[Important and exciting programming note: Instead of doing the usual post-episode recap, myself and a host of A.V. Club Top Chef watchers are going to liveblog the finale. Amelie Gillette did this with Project Runway a few weeks ago via the CoverItLive application, and it’s always tremendous, interactive fun. Joining me next week: Amelie, Donna Bowman, Noel Murray, Emily Withrow, Kyle Ryan, Todd VanDerWerff (for a bit), Steve Hyden, and maybe more. Also join me: You, the reader, who can chime in with your own observations and bon mots, and participate in insta-polls and other features. The action will begin 15 minutes before the show starts— 9:45 p.m. ET/8:45 p.m. CT—so we can share some quick predictions and thoughts on the season in general.]
If there was ever any doubt that Season Six had left us with the most talented final four in series history—and there really wasn’t any doubt, but still—the first part of the finale put it definitively to rest. I’d favor any one of them over the winners of three seasons—Ilan from Season Two, Hosea from Season Five, and Stephanie from Season Four, though the latter would be competitive, at least against Jennifer on an off day—and the lack of any imposters among them was both reassuring (in that I’d be comfortable with any coming away a winner) and inspiring, because the level of competition is so elevated. I’m reminded a bit of the closing stretch of Top Chef Masters, a spinoff that was tiresome and repetitive at many points during the season, but produced a finale so full of invention and delicious-looking creations that it was as good as any Top Chef episode I can remember. In two challenges tonight, there wasn’t a single irredeemable plate served; for once, it was more a matter of less great than catastrophic.
Set in Napa Valley for the final two episodes—and from the size of Padma’s very pregnant belly (not to mention the contestants’ awareness of the season as it’s aired), several months removed from the previous one—the show begins with Kevin, Jen, and the Voltaggio brothers waiting for the wine train to pick them up. There was a little of the obligatory “I don’t know what’s going to happen” nonsense going on, but they knew they’d have to cook on the thing, which fills the motion sickness-prone Kevin with anxiety. With Michael Chiarello, one of the three Top Chef Masters finalists, serving as judge, they’re given their final “high stakes” Quickfire challenge: Cook something that incorporates grapes, and the winner takes home a 3rd generation Toyota Prius.
(I’m tempted to make my usual product placement joke here, but I drove a rental Prius once and it was a dream: A smooth, quiet ride that got an obscene 50 mpg on the highway. For practical-minded dorks like myself, it was like a Lamborghini is to rich douchebags. That said, I can only assume the 3rd generation is more susceptible to spontaneous combustion, to say nothing of the ill-advised novelty balloon-animal airbags.)
The main challenge of cooking on a train, of course, is the movement. Though Kevin had to worry about his motion sickness, everyone had to wield super-sharp kitchen knives with the car bobbing and weaving, which couldn’t have been easy. Kevin’s honey and goat cheese mousse dessert was perhaps the least well-received of the bunch, but he deserves a lot of credit for getting it out there in the first place. Motion sickness can be a crippling thing. But Michael was the pretty clear winner of the Quickfire, if only for his sound idea to use the regional grapes in as many components of the dish as possible (grape leaf wrapping, grape and salad kabob, grilled on the vine, etc.). In general, chefs like Michael, who set a higher degree of difficulty than most, are immediately vulnerable when things go awry (e.g. Richard Blais in Season Four), but if he hits his marks next week, you have to give him the edge. (Still, a cute little Toyota Prius seems insufficiently badass for a self-styled rebel like him. Maybe he’ll trade it in for a monster truck.)
The Elimination challenge brought everyone to the Rutherford Hills winery for a “crush party,” which celebrates the harvest. Once again, a premium was placed on local ingredients: Other than salt and pepper, the chefs could only use local produce and local proteins for their two dishes, one of which had to be vegetarian. (Zooey Deschanel and Natalie Portman would have loved to be there, but they were feeling a bit too faint to make the journey.) Aside from a few complaints here and there—an overseasoned dish here, an underseasoned dish there, a brisket that was a little on the “toothsome” side—all four chefs excelled, which is especially impressive given the limitations of serving outside for 150 people. Michael’s ambition threatened to get the best of him, when his farm-fresh eggs went runny and there was some disagreement among the judges over a turnip soup that may or may not have been too bitter. His brother Bryan, who has quietly stayed above the fray all season, put together the most complete dish with his goat cheese ravioli and braised short ribs. I hadn’t realized until his post-win interview that he hadn’t once been on the bottom three all season; maybe he’s slip away from his more ostentatious competitors next week.
Alas, it was Jen who got sent home, though the months off from the show were clearly revitalizing for her. I was a little disappointed with Tom’s chief rationale for dismissing her: The judges advise the chefs all the time to adjust when things don’t go as originally planned, but he chided Jen for losing the flame on the wood-fired grill rather than praising her for shifting gears and doing a confit instead. A confit all of them hailed for its “duckiness” oh by the way. Nevertheless, we finally got to see the dominant Jen of old again. Trouble is, she didn’t have any scrubs left to dominate over tonight.
• I was struggling to put into words my reaction to Padma’s very strange and disturbing outfit for the crush party. Then Spencer Ackerman (@attackerman), a political journalist for The Washington Independent, posted the following on Twitter: “If Elektra ever got knocked up by Daredevil, she’d look like Padma tonight.” Bingo.
• Yes, a Facebook page for “Fans of Kevin Gillespie’s Beard” actually exists.
• Really lame plug for a video smartphone among the DVR killers tonight. Any time I encounter movies and videos on phones, I always think of this hilarious David Lynch clip. (Though I’m tempted to catch up with Inland Empire on my iPod Touch just to spite him.)
• So my wife and I flew to Las Vegas for a long weekend a couple weeks ago and decided to try as many fancy-pants restaurants as our budget could handle over a few days. At the risk of sounding like Homer Simpson during the episode where he was a food critic, here’s the rundown:
Craftsteak (MGM Grand): Had to try Tom Colicchio’s steakhouse, especially after seeing all those magnificent cuts of beef go untouched in the Natalie Portman episode. What struck me first is that it’s like every other steakhouse in never going small on portion sizes. I ordered the Wagyu Beef Tartare as an appetizer and it nearly put me under—extremely rich and delicious as you might imagine, but even with my wife’s help (she had a saner Buffalo Mozzarella salad, I had to leave much of it behind to make room for the main course. As for the steaks, I had a grilled 16 oz. Ribeye and my wife had roasted 8 oz. Angus Flat Iron, both prepared in what I think (don’t quote me) was a simple but elegant red wine reduction. It almost goes without saying that they know how to cook a steak at that restaurant—though I’d given the slight edge to the Flat Iron—and though it was probably not a good idea to share the mushroom risotto along with our entrées, it was wonderful, too. Strong service, too: We had two waiters for some reason, and both did a nice job guiding us through the daunting menu.
Bouchon (The Venetian): This is Thomas Keller’s bistro, which we were told by several trusted sources featured the best breakfast in the city. I’d be shocked if there was one anywhere near this good. First off, the space is airy and unpretentious—as high-end French restaurants go, anyway—and our waiter was excellent, very attentive, helpful with suggestions, and clearly passionate about the food he was bringing out. The meal started with the simple pleasures of fine coffee and warm, crusty bread with butter and homemade cherry jam. Then it was on to the entrees: My wife had the Bouchon French Toast, a decadent bread pudding layered brioche and custard with apples and maple syrup on top. I had a special that featured two beautifully poached eggs on squares of rye toast with spicy breakfast meat served over a butternut squash hash, all unified by a sauce whose ingredients escape me. In any case, both dishes were winners and it was probably the best meal we had in Vegas; dinner at Bouchon would be a lot steeper in price, but breakfast was certainly suggestive that it might be worth the crippling expense.
SeaBlue (MGM Grand): This is one of two Michael Mina joints at MGM. (The other is Nob Hill.) It seems absurd to go to a seafood restaurant in the middle of the desert, but after a heavy meal at Craftsteak the night before, it seemed like the right idea. The appetizers come in four different varieties (raw and marinated, steamed and soup, skewered and grilled, and fried and crusted) and you could order a tasting of all three items within those categories. Based on the raves we’d seen about the lobster corndogs, we ordered the “fried and crusted” tasting and regretted it just a little—not because of the lobster corndogs were bad (they were fantastic, and exactly the fusion you would expect), but because it betrayed the intended lightness we’d come there for. The main dishes, which we split, fared better: An unusually bold paella featuring shellfish, chorizo, grilled quail, and rabbit (and not at all the trainwreck it seems to be on paper) and Loup De Mer from their woodburning grill, which gave the perfectly cooked bass a strong smoky quality that was really appealing. Only complaint: The service was a little rushed and brusque.
Thanks for indulging me on my Vegas culinary adventures. Hope you tune for the live blog next week—and if you can’t, you can sync it up with the repeat like The Wizard Of Oz and Dark Side Of The Moon.