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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 01/20/2011

Top Chef All-Stars Ep. 7: Restaurant bores

By Carol Blymire

Ladies and gentlemen, can we all agree that this was the most boring episode in Top Chef history? Sweet fancy Moses, I had trouble staying awake. And to top it off, it's "Restaurant Wars" -- traditionally, a comical, stressful, exhilarating episode to watch every season. With a cast of all-stars doing this challenge, it a) should have been a heck of a lot more interesting; and 2) should have included more curveballs. Like, I dunno, make the teams switch menus and themes two hours before opening. Or, make them do an all-dessert tasting menu. Something, anything interesting. But alas, it was not meant to be. Instead, we were given a lackluster Quickfire, and an uneventful, completely predictable Restaurant Wars challenge. Let's get to it:

The Quickfire takes place at Eric Ripert's award-winning restaurant, Le Bernardin. Bourdain is in the house with the restaurant's head fish fabricator, Justo Thomas, who breaks down hundreds of fish for service every day. He demonstrates his style, and completes two fish in eight minutes. The cheftestants are told they have to clean and "butcher" two fish -- one cod, one fluke -- into Le Bernardin-style portions in 10 minutes, and Justo and Bourdain will judge who did the best job.

Dale, Richard, Mike and Marcel nail the challenge. To decide who gets immunity for the rest of the episode, each has 45 minutes to make a dish using only the remaining fish heads, bones, wings, fins and collar. Richard's schnitzel of cod belly, ragout of braised collar, potatoes and fried fish skin looks delicious to me, and Mike's pan-roasted belly, confit cheeks, charred collar and tomato sauce sounds like something I'd want to make at home. Dale bangs out two dishes -- fluke back fin sashimi with cucumber and fluke liver sauce; and bacon dashi with salt-roasted cod collar -- and Marcel's cod mousseline with yuzu-chili oil fluke broth kind of looks like a bowl of baby poop.

The winner is Dale, and not only does he get immunity for the rest of the challenge, he also gets to be captain of one of the Restaurant Wars teams. Another bonus? He gets to choose who's going to captain the other team. He selects Marcel, because he can't stand working with or near him, and wants him as far away as possible.

In this season's Restaurant Wars, the cheftestants have to execute a pop-up restaurant in 24 hours. Chef Ludo Lefebvre (of LA's famed LudoBites pop-up) is guest judge, but it's the diners who are going to be choosing the winning team, for the first time ever. Here's the part where I think we're supposed to oooooh and aaaaaah but the pacing of the show is so slow and lacking in energy that it just doesn't matter. I'm sure people in New York, DC, LA and a few other cities know what a pop-up restaurant is, but the rest of the television viewing audience might not be as familiar with the concept, and the show doesn't really explain what they are. Not that I think it really matters, but there wasn't a whole lot of context around this challenge for the viewers.

The teams are:

Marcel, Angelo, Mike, Antonia and Tiffany
: They go for a Mediterranean theme, and call their restaurant Etch. (Yeah, I don't get it either)
Dale, Richard, Tre, Fabio and Carla: They decide on a bodega theme, and call their restaurant Bodega.

As the teams take some time to plan their menus, Marcel appears to be the worst leader/manager of all time. Poppin' and lockin', beboppin' and scattin' all over his team and not really running the show, whereas Dale delegates to his team's strengths and leads in a much more effective manner in the planning department.

Within minutes of getting to work, everyone on Marcel's team is bickering and picking at one another. On the other side of the Foundry (where they're cooking), Blais is worried that his team is too quiet and haven't had any issues yet. Fabio is working front of house for Bodega, and Tiffany is managing Etch. Before the judges arrive, Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin arrives with Amanda Hesser, Ben Leventhal and Joanne Wilson, and within minutes of Antonia saying to camera "we have perfect food," Cowin's table sends back four plates of food for being cold, undercooked and just plain bad. We watch bored diners eat boringly at both restaurants. At one point, Cowin hits home a really good point: Pop-up restaurants should be fun, and have a fun theme, and when she and her crew sit down at Bodega she excitedly says, "There's fun all over this menu."

The judges arrive -- Tom, Padma, Ludo and Bourdain -- and we finally learn what everyone's been eating.

At Bodega:

  • Bag of potato chips with fried herbs and sea salt (Dale)

  • Raw tuna belly and fried chicken skin with chilies and lime, served in a mod version of a tuna can (Richard)

  • Bacon, egg and cheese with homemade focaccia (Dale)

  • Chicken-fried codfish and Brussels-kraut (Richard)

  • Pork shoulder and grits with cheddar cheese, and a Corona-lime sauce (Tre)

  • Amaretto cake with candied lemon peel and cappuccino mousse (Fabio)

  • Blueberry pie with dry milk ice cream (Carla)

The judges seem to like the food, and Tom especially likes how Fabio is directing the front-of-house staff. They have what seems to be a nice dinner and head over to (r)Etch, where they're not greeted at the door, and instead are seated by some random waiter. The food is slow in coming, and Tiffany's voice is too loud and her laugh too annoying, say the judges. They're hungry, and already put off by the experience.

On Etch's menu:

  • Frisee and asparagus salad with egg and chorizo (Tiffany)

  • Crudo of fluke with grapes, pink peppercorns and lemon zest (Angelo)

  • Roasted monkfish with kalamata olives, peperonata and parsley (Marcel)

  • Braised pork belly and octopus with cannellini beans (Mike)

  • Ricotta gnudi with braised oxtail ragout, arugula and lemon zest (Antonia)

  • Slow-cooked lamb chop with cauliflower puree, turmeric and honey (Mike and Angelo)

  • Duo of peaches (wait, is Kenny on this season?) with coconut foam and coconut powder (Marcel)

There are a lot of jump cuts back to the kitchen where we see Mike and Marcel getting into a spat, with Angelo trying to make peace between the two of them, and Antonia just trying to get some food out without getting caught in the crossfire.

I gotta say, none of this food jumped off the screen at me. That's not to say I was repulsed by it; it's just that none of it seemed to have the kind of energy you want food on a show like this to have. I like when dishes leap off the page of a book or are featured on a TV show, and they get stuck in my brain and I'm compelled to make them that weekend. That didn't happen even once in this episode for me.

There's some chatter about the dishes, but nothing that's funny or interesting, or even remotely engaging. It seems like the judges are phoning it in, too.

Back in the Stew Room, Padma brings Etch to Judges' Table first. Blais gets a case of the sads because he thinks his team lost. He needn't have worried because Padma tells Etch that the diners chose them as their least favorite restaurant. Only 17 out of 76 people favored them over Bodega. Ouch.

Angelo is told his crudo was too flavorful (huh?) and that nothing was Mediterranean about it. Tom and Bourdain wanted Mike's dish to have just a little more oomph. Antonia's dish was too salty. Marcel gets called out for making foam. Again. And no one liked his dessert. Tiffany's salad was flavorless, and she gets beaten up for bad front-of-house service.

The team falls apart further while Mike calls out Marcel for being such a bad leader, and no one wanting to work with him because he's a ticking time bomb. As Marcel tries to defend himself, he's doing that thing where he's trying to look like he's throwing gang signs, and it's just sad and pathetic and I want him to stop. They're all sent back to the Stew Room, and Bodega goes before Judges' Table next.

Tom says, "Guys? You killed it."

Fabio lauded for his dessert and his front-of-house management. Tre's dish was balanced. Carla's dessert worked well, too. Dale's food was excellent, and Richard's dishes were spot-on. Carla says that Richard helped everyone on the team elevate their dishes. The winner is Richard, and he gets $10,000. And here's what I love about Richard Blais: No matter how hard he works, and no matter how many times he wins, this guy doesn't let up. Doesn't rest on his laurels. He pushes and pushes, and works his butt off, and in my book, deserves a metric ton of respect.

Congrats to Blais for showing how it's done. But who's going home? It's the king of powders, Marcel, which is not a shock to anyone who's ever watched the show. He says in his exit interview, "I didn't make any mistakes, per se, only picking the wrong team." Okay, dude. Whatever.

Next Week: Lorraine Bracco and an Italian restaurant challenge. So, buckle your seatbelts, kids, 'cause I bet next week is all-Fabio, all the time.

By Carol Blymire  | January 20, 2011; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Television  | Tags:  Carol Blymire, Top Chef  
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Great we can watch Fabio make gnocchi again.

Posted by: Tweaked | January 20, 2011 1:11 PM | Report abuse

I think the "credit" for this one goes to Dale, who put Marcel in charge of that trainwreck. "no one's is listening to me" yeah, because you are a jerk.

I'm just glad Marcel is gone. I did enjoy watching Fabio though.

Posted by: chiquita2 | January 20, 2011 1:38 PM | Report abuse

While I personally like Marcel, he did fail as a leader and cooked 2 really bad dishes. He deserved to go homeā€¦
But still, I REALLY hope Dale is next. At least Marcel was funny. Dale is just plain mean.

Posted by: Kenna2 | January 20, 2011 2:23 PM | Report abuse

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