Top Chef: "Strip Around The World"
B

Top Chef: "Strip Around The World"

In the immortal words of Krusty The Clown: “Poochie’s dead!”

After surviving 11 Elimination challenges mainly by virtue of someone else sucking worse, Robin’s reign of strident mediocrity finally came to a close tonight with yet another dish that fell about a mile short of her ambitious conceit. And even then, the other two chefs in the bottom three seemed intent on racing her to the bottom. To give you an idea of how bad her dish must have been, it lost out to one that so turned off the guest judge, she said she’d rather eat sawdust. So Robin’s dish was worse than the dish that was worse than sawdust. That’s an achievement of sorts.

Before Robin’s bittersweet departure—okay, it was almost entirely sweet, I’ll confess­—there was the Quickfire, which give the chefs 30 minutes to make Padma and guest judge Nigella Lawson “breakfast in bed” at the Venetian. (Having them in robes, completely made up and propped up in adjacent beds, was one seriously awkward bit of staging, but I’m having trouble thinking of a less awkward alternative. And get your minds out of the gutter, people!) The small cooking space limits them to two at a time, which gives a marginal advantage to the first two, because they don’t have to worry about cleaning up their stations before getting down to business. Not that the advantage does much for Robin, who looks completely frazzled doing the multi-tasking necessary to put together what appears to be a fairly simple blintz with fried pineapples and blueberries. Eli fares much better with his winning hangover-friendly fusion of a corn beef reuben with traditional eggs benedict. Save for Bryan’s unfortunate use of vanilla, everyone else looks relatively comfortable; it was a real surprise to see Eli win over Kevin’s coffee-dusted steak and eggs with green onions and cheddar, which would be the first dish I’d reach for out of the six.

The Elimination sought to showcase Vegas more bluntly than the season has to date by having the chefs create a dish inspired by a casino. I was worried the challenge was going to be too advertorial—and to some extent, those concerns were borne out—but it was a fun lesson in how contestants should and should not approach conceptual dishes. Lesson #1-100: Don’t get too literal about it! Someone like Bryan, who had Mandalay Bay, was smart enough to tread lightly, plucking the concept of sustainable seafood without, say, molding his dish in the shape of a shark. The other Voltaggio brother, Michael, was also smart to take his New York, New York firefighter conceit just a tiny step over the line by doing someone new (but not too radical) with the buffalo wing.

The disasters, on the other hand, were high-concept to an often hilariously misguided degree. Jennifer continued her sad and unaccountable tailspin by taking inspiration from a stage show at the exceptionally tacky Excalibur casino. Her hunk of medieval beef proved impossible to cut through, and perhaps just tender enough to yield to the “sword” jammed into its “stone.” Eli used Circus Circus as an opportunity to make what sounded like the least appetizing dish of the night—a caramel apple peanut soup with popcorn and raspberry froth. (Just look at all those sickly sweet flavors coming together: It’s little wonder that Lawson could barely choke it down.) For her part, Robin expressed a desire to bring art back into her cuisine (uh oh) and was suitably knocked out by Dale Chihuly’s stained glass flowers at Bellagio. Though overly cutesy, her idea of a colorful panna cotta with a stained-glass-like sugar shell wasn’t a bad one—or it wouldn’t be if she had any idea how to make panna cotta or get the sugar shell to work. The judges had to use their imagination on the latter.

It was a nail-biter in the end, but now we’re finally left with five chefs who at least have the potential to win challenges, even if Jen and Eli are both looking much shakier than Kevin and the Voltaggios. Then again, I doubt we’ll be seeing the sort of entertaining catastrophes that were plated in tonight’s episode. Having Robin around may not have seemed just, but its trainwreck quality made for compelling television; without her, the food will have to make up for the absent drama.

Grade: B

 

Stray observations:

• Can Nigella Lawson replace Toby Young as the saucy Brit with the caustic one-liners? She was much sharper and more critical than guest judges tend to be, and her canned laugh lines (e.g. “I think I need Excalibur to cut it”) were funnier than his (e.g. “It was more Spamalot than Camelot.”).

• The more Jen flounders, the more I root for a miraculous turnaround. Gotta love her audacity in unveiling something called “shit on a shingle” for the Quickfire.

• Robin: “I consider myself an artist.” Proves my theory that nobody who refers to him or herself as an artist actually is one.

• Toby pretty much exhausted every Vegas gambling cliché you could in assessing Eli’s dish, admiring his “willingness to go all-in” while noting that like most visitors to Vegas, he “gambled and lost.”

• Skipped the Top Chef “reunion dinner” last week. Did I miss anything good?

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