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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 02/ 3/2011

Top Chef All-Stars Ep. 8: French beats Italian?

By Carol Blymire

The guest judge for tonight's Quickfire is Isaac Mizrahi, and the chefs will be judged on their dish's presentation only. The most impressive plate wins immunity, and already I'm thinking Richard Blais will nail it, because not only does Mizrahi know fashion design, the guy knows a heck of a lot about food and cooking, so he'll know which dishes will taste as good as they look. Though I do wonder if we could just put Tre on a plate and call it a night.

Here's what each chef plated:

  • Carla: pink and green accents in a cucumber-beet soup

  • Tre: dots of beet, parsley and smoked salmon

  • Fabio: barf on a plate, surrounded by the magic marker ramblings of a crazy man

  • Dale: a graffiti-inspired melange of a bunch of ingredients I can't remember

  • Mike: a beautifully composed plate of carrot, eggplant and egg yolk

  • Richard: a composed, sophisticated abstract of black, gray, white and green

  • Antonia: a plate of food and herbs inspired by the book "The Giving Tree"

  • Tiffany: almond gazpacho with grapes and ground-up bread dirt with herb flowers

  • Angelo: a "crocadile" [sic]-inspired dish that was also inspired by Roberto Cavalli (who is not Isaac Mizrahi) that looked like a sous-vide bag of dog diarrhea

Mizrahi's least favorite dishes were Dale's, Tre's and Angelo's. He loved Carla's pink and green, Richard's elegant dish and Fabio's culinary Unabomber manifesto. WHAT?

Mike Isabella was robbed. His was gorgeous. As I predicted, Richard wins the challenge and has immunity for the Elimination Challenge.

The cheftestants are told they're going to cook in one of New York's most exclusive restaurants -- one where reservations aren't taken and tables are passed down from generation to generation. We already know from the previews that it's an Italian challenge, so it's no surprise when we learn they're cooking at Rao's. The challenge is to cook an Italian feast for the owners and chef, as well as their longtime employees and friends. By knife draw, they determine whether they are cooking antipasti (starter course), primi (pasta), or secondi (meat). Each chef must cook their own course, and all will be judged individually.

As they plan their menus and prep, they all out-Italian one another. All of a sudden, everyone's Italian and talking about their grandmothers and putting stuff in rounds of cheese. Well, everyone except Richard and Angelo, who realize they're out of their element, but will do their best to not cook the fail whale. They prep in the Top Chef kitchen, then have an hour to finish in the kitchen at Rao's. Bourdain is back on the scene, and actor-winemaker Lorraine Bracco fills in for Gail Simmons. But it's the guys from Rao's -- especially the longtime bartender in his glitter vest -- who get the most camera time, 'cause the Magical Elves don't like to wear cement shoes, I guess.

First up: The antipasti course, with Carla, Antonia and Tiffany:

  • Carla: minestrone with basil oil, tomatoes and homemade focaccia

  • Antonia: mussels with white wine and fennel, and garlic-parsley ciabatta

  • Tiffany: warm polenta terrine with Italian sausage, roasted peppers and kale

All their dishes were well liked, and the judges seemed to love Antonia's. Which is strange because her dish felt French to me, but whatever.

The primi course was cooked and served by Mike, Tre and Dale:

  • Mike: spicy calamari, fresh rigatoni and tomato sauce

  • Tre: grilled vegetable risotto, marinated tomatoes, fresh basil, Parm-Reg

  • Dale: fresh pasta with Brussels sprouts and pancetta, chanterelle mushrooms and pecorino-Romano

The diners loathed these dishes, Dale's especially. Mike's pasta was undercooked, while Dale's dish was flavorless and fell apart. Tre's risotto was too heavy on the garnish, and just not done well. Please don't tell me my eye candy's in trouble.

And finally, the secondi course, with Fabio (who is afraid of pressure cookers, apparently), Blais and Angelo:

  • Blais: fresh pancetta cutlet, broccolini, pickled cherry tomatoes

  • Fabio: chicken cacciatore, with pecorino polenta

  • Angelo: sauteed pork chop with cherry peppers, green olives, tomatoes and pancetta

I want to eat every single one of these dishes. And even though Fabio has been grating on my last nerve this entire season, I really love his dish and can practically smell it through the TV screen. In their comments, the judges appear to have mixed reviews, but didn't hate any of them.

Back in the Stew Room, Padma calls Antonia, Carla, Fabio and Tiffany to the Judges' Table first. They have the best dishes of the night, and they're relieved and thrilled. Tiffany cries tears of joy and is happy to be in the winners' circle; Lorraine tells Tiffany how much she loved her dish. Tom complimented Antonia on the simplicity of her mussels. Lorraine adored Carla's soup, and loved the Parmesan in it. Tom and Tony both praised Fabio's dish. But because Fabio didn't get the tongue bath, you can tell he's not going to win.

The winner is Antonia, and Fabio is not happy about it. He, too, refers to Antonia's dish being French, and doesn't understand why he didn't win. They go back into the Stew Room where, once again, all manners are thrown out the window and no one congratulates Antonia on her win because Mike, Tre and Dale are being sent to Judges' Table next, and they're all being big, fat babies about it.

The judges tell Mike his pasta was tough, too eggy and improperly sauced. Dale's pasta didn't have enough sauce and was bland. Tom tells Tre his risotto was too stiff and too garnish-heavy. There's a big, long debate with Tom and Padma versus Tre about a risotto's texture and how it's supposed to spread, and they say the words "spread" and "stiff" so many times that I nearly get the vapors. Or the "Tre"-pors, as it were.

So who's going home? It should be Dale, but it's Tre.

Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo ::takes a breath:: oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!

He packs his knives, I weep silently, tears dropping onto the keys of my laptop, and wonder how I can convince Joe and Bonnie to have Tre appear on one of their live video chats so I can just happen to saunter into the studio and gaze upon his loveliness. Sigh......

Up Next Week: The cheftestants cook, dance and sing for Jimmy Fallon, and there's a lot of forced laughter and breaking of the fourth wall. Oh, goody.

By Carol Blymire  | February 3, 2011; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Television  | Tags:  Carol Blymire, Top Chef, television  
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Mussel dishes are common in the northern coastal areas of Italy (think Veneto in the east and Liguria in the west). Much of the food in Piedmont, Lombardy, and Liguria, due to their proximity to France, have food which is influenced by French cuisine, so I suspect that a French-like mussel dish from Italy would have it's origins in the Liguria region. Can't be sure since I've spent most of my coastal time in Veneto (where mussels are used extensively) but it's likely.

One quibble with the post. Antipasti, Primi, and Secondi are plural. In the context above where you are listing the courses (I.e., "First up? The antipasti course"), the singular should probably be used: Antipasto, Primo, Secondo.

Posted by: ArlingtonSMP | February 3, 2011 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Too bad for Tre. I thought Dale should have gone, also, based on their comments on his dish. It sounded horrible. For Mike, I wonder if he tried cooking a sample of his pasta ahead of time to try to get the timing right? Who knows. I can count on one hand the number of times I have had good risotto at a restaurant. Some chefs just call any rice dish risotto.

Posted by: ohiogirl | February 3, 2011 10:55 AM | Report abuse

The show will not be the same without the beauty that is Tre. I'm glad you share my passionate love. How Antonia won is still shocking. They must have gotten fed up with everyone's over the top dishes and defaulted to the simplest. Anyone else thing Dale should have gotten whacked.

Posted by: BlenderBabe | February 3, 2011 11:16 AM | Report abuse

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