Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

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.

Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Hugh Acheson weighs in on the finale showdown between Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet.

There is always a Top Chef winner but obviously some seasons have a less experienced assemblage of chefs, while others have veritable US Olympic-caliber culinary practitioners. (Congrats to Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or competition by the way! Silver! Silver!)

This particular season of Top Chef could have been a contest of mediocrity, but it bloomed into something very skilled and mature, which is good for judging, but makes writing a blog with poop jokes and rap humor very difficult. I have to say, I was a little worried at the beginning that the whole chef squadron was a little shaky. But early retreats by chefs with bigger egos than culinary skillsets allowed the true talent to rise without being malevolent fools. And that talent really was there. By mid season we were eating their visions on the plate, while watching them battle it out over the food and just the food.

The two most successful chefs of the season made it to the end, and they are ready to rumble in the most respective way they know how. One will plate most of their food on the side of the plate, incorporating Korean flavors and modern technique into the vittles, while the other will weave a more classic story and put food more in the center of the plate like regular people. Should be a good show no matter what, because at the end of the day, it’s just hard not to be really enamored with both of them. They are good people.

Gregory and Mei start out on a hot air balloon ride, because that’s how I like to start every day in Mexico. The country looks beautiful to me even if you are in a basket hoisted hundreds of feet into the air by hot air. The hotel I stayed in was the Casa di Sierra Nevada, which was AWESOME, so if you are looking for a vacation, go there. It's no party town, but it is plenty fun. Great food scene. And to put safety into perspective, I felt safer wandering around St. Miguel than I do my hometown. Anyway, the balloon ride looks like fun and allows for that finale moment of almost tearful reminiscence and contemplation.

So their balloon ride lands in a vineyard, and Tom and Padma are waiting to put a halt to this sentimentality. The task is put forward and the challenge, this final culinary joust, is to create a meal that is the meal of their lives. They pick their two sous chefs per person; Gregory picks Doug and George, while Mei picks Melissa and Rebecca.

They prep their menus after a good night’s sleep. The prep I will not talk about too much, but suffice it to say that each team seems very pro and super on top of things.

Traci des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, Gavin Kaysen, and Donnie Masterton are dining with us, all of them amazing chefs. Like amazing amazing. The kid’s table, at which I am the head, is made up of Sean, Traci, Gavin, and Gail. It is a super table. At the table I decide to hold true to the tourist warning of not drinking the water. I thus only drink wine and the phenomenal beauty of Casa Dragones tequila, a concoction that will make me sleep soundly (but probably by dessert) on the table.

Mei hits us with an octopus that I really, really like. It resounds with flavors of coconut, avocado, and fish sauce. It is deep. The only flaw is that maybe it is a bit over done. The over cooking made it kind of crunchy and she could easily have been cooking it to that point on purpose. Second course from her is a congee, with peanuts, carnitas, egg yolk, and hot sauce. It is so f----ing delicious. Like stylized comfort food that you just want to eat all the time. Comfort food, when perfect, is perhaps the hardest food to cook, because it is by definition food you are very familiar with, resulting in people having a lot of preconceived notions about it. This congee would have silenced all critics on congee. It was that good.

Mei is gliding through this meal. She has palpable confidence, but is still a nicely soft-spoken leader. In my years of watching people lead kitchens, I have always been more taken with the allegiance that soft-spoken leaders cultivate in their staffs. Her third course is a duck course, and like the congee, she has cooked duck at least twice this season, but in entirely different ways. This duck has kimchi, braised lettuce, and huitlacoche on the plate. Huitlacoche is corn smut, a term I just yelled in a coffee shop, making everyone uncomfortable. It is a good plate, but my refrain about duck skin continues. It was a bit chewy. All in all, the dish just was texturally challenged. It needed a crunchy texture. But it was good still. Her last is her version of yogurt dippin’ dots with strawberry-lime curd, milk crumble, and stuff. It was blow-you-away amazing. Very complex, but very successful. Tom says it is the best dessert on Top Chef he has ever had, and I definitely concur, though he has tasted many more than I have. The toasted yogurt base was amazing.

Gregory steps up with a brothy octopus with cashew milk, fresh prickly pear, and also xoconostle, which is the dried version of prickly pear, kind of like a prickly pear fruit roll up. It is a strong dish, and may be the winner in the Octopus Olympiad. His second was a strange soup that was redolent with flavor until you choked with a shrimp head lodged in your gullet. Strange and a little unrefined for me, and pretty much everyone else. It was a wanted textural element, but made a rustic soup weird. The whole dish needs to be compared to the comfort food of Mei’s congee, and in that context it is no contest.

Third course from Gregory is a bass with carrot sauce, tomatillo, vegetables, and pineapple. It is a strange dish. I am worried for Gregory at this point. It is not like the dish was bad, but the dish was just not a winner winner. Well, let’s not rest on that notion, because his next and final course is a stone cold stunner. Simple short ribs in mole with sweet potato. It is purity on the plate and equal to the idea of Mei’s congee in nailing comfort food. Kudos. He’s back on track. This is a close contest.

Judges' Table comes and we deliberate. I am not going to mince words and hold off on this: It is really close, but this season’s winner is definitely Mei. Well deserved. Gregory is the consummate pro in placing second and is going to be a force to be reckoned with in this restaurant world. His win versus addiction and his success in cooking shows one tough person with oodles of talent.

Mei. Mei. You rock. You are a chef’s chef. You make food that excites and makes us ponder. You are a leader and a super cool person. You are the winner and will always be a winner. Onwards.

Until next season. I loved this season. Thanks BOSTON. And thanks San Miguel di Allende. You are awesome places to work.

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