Top Chef: "Restaurant Wars"
B+

Top Chef: "Restaurant Wars"

Could Dennis Miller please sentence Dale and Lisa to six months of hard marriage? Or barring that, perhaps a double elimination?

I’m actually serious about that last suggestion—more on that later—but I’ve got another one, too: How about Anthony Bourdain as Tom Colicchio’s permanent replacement? I know I’m not alone in finding Tom a bit distracted and disengaged this year, and the amateur psychologist in me wonders if maybe the loss of a Michelin star from his Craft restaurant has rattled him a bit. Whatever the case, Tom has never been a particularly colorful judge, but in the past, at least he could be counted on to deliver blunt, no-nonsense critiques of the food and generally sensible reads of how things were working in the kitchen. To me, he has seemed bored and complacent this season, and what little emotion he’s given off has been mostly vague irritability.

Contrast that with Bourdain, a professional sensualist who has a well-honed (and ritually abused) palate and a seemingly endless supply of hilarious bon mots at the ready. I guess there are some Bourdain haters out there, but even if you’re one of them, at least you can admit that he’s a lively presence, right? And tonight, with Tom mysteriously disappearing for the first time in the series’ history, Bourdain slipped into the captain’s chair with effortless aplomb. Because we can’t taste or smell the food that we’re seeing, Bourdain’s words add a vivid dimension to the experience that’s essential to understanding of whether something tastes as good or bad as it looks. Perhaps it’s time for a changing of the guard here.

Nevertheless, we still get a little bit of Tom, who slips into Casa Motherfucker at 5:45 a.m. to rouse the sleepy chefs. (Oh, and did I mentioned that NPR spot about sleep deprivation tactics on reality shows can be found here?) The Quickfire involves all of them taking a turn as a short-order cook at the Chicago breakfast institution Lou Mitchell’s. (Can anybody attest to this restaurant’s supposed greatness? I know it’s been around since 1923, but is it still vital or just a tourist trap? If there’s anything Chicago has in abundance, it’s good places to go for breakfast.) This is similar to the very first Quickfire in Season One, when the gang worked the line at Hubert Keller’s restaurant and psycho Kenneth dipped his finger in the sauces. No such drama here, which is a shame, because the owner looked primed for a little Gordon Ramsay-style screaming if the chefs didn’t meet her standards. (“It’s raw! You’re going to kill somebody!,” she could have said. Or, “This looks like a dog’s dinner!”) Instead, the whole Quickfire dashes by without incident and Antonia comes away the winner over Dale.

The Quickfires may not offer immunity anymore, but Antonia gets the next best thing: The chance to pick both of her teammates for the Elimination Challenge, the hotly anticipated “Restaurant Wars.” Not much suspense in whom she chooses: Richard and Stephanie are both accomplished, both have their own restaurants, and both have the gentle temperament needed to run a functional kitchen. Plus they’ve already proven themselves a good team in the “Wedding Wars,” so again, a no-brainer. That leaves nothing but dead weight on the other side: Spike and Lisa have been on the chopping block at numerous points this season, and Dale has continued to slide into a foul egotism that’s no longer backed up by solid cuisine. This war was won before it started, really, and it played out with predictable (but still extremely enjoyable) fireworks on the losing side.

As Warehouse Kitchen, Antonia, Stephanie, and Richard pull off perhaps the most successful service of any team in Restaurant War history. The judges can’t find a bad word to say about anything they put out: They love the beet and goat cheese salad, and the homemade linguine (hat-tip to Nikki) and clams; they love the rich lamb dish and the choice to leave the skin on the trout; and they’re as amazed as I am that something as leaden-sounding as gorgonzola cheesecake turns out to be a sweet-and-savory treat. Only the poop smear presentation on the banana “scallops” turns them off, but even that passes the taste test.

So the bar was set awfully high for Mai Buddha, and I’d doubt this group could deliver under the best of circumstances, let alone the personal rancor that was destined to drag them into the muck. Sometimes the judges like to throw out random bits of praise and criticism of both teams to make their conclusions seem less obvious, but there was no such coyness here. From the first course, featuring a smoky shrimp laksa that Bourdain described as akin to “putting [his] nose in a campfire,” they did little to hide their revulsion. Spike’s contribution to a solid braised short rib dish and his front-of-the-house duties kept him out of the line of fire, but the pissy, dysfunctional Lisa-Dale duo were in a race to the bottom. Would Dale go home for his poor leadership skills and a butterscotch scallop dish that Bourdain likened to a melted candy bar and a Willy Wonka creation gone awry? Or would Lisa’s double whammy of dreadful soup and sticky rice mush (which Padma called “an atrocity,” Bourdain called “vomit with woodchips,” and a customer called “baby food with potpourri”) send her packing?

As I said earlier, I’m in favor of saying goodbye to both of them. This way, you get a “shocking” double elimination late in the game, and also give the remaining four contestants two weeks to prove they belong in the finals. If I had to choose one to go, I’d probably have cut Lisa instead of Dale, who has proven himself a more capable chef in the past, and a marginally less toxic presence on the line. (Though that’s a little like comparing strychnine to arsenic. They’re both poisonous.) For them to bicker in front of the judges was a disgrace—though yes, good television—and we really needn’t have to wonder at this late stage whether a kitchen is “only as good as its weakest link” or “only as strong as its leader.” They’re both chaff, as far as I’m concerned.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

• A dubious Bourdain on Mai Buddha’s “Asian fusion” concept: “Asia’s big. How good can you be at all of those things?”

• Based on the early-morning evidence, no mere pillow can stop Richard’s faux-hawk.

• Hey, Shear Genius (a.k.a. Top Haircut) is coming back for another season! Should I live-blog it every week? I’m dye-ing to hair what you think!

• If you have a DVR and where watching the American Idol finale beforehand, the channel changed over right when Seacrest was announcing the winner. Quite a cliffhanger.

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