Early the next morning the chefs went to work, and later in the day we sat with my Napa valley colleagues and prepared to taste.
Tiffani started us off with a dish of seared lamb loin, cauliflower puree, and truffle & foie gras-stuffed gnocchi. The dish was big on flavor and well executed, however some felt that the cauliflower brought out too much acid in the wine. I would have liked to see more textural contrast; while the gnocchi were decadent and the puree was delicious, together they made for too much soft food on the plate.
Next up was Harold with a great dish of roast lamb loin, sunchoke-creamed spinach, and sauteed chanterelle mushrooms with a black truffle sauce. Doug Keane, from Cyrus restaurant, pointed out that the mushrooms were gritty, and Lisa Doumani, of Terra, felt that while the dish worked nicely with the wine, the truffles were not well-integrated. Overall, though, the flavors were clean and bright, and everything was skillfully executed.
I was busy shooting off my big mouth about too much lamb when Lee Anne appeared to introduce her efforts - our third lamb dish of the night. In typical Lee Anne fashion, she stayed professional, and presented her dish of crusted loin of lamb, butternut squash and truffle risotto, braised treviso with mushrooms and cherry/red wine demiglace.
Lee Anne's lamb was a bit overcooked, but the real issue was that the dish was too busy. It would have worked nicely with two, maybe three, of the flavors but everything together felt chaotic, and the truffles were lost in the mix. James McDevitt, chef of Restaurant Budo, pointed out another flaw of the dish: Lee Anne's use of truffle oil, and I agreed. I'm not a fan of the stuff: It's like artificial vanilla extract - something you'd never choose over the real thing. Truffle oil was overkill, and the fake truffle flavor it imparted overwhelmed the genuine article. Lee Anne allowed insecurity to creep up on her, and it showed on the plate.
Enter Dave. In the past, his food has often been characterized by a lack of vision, and plodding technique. That was definitely the case here, with his truffle and cognac macaroni & cheese with beef filet and collard greens. But through happy accident, his was the dish that best picked up and integrated the flavors of the truffle (heavy cream will do that). I found Dave's hand-wringing presentation unprofessional and was unimpressed by his silly spiel about chocolate and wine. But Dave had two things going for him.
1. He didn't cook lamb.
2. On their day off, chefs don't want to eat 'restaurant' food. Frankly, after long days of fancy ingredients and elaborate cooking, our weary palates crave something mundane and homey. Like macaroni and cheese.
And his was good. Not excellent. It didn't require a hell of a lot of skill, and certainly no finesse or originality. The accompanying filet of beef felt like an afterthought. But it was basic, it wasn't marred by truffle oil, and it tasted of comfort and familiarity. And it accomplished the goals of the challenge - the dish highlighted the flavor of the truffles and John Shafer felt it worked best with the wine. Thus after a season of mostly generic and uninspired cooking, Dave - the weakest remaining hitter on the team - stood up in the 9th inning and sent one home. It was his Aaron Boone moment. Harold also did well, despite the gritty mushrooms - the chefs recognized his skill and the nuance of his choices. Which left Tiffani and Lee Anne. Gail, Katie and I were sad because in our hearts we knew that both women belonged in the top three, but we were obliged to respect the guest judges' decision. Tiffani has had a string of successes, and has beaten her competition through sheer talent, hard work and force of will. Lee Anne has been consistent and often inspired. She has shown leadership, organization, and solid technique. And yet one of them had to go.