Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Guest Blogger: Andrea Strong

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

Gail on Favreau, Choi, and Finding Yourself

Hugh on Poor Boys, Swingers and Food Trucks

Emeril: Nick's Choice Is Part of the Game

Nick's License to Immune

Hugh's Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

Hugh Decides Eight Is Enough

Gail Talks OvenGate

Dookie Chase Makes Everybody Cry

Fin, Found, Floundering

What Danny Meyer Taught Gail Simmons

'Top Chef' Goes to Hog Heaven

Gris Gris Boucherie Ya Ya

Brian and Travis' Dud Spuds

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.

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

So she's going to take more time shopping at Whole Foods -- and ask for the best of Melissa's basket and Adam's shrimp.

Bravotv.com: Let's dive right in. How did it feel to go shopping?
Gail Simmons: Shopping at Whole Foods was fantastic and hilarious. It made us realize that you need to be strategic, which was the point of the exercise for us. They gave us 30 minutes, but we took a little longer. We didn't let the producers push us around! We’re not contestants and we weren't going to stand for it! So, you realize how little time you have, and how big Whole Foods can be. You spend a lot of time running around.

 

My strategy with my pantry was to get a lot of fresh, delicious food that you can cook in lots of different ways. A good balance of proteins, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, fresh herbs, grains. But I didn't want to get too much. Everyone has different strategies; Padma got a ton of different ingredients. Tom's pantry was very pared down. Richard and I were somewhere in the middle.

 

Bravotv.com: Let's start by talking about the two dishes that came from your pantry?
GS: Katsuji and Melissa. They used the same protein, but their dishes were very different. They both used shrimp which one of the proteins that I bought. I bought something else too, something that I know has given people trouble in the past (which is why I specifically chose it) -- chicken wings. And I really wanted people to use them. Instead, they chose the easy way out because shrimps cook quickly.

Melissa's used a lot of fresh vegetables, which I was hoping she would: dill, mint, artichoke. I was so excited about all of it. I think it was beautifully done, a lovely salad with that little shrimp on top with spiced yogurt. But it was just a salad with a quick-cooking seafood. It was so similar to what she had done in Restaurant Wars when she made a scallop with grapefruit salad. I believe she could have done so much more. Melissa keeps saying she wanted to focus on her knife skills, and, of course, your knife skills have to be precise. But I need to see more than just knife skills. I want to see cooking skills, I want to see roasting skills, braising skills. I want to see her hands get a little dirtier and her dishes not be as superficial. It was a light, lovely dish. I was happy to eat it for lunch. But when you're competing against six other really talented chefs, we all want to see a little more depth. Katsuji on the other hand went big. He used his ingredients in a really powerful way. The potato salad, the poached shrimp had bold seasoning and I loved how they went together. It was a great dish. It may not have been the best of the day, but I was actually really happy with what he chose to make.

 

Bravotv.com: So for the rest, let's talk about who was on top and who was on bottom.

GS: At the top there was Gregory who really was going for Padma's heart there. He did great with his coconut milk curry. A really balanced, powerful dish. But it's something we’ve seen from Gregory many times in the past. In fact, in the first challenge he made a similar spicy curry dish with chicken. As much as we thought it was a delicious bowl of food, it was so typical of what we expect from Gregory. George's food was really exciting for us. This was my first time tasting his food and meeting him on Top Chef. He did a great job. The kebab was moist, seasoned really well, and the lentils were beautiful too. My only small issue with the dish is I couldn't understand why he separated the lentils from the kebab in two separate dishes. Why not put lentils on the plate and the kebab right on top, with a dollop of the yogurt? It seemed a little bit disconnected to me. But all-in-all, a really strong dish. Doug had the winning dish of the night. He used Richard's crazy pantry in a way that I thought was smart, clear-cut, and creative. The chorizo and mussels and peppers, just how Tom said, go together well, as do the cauliflower and the garlic. There was sweetness, there was spice, it was light and fresh but had a soulful, rustic flavor we all loved. You could see use of technique. On the bottom were dishes that tried to stretch and didn’t come through. Mei did a great job overall, except her lamb was undercooked. You want lamb medium, medium rare, but the center of that meat was raw to the point where the texture was chewy and almost cold. It would have been better if she had been able to cook it five minutes longer. We talked about Melissa's mistakes already, which also landed her on the bottom. I totally applaud Adam for trying to make a quick-flash marinade. He's been in the middle for so long and he thought "I gotta go big or I gotta go home." He tried to go big and unfortunately, he went home because of that technique. I get the idea of what he was doing, I don't doubt that it could've been successful if it were perhaps done in a different setting, with a little more control. But the flash marinade of his shrimp did not cook it as needed. It was still grey, it was still raw, and the texture of raw shrimp is not appealing. It's squeaky, it's squishy, and it becomes sort of mushy. We wanted it firm and cooked through. It's not like fish that you can eat sashimi-style Unfortunately Adam's hard work, his big risk sent him home.

I will miss him. I think he's an incredibly articulate, clever chef. I think he has an extraordinary career ahead of him. I'm excited to see him back in New York City. I can't wait to eat his food again. Also I want to say of this entire episode that was it was thrilling to see our superfans in the kitchen. We've never let people come into the kitchen in that way before, even though people ask us all the time. It brought so much good energy to have basically a live audience with us for the day. Everyone was so psyched. It was amazing to be around people who really love the show, to let them eat food from our talented chefs. SO much fun!