Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Guest Blogger: Andrea Strong

Gail: Mei's Menu Was Almost Flawless

Make Top Chef Mei Lin's Winning Dessert!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Make Mei's Sushi Style Guac!

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

Make Melissa's Mom's Egg Custard

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Make Mei's Inspired Duck a l'Orange

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

Guest Blogger: Andrea Strong

Andrea Strong takes you inside Restaurant Wars.

Bravotv.com is pleased to have Andrea Strong of The Strong Buzz guest blog for us this week. So please enjoy her expert eyewitness review of both restaurants featured in this week's episode of Top Chef, "Restaurant Wars".

Restaurant Garage

Naming a restaurant is sort of like naming a child. It's not something to be taken lightly. In fact, other than hiring your chef, it may be the most important decision any restaurateur makes. It will become your identity, your signature, and the word (or words) that will most closely be associated with your restaurant.

So it's rather important to use a word or term that encompasses what your vision of your restaurant might be. That's why I was so perplexed by the fact that this team of chefs decided to name their self-proclaimed American bistro Restaurant Garage. I don't know about you, but the idea of dining in a garage is not that appealing to me. The word garage connotes clutter, dirt, grease, and perhaps some anti-freeze and windshield washer fluid, not to mention that the word bears an alarming resemblance to the word garbage. What's more, when you think of garage-centric activities you think of things like filling up on gas, changing a tire, or on your best day, flirting with a cute mechanic. Having a great meal, or any meal other than one of vending machine snacks, just doesn't come to mind.

So it was with much hesitation that I took a seat at Restaurant Garage, a stark red, white, and black restaurant decorated with garnet curtains, silver mirrors hung at crooked angles, and sickeningly sweet vanilla-scented candle centerpieces. Why burn vanilla candles in a restaurant? People go out to eat to smell their food. They stay home and take a bath when they want to burn scented candles. While the candles were nice-looking, their suffocating vanilla perfume masked the aroma of every flavor that was trying desperately to be noticed. And so we took matters in to our own hands and removed the offending centerpieces from our table to the floor. Ahh. Much better.

Other than the vanilla madness, I was also not very impressed with the choice of black as a tablecloth color. It's not really warm or inviting to dine on something that resembles Dracula's cape. In fact, it was unpleasant and a very unflattering shade for the room.

But restaurants are not judged by design alone (though good design can't hurt), and so I was interested to see if these kids could cook, even though I wouldn't trust them to decorate a high school locker. My first impression was very positive; their bread service was great. They offered a few slices of fresh French baguette with a housemade hummus, each dollop piped onto a bread plate and drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with lemon zest. It was delicious and also showed great attention to detail. Nicely done.

I also loved the first course -- a tuna tartar that I imagine was a riff on a pan bagnat, the sandwich of egg, tuna, olives, and anchovies on French bread. They presented a glossy mound of diced ruby red tuna with an egg vinaigrette, an olive tapenade, and blanched white asparagus cut on the bias, with a few lightly crisped homemade crackers. I liked the interplay of flavors and textures and thought the transformation of the hard-boiled egg into an egg vinaigrette was very clever. Again, I was impressed. The room seemed to open up and somehow grow prettier.

The next course, a Parmesan risotto with wild mushrooms accompanied by a truffle and foie grad nage (a sort of sauce) didn't fare as well. While the risotto was well-seasoned, it wasn't as much risotto as it was mac 'n cheese with rice standing in for elbow macaroni, and Parmesan making an appearance for cheddar. This dish was sticky and almost gummy, not delicate or elegant or slightly brothy as proper risotto should be.

But things really fell apart with the next course. While it read well--braised lamb shank with sunchoke puree, vegetables and natural jus--it was quite another matter to eat it. This lamb shank was more a lamb baseball bat, and could have been used for a base hit it was so tough. I could barely get my knife through it. Perhaps a power saw? A cleaver? And in terms of vegetables, I counted one onion and a few diced zucchini, which to me make the case for leaving them out completely rather than be so skimpy.

For dessert, things turned around. We were served sweet ruffled crepes, delicate as doilies, and filled with orange marmalade and dark chocolate, ending the meal on a surprisingly fine note. While the orange marmalade was a tad too cloying, I like that the chefs decided to pair orange with dark chocolate rather than something more commonplace like strawberry or raspberry and milk chocolate. It's a sophisticated choice that I appreciated. And the tableside dollop of bitter chocolate whipped cream was also a nice touch, and it ended the night on an up note. While I would not want to dine at Garage again, perhaps if they named it something more inviting (and promised more hummus), I could be convinced to change my mind.

Restaurant April

As opposed to Garage, the world April actually makes a fine restaurant name. The word connotes the arrival of springtime. It signals bright blue skies, warm sunshine, flowerbeds filled with tulips, and soft, gentle breezes. There's a sweetness to the word April, and something soothing and calming about it that's inviting. A restaurant called January? Not so much. But April, yeah, April works.

The chefs did a good job of bringing that Spring-like warmth to the space with a tall flower arrangement, accents in gold and sage, twinkling votive candles along the walls, and bud glasses with freshly cut pale roses as table centerpieces. If only they did as well with the food.
Our dinner was supposed to begin with an amuse bouche of oysters with watermelon ginger granita, but instead it began with an announcement to my table of four that there were only three left. While most of my table declined the oyster (I think because they were afraid of food poisoning), I asked for one. I love oysters and if there was even one left, I wanted it. The host, a rather sweaty chap named Brian who might want to invest in either a swim suit or a truckload of Right Guard, frantically ran to the kitchen to fetch it. It was served (rather, dropped in front of me) just as our first courses arrived scallop atop a corn and black truffle custard. Since I was the only one with the oyster, the rest of my table watched as I slurped (rather sucked) down my watermelon-drowned oyster.

Oh dear, this was just pitiful. I actually felt sorry for that little oyster, all suffocated under a frosty slushy of watermelon granita. There was no brine, no bite, no taste other than the slurpee sweet bath of watermelon ice. How sad. Let the oyster be. Less is more, people. My seared scallop was not much better. It was overcooked and quite rubbery (bounce, bounce) and tasted as though it had been sitting around awhile. But it was redeemed by a terrific fluffy corn and truffle pudding stocked with sweet ripe niblets that reminded me of a sort of corn souffle. I was happy that the kitchen chose to let the truffle play a background note. Oftentimes, chefs add way too much truffle, which can completely overpower a dish, but in this case the chef was judicious and because of that, the corn pudding was a highlight of the night.

At this point sweaty Brian was pulling off some wild air-traffic movements in the dining room, directing runners with plates with alarming fervor, and wiping his brow so as not to drench the floor or overly-season passing plates of food with his perspiration. I had to feel for him. Here's a guy who's used to being in the kitchen, and he was totally out of his element out on the floor as a host. But then again, his counterpart Dale at Garage managed to keep it together with half the sweat.

As Brian continued to burn calories, we were fed our next course--Key West grouper with shellfish and artichoke pistou. This was again, sadly, a miss. First, the portion of fish I received was more of a nugget than a fillet. It was about the size of a quarter. In addition to its puny size, it was overcooked, which I could have dealt with, but the broth it was floating in resembled a swamp of algae and was so bracingly acidic that I found it inedible. It was actually slightly alarming.

I pushed it aside and while we waited for our next courses, just took in the show, wondering if Brian would actually slip out of his clothes due to excessive sweat. The final course of the evening at Restaurant April was a filet of beef crusted in wild mushrooms and Gorgonzola on smoked potatoes with port wine reduction. This was an example of "more is less." The tenderloin was beautifully cooked pink in the center with a good char on the outside crustbut did it need the addition of both Gorgonzola and mushrooms? No, not really. Maybe a Gorgonzola maitre d' butter alone, but having both those ingredients crust the filet was quite frankly just unfair to the beef. Give the beef a chance on its own. Let it take the spotlight and show off its ripe flavor and lovely marbling. Instead, that beef was obliterated by its accessories especially those smoked potatoes. They might have been a fun idea in theory but in practice were so overly smoked, that I was in need of either fresh air or an ashtray.

Next up was a lemongrass and mango sorbet was sent as a palate cleanser, but it was flat. Mango can have such a lovely pucker to it, but this sorbet was completely flavorless. It tasted like frozen air. For dessert, the sound of Apple tarte Tatin was wonderful, but that was the only wonderful thing about it. It was about as far from a tatin as you get. Tart Tatin is an upside down apple tart that's known for the delicious caramel that forms while the apples and sugar are cooking. What we got was a circle of cold pastry dough topped with what could have been a Del Monte diced apple selection. The flavors were reminiscent of something from a Passover meal.

On a positive note, I will say that I loved the fact that each one of the chefs served one of the courses. It was a personal touch that made me feel a connection to the food. While it was unnecessary, sometimes those little extra touches--the things that you don't expect--are the best part of a restaurant experience. And that was a really sweet touch. It seemed fitting for a restaurant called April.

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

Richard Blais explains why Mei Lin won, and why we'll definitely be hearing from Gregory Gourdet soon.

The finale of Top Chef is the one absolute every season. Make the best meal of your life, in a multi-course tasting format for a room of the "who's who" in the culinary industry.

If you get to the finals, it's the type of thing you can prepare for. Every finalist should have a few four to five course menus floating around their heads, including a dessert, and all complete with options and Plan B's transcribed to their moleskins. And although the knowledge of what's coming is helpful, the format does not play to every chef's strengths.

There aren't too many restaurants committed to such meal services. Which means less chefs experienced with how to "write" and execute them. A progressive meal has to have a certain flow about it. And even the stereotypical versions of the "menu degustation" could force a contestant into cooking a dish that's not in their wheelhouse, for instance a straight forward fish course because "it belongs there."

Tonight, Mei Lin has a slight advantage. She cooks in a restaurant every day that showcases a tasting menu. Her food has been the epitome of a modern tasting menu all season. Many previous times, to a fault. Mei's food is small and precise. Beautiful to look at, and intellectually stimulating to discuss. Cold sometimes, every once in a while a shaved radish plated with tweezers heavy. It's not for everyone. It's not for everyday. But it's the type of food that when done well, can win Top Chef. Win James Beard Award noms. Win Best New Chef honors. Win Michelin stars.

Her future could indeed be bright.

What struck me most about Mei's food tonight however, wasn't technique. Technique and presentation often can get in the way of flavor. But tonight Mei delivered a few courses that were deeply satisfying. Soulful, delicious food that also was presented at a high level and cooked with surgeon's precision. That congee though...combined with a simple dessert that took yogurt and granola to another planet, won her the day. Her other two courses were fine, but suffered from the strains of modernity. Overly plated (the duck) and technically overwrought (the fried octopus).

Gregory on the other hand, it's just not his finest work. You can hear it in his voice as he's explaining his food. He's cooking improv, an ode to Mexico. The problem is, this isn't a jam session at a local cantina. This is a studio session where the chefs should be cooking practiced and refined pieces.

His octopus was a highlight and featured the unusual combination of passion fruit and avocado. It was an explosive start. The following two courses unraveled a bit, with the soup being good, but way too unrefined for the moment and technically problematic (the crispy shrimp heads), and the fish course bordering on dessert with the sugary carrot purée.

The mole was authentic and delicious, the rib cooked perfectly, but the dish felt a little incomplete. I believe Gregory had the better ideas, but just needed to think them through a bit more.

His sadness after the fact, I can attest, is profound. Tearful. Absolute emptiness. Close to the feeling of the sudden loss of a loved one. This may shock some of you, because it is indeed just a game. The mere thought of feeling that way over such silliness is well, silly. But not for us. This isn't the Super Bowl where an athlete loses and they can shake it off. Jump in their Bentley and start thinking about next season. There is no next season. There is no guaranteed pay day for the runner-up. The ten wins you had before don't matter. It just ends. Suddenly. And it's rather sad.

The good thing is, this is certainly, 100%, not the last time you will hear from Gregory. I waxed last week about Doug's professionalism, all of which is very true. But Gregory... Gregory is a special talent. His food (and I can say HIS type of food, because it's unique to him), is a study in refined, exotic comfort. What the man can do with a one-pot meal of braised anything, some chilies, sugar, vinegar, herbs, and spices is beyond impressive. Rarely do I taste food that makes me jealous as a cook. Rarely do I taste food that makes me start thinking about a new restaurant concept. The word inspiring in cooking competitions is sort of like the word "love," when it gets used too much, it loses it luster. Gregory's food however. I love it. It is inspiring.

Congrats to Mei and Gregory! Tom was right, I can't wait to one day say I saw you two way back when, in Mexico, in a little kitchen, before the bright lights, fancy kitchens, and big stages that lay ahead for both of you.

See you next season. I hope!

Richard Blais
@RichardBlais - Twitter and Instagram

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