America's Next Great Restaurant: "Episode Five"
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America's Next Great Restaurant: "Episode Five"

I guess we had what you might call the first “shocking” elimination of America’s Next Great Restaurant tonight, as Eric got sent home, and none of us will be tasting Meltworks’ grilled cheese-ish sandwiches and/or collection of dipping sauces any time soon. (Eric’s obviously been working on this idea for a while and—recession or not—the investors are right that he wouldn’t be here if the concept was so great. Someone would have thrown money at him, and thus, he must dance for them. DANCE.) I thought Eric might end up being the favorite early on, but he seemed uniquely hamstrung by an inability to do what the judges wanted and the judges being completely unable to buy into his concept (though, to be fair, he didn’t seem to buy into it either). 

All of this time, I figured the staple of his menu might be a traditional grilled cheese made really, really, really well, but tonight, he reveals he’s not sure he’ll even have such a thing. And that’s stupid, as it just means he’s making paninis. So he has to go! Plus, he seemed to think that putting things other than cheese in a grilled cheese was something wildly original people would be BLOWN AWAY by, but everybody’s got a recipe for a sandwich like this. I’ll share mine down in Stray Observations. And while he says that when he talks to people in the challenges they really respond to the core of his original concept, the fact that he hasn’t won a challenge in a while doesn’t really bear this out. (Though Greg and Krystal won tonight with what looked like a good pulled pork—STOP SAYING IT—sandwich and some sort of weird cherry abomination, so who the fuck knows what the American public at large is thinking.) But it’s not as though he bears all of the responsibility. The judges have always been weirdly skeptical of this idea, even if it was obvious that it was just Panera Bread with more of a focus on cheese, rather than specifically a grilled cheese place. Still, this concept is tight enough that I wouldn’t be surprised by a million grilled cheese knockoff stores.

Eric’s elimination was most shocking because he was paired with Joey and Sandra, both of whom fit particular reality show elimination requirements better than Eric did. Sure, Eric talked back to the judges and frequently found himself confounded by the demands of the Flay, but Joey had made a mockery of meatballs and THE VERY IDEA of a fast casual restaurant just by wearing a tie, while Sandra is the perfect example of an innocuous someone who goes home around this point of the competition, as she hasn’t really bothered to differentiate herself in any way (though I liked her line about how she could fire her chef, since she once had to fire a girlfriend). Eric would argue with the judges and clearly didn’t want to listen to what they were saying, so I figured he would be around a few more weeks for maximum drama. I guess not.

Also, we’re entering the portion of the season where the show needs to find a way to shake things up so they don’t get too boring, which means that tonight, the “Let’s design a restaurant!” portions of the episode—already the most boring parts of the show to begin with—largely get shunted aside in favor of everything else. These segments always play out predictably, with Joey doing something garish, Stephenie and Sudhir doing something subdued and tasteful after much hemming and hawing, Jamawn doing something inspired by music, Eric consulting the golden plates he found atop the mountain the angel brought him to when first gifting him the concept of Meltworks 12 years ago and just doing what the plates say, and most everybody else hiding out in the background (with Greg and Krystal occasionally making fun of the South by pretending to be reverent to it). It didn’t help that tonight’s challenge—design a uniform and then do a photoshoot in it—was such a snooze to begin with. As much as the show likes to pretend that the restaurant experience is all about atmosphere, there’s a McDonald’s in my neighborhood that’s always filled with shouting homeless people the restaurant can’t drown out with loud classical music (to say nothing of the food!). I still eat there from time to time. So I have my doubts.

Fortunately, the actual competition part of tonight’s episode was better. The little kiosks are starting to actually look like mini-restaurants, of the sort you might see in food courts, as opposed to grey, utilitarian boxes. Even if the show spends too much time on designing outfits or menus or wallpapers (when it could be digging into the nitty gritty of the industry, like budgeting or making sure you always have just enough food on hand to avoid spoilage AND shortages), it’s nice to see the package slowly coming together as the weeks go on, to the point where when the winning chain finally opens (and I plan to eat there at least once, no matter who wins) it might feel like a place you’ve been going for years.

Even better was the fact that the judges sat down with the seven remaining contestants and told them what they needed to do and do well to stay in the game. Some of these notes weren’t bad—Stephenie was asked to come up with some hand-held foods, instead of just salads, since people like to eat on the go (Stephenie has apparently never seen someone eat while driving and was baffled by this). Some of these notes felt like weird, personal vendettas—Flay’s obsession with the dipping sauces could have turned really funny if the show had just kept Eric around a week longer. And some of them were so boring I’ve already forgotten what they were, and I took notes! (For example, anybody recall just what Sandra was supposed to be up to, off the top of your head? She really DOES blend into the background. Hint: It involved turkey burgers.)

Anyway, Greg and Krystal won, thanks to the deliciousness of their tears of condescension, while the judges seemed particularly taken with Jamawn and Sudhir’s very different takes on chicken. Stephenie also learned what a “sandwich” was and that it could be quite enjoyable when eaten with your “hands,” while Eric made a grilled cheese sandwich that, for the first time, LOOKED really good (the judges liked It, but only in spite of themselves) but half-assed it on the sauces, apparently. (Flay is probably still sore about this. He only thinks about himself and dipping sauces.) Still, this was yet another week that came down to the silver coins, and while introducing the idea of specific goals for each contestant was a good one, the show is struggling to find a way to differentiate itself. The restaurant construction aspect is kind of a dud, and the show has done a poor job of letting us know about the food and how it’s prepared. Plus, the contestants left are kind of a drama-free bunch (outside of Joey, who’s like one of those cookie jars that says a handful of stock phrases when you open it up, with how frequently he references Italian stuff). I’m still enjoying this for the most part, but my interest is starting to fade out. The show needs to take some chances to stop it from flagging.

Stray observations:

  • Ladies and gentlemen, the Fatterson, which is more or less the missing link between the San Francisco melt and a fried egg sandwich. You’re going to want some really good bread for this, bread that can withstand frying and having stuff piled on it. I usually use sourdough from my local bakery. Anyway, start by frying up an egg, over easy. You want some good goo in the center, so don’t overdo it. Set it aside. After that, fry up a couple of strips of bacon. Set THAT aside. Now, it’s assembly time. Butter two pieces of bread on the outside, then place the following in in this order: mustard, dill pickles, a slice of good cheese (I use Monterey Jack), bacon, egg, another slice of cheese. Fry that up, grilled cheese style, in the bacon grease, giving just enough time to get the cheese nice and melty. Enjoy! (If you’re watching your heart or whatever, ham cold cuts make an excellent substitute for the bacon, provided you fry them up too. This is called the Fatterson Lite. Clearly, I need to go on next season of this show with my concept, Fatterson And Sons.)
  • I’m starting to think I want Jamawn to win. I have a good chicken and waffles place a few blocks from my apartment, but it would be intriguing to see a fast casual-style soul food place, and I could see myself eating there a few times a year, depending on proximity. (I’m still pulling for Sudhir as well.)
  • Speaking of Sudhir, the show seems to be trying to turn the “rivalry” between Curtis and Steve Ells into more than it really is. Ells is just trying to think of ways to Americanize Indian food because that’s what he does, while Curtis is not terrified by the idea of food from the subcontinent. Of course, he approaches Ells respectfully, because Ells could speak a few words in a long-dead tongue and rip his heart right out of his chest. But other than that, he’d just really like this Indian food more if it was like a taco. (Holy shit, did Ells and Alex swap bodies?! THAT’S a reality show, Magical Elves.)
  • Let’s pick some new names for Saucy Balls. Since the drawing of grandma is so shitty, let’s call it “Troll Grandma.”
  • "I don't like the name Joey Meatballs."

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