs. Food on the Travel Channel. Maybe we should feel empathy for Duran, since his concept was much more focused on sensible, mostly real-world eating, while Richman's show embraces conspicuous consumption and (frankly) overeating. Duran fought the good fight, and lost--no shame in that. And after all, Duran is an actual chef! Richman is an actor who likes food.

But how, then, do we reconcile the latest news? The news that George Duran hosted an invitation-only dinner at a supposed pop-up restaurant in New York, only to pull back the curtain at the end to reveal that the entire premise was a promotion, a focus-group ambush for the benefit of Marie Callender's Frozen Entrees?

What is it about failed TV chefs that makes them think the way back into favor is to endorse frozen food? And in Duran's case, shouldn't someone have thought, Maybe we shouldn't invite a bunch of food bloggers to this deal? It's a PR event, after all. Invite PR people, TV execs. Not snarky denizens of the internets.

Somewhere, Adam Richman is looking down at his 20-egg omelet with a Reuben and two cream puffs inside and smiling. He's being genuine; he's doing what he says he's doing. He's not inviting people to a meal with a promised "surprise" at the end, and then delivering the surprise in a way that undercuts everything else he's said about fresh food, and seasonal food, and good food. That's not what chefs do, but it's what George Duran did.

And when you do that, this is what you get. You get crushed--cah-RUSHED--by bloggers for the dissembling performance, for the two-faced shillery, for the sheer absurdity of the bullshit. And you're going to take every lump, George. Because you've earned it.

Top Chef All-Stars - The pre-finale breakdown

Poor Richard. He flamed out so hard in his first finale, and his attitude was so frank and contrite; did the "I fucked up, and can do nothing right" complex start then? And then the one criticism he receives in the first Bahamas episode (occasionally undercooked lobster), he doesn't believe?

Dude, are you trying to scare me off of my odds-on pick for you to win it all? Because this has all the makings of another spectacular crash-and-burn.

Regardless: I nailed the final three with my last revision of the betting lines. I'll admit, though: I didn't see Mike Isabella's ascendency coming. No way, no how. Whether he's got the judges bamboozled, or he's in Richard's head, or he's just on, dude is a serious threat to puncture my predictive balloon in the next two weeks.

And what to make of Antonia, once again becoming the Black Hammer? Her defense of straightforward cookery in last week's episode was honest, fair, and convincing. But is there a good enough justification to propel her past the developed flavors that Isabella's bringing lately? Or the creativity and daring of Richard Blais? Personally, I doubt it. But she's capable, I won't take that away from her.

The promo for this week's episode reveals some confusing drama; I honestly don't know what to expect. This season has, almost without fail, lived up to its promise. I hope the last two weeks continue to deliver. Or at least show more of Padma's model-walk in a bikini and sarong.

Top Chef All-Stars - A few thoughts

So, Dale! He always looks so sad when he's sad. And honestly: who saw Antonia and Tiffany in the final five?

The last odds revision I posted looked like this (eliminated chefs in italics):

Fabio - 50:1
Marcel - 30:1
Tiffany - 25:1
Tre - 25:1
Isabella - 23:1
Antonia - 12:1
Dale - 9:1
Carla - 6:1
Angelo - 4:1
Richard - 4:1

Well, okay. My powers of prognostication look a little better with the original lines.

Jamie - 100:1
Fabio - 50:1
Tiffani - 35:1
Casey - 32:1
Isabella - 30:1
Tiffany - 25:1
Tre - 20:1
Spike - 15:1
Antonia - 11:1
Little Dale - 10:1
Carla - 7:1
Marcel - 5:1
Angelo - 4:1
Richard - 3:1

My attention is stretched over bigger and thornier issues than Top Chef right now, but here we go. The final betting lines.

Tiffany - 50:1
Carla - 12:1
Isabella - 6:1
Antonia - 4:1
Richard - 3:2

Also, shrimp fried in grits was literally the first thing I thought during the Quickfire last night. I'm not sure that I'd hang my hat on blowing Paula Deen away if I was Mike. ....fried butter. Come on.

#wiunion

So, yeah. Love all you guys who come here for the food, but this blog started out political, and now the food is taking a back seat to political once again.

If you haven't been watching any other TV than Top Chef, you're missing a truly amazing event in Wisconsin. Workers public and private, union and non-union, adults and students, have been taking to the streets and the halls of the Capitol to protest the governor's proposed union-busting legislation.

I've been there in part for the past three days. I still haven't watched this week's Top Chef. I know I still haven't published last week's recap (Fabio bites it! Richard boosts someone else into the winner's circle!). I honestly don't know when I'm going to get back to recapping, and I'm not planning on recruiting any guest-bloggers because all my friends are as engaged with the rallies as I am.

So please--take a look at the news coverage of this event on MSNBC and BBC News. (You could see my flashlight in the crowd on The Ed Show last night!) When the time comes that I can return to food blogging, I will. Feel free to check out my latest review for Isthmus, on the new Great Dane Pub location; it'll be linked up to the right later today.

Solidarity!

Top Chef All-Stars - The Italian food of Top Chef episodes

Strip away all pretense. Remove extraneous ingredients. Simplify preparation.

Italian food, or this episode of Top Chef?

I'm a week overdue, so this is going to be extremely brief. Just basic thoughts. The Quickfire Challenge, one without any tasting and based solely on plating and presentation, was an interesting one but standing in stark contrast to the Elimination Challenge--cook a great Italian dish for a bunch of guys with questionable mob ties.

(Yes, this place really does have a lot to do with organized crime. Recently, in fact.)

Richard totally got the Quickfire's challenge: get outside the normal mode of thought and stop thinking about flavor. I thought his dish was by far the best, and deserving of the win. Dale was inspired by graffiti? Austin Scarlett did it first! Carla's was nice, but not particularly inspiring. How Fabio's hot mess ever made it into Isaak Mizrahi's good graces is beyond me. And dude, by the way, can that bitch cut.

The Rao's crew--Frankie No, Jimmy Wingnuts and Stereotype Jones, or something--dined on the products of the Elimination Challenge with Lorraine Bracco, perhaps most well known for her role in The Sopranos. The chefs were split into the three typical courses of an Italian meal: antipasti, primi, and secondi.

Three Italians in the crop of chefs (Isabella, Antonia, and...um...Dale? No! Fabio.) dominated the conversations in their respective kibbutzes. Isabella wanted to try fresh rigatoni, and even Dale took a shot at fresh pasta. Tre decided that risotto was the way to go, but Antonia gave his efforts the stink eye.

It's hard to look back and say what looked good and what looked either bad or unambitious, since these dishes are ideally fairly simple. Antonia's mussels would have been a snooze in most challenges, but in this one it got her in the top group. Same with Carla's minestrone. Richard's panko-breaded pancetta cutlet blew the table away, but he got overlooked--because he had immunity?

Indeed, Antonia's mussels with fennel and a parsley ciabatta was so gloriously elegant that it took the big prize. The bottom group was the entire primi course: Tre, Dale, and Isabella. Dale didn't incorporate all of his otherwise deliciously promising components. Tre's risotto was undercooked and overwhelmed by huge chunks of vegetables laid over the top. And poor Isabella, who was told that using dry pasta wasn't a sin, soldiered ahead with his fresh pasta and undercooked it woefully. Lucky for him, Tre's risotto was worse; Isabella stays, Tre goes.

Tony couldn't believe Tre had never eaten a good risotto; my first thought was back to Stephen and Tre, dining at Marea in the third episode of the season. Tre refuses Stephen's good natured but pedantic insistence on trying the sea urchin, saying "my palate is my own" to the confessional. That kind of bullish self-assurance couldn't have served Tre very well this week.

So that's about it. Next week (I like to call it "tonight") we'll have to tolerate Jimmy Fallon mugging to the camera for the latter half of the episode. I hope we all make it through without breaking anything.