Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Guest Blogger: Andrea Strong

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

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

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

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

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 Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Hugh Acheson wonders about the health of the kids at Emerson College and debates the cost of roasting that much foie gras.

In this, the tenth episode of this 12th season, we open in the kitchen of the chefs super secret lair. Katusji has taken his wit, wisdom and wherewithal back to his Kosher Japanese Cal-Mex empire to work on a masa matzoh ball taco. He is described as "the most loveable dick in the entire world," which seems pretty on point. These remaining five seem saddened because Katsuji provided respite from the drudgery of competition. They mourn as well, because all understood, though it was never talked about, like a solemn vow, that they could all beat Katsuji in this cooking game. He was the San Diego Padres of Top Chef, the team that all the other competition knew would be an easy beat when the time came.

So the quintet of Mei, Gregory, Dougeeeee, Melissa and George remain. They are all have the stuff that could allow them to win the dough, but Mei and Gregory have really shown that if we must have hierarchy then they are the top two contenders.

Quickfire begins with Andy and his college roommate. Andy just told the roommate that those "games" they played late at night in their bunkbeds WILL be talked about in his next book, so Dave, you have some explaining to the wife and kids. Andy, we are told, is "known for his antics." That he is.

Andy exorts the contestants to hook up with each other and I immediately think of Dougie spooning with Georgie. I then have to wash my eyes out with steel wool and bleach to remove the image. This hurts and still the image remains.

Padma gets Andy back on task and she introduces the Quickfire. It is a collegiate showdown of ramen proportions but the catch is that they must use the contents of the fridge of some poor frosh. Out come the stoner, the nerd, the sorority girl, the lady who should have graduated in '05 and one other innocuous soul. Their fridge contents make me worry about a scurvy outbreak at Emerson College.

We are regaled with stories of the craziest things they all did in college. Melissa built a 24-story beer bong. I went to school in Montreal so my craziest times were hanging out at Biftek on St. Laurent and getting drunk playing pool. Oh wait, I DID THAT EVERY NIGHT until I dropped out of college. Luckily I had some cooking skillz.

Gregory concocts a bacon, Doritos, leftover pizza broth, and I am immediately worried about the future of our country. Dougie has made a Cobb salad ramen with a "coconut-pineapple" broth, and I start looking for my Canadian passport. George, who has no idea what ramen is, 'cause Mike Isabella has never let him out before, is cobbling together a version of SpaghettiOs 2.0s. It has a hint of hot dog, but so does Andy, so this may be well liked. Melissa is making a "Crunchy Carbonara Ramen" which is probably already dispensed out of a coin machine in Tokyo and actually sounds pretty tasty. There is hope. Mei makes a smoked tomato miso with upcycled sushi. Sounds okay, so I stow the passport back and the "go bag."

There is no immunity but the winner gets 5K. Not bad for fifteen minutes of work/fame. Bottoms are Mei and Dougie. Tops are Gregory and George with Melissa winning this murky challenge.

They go to the little room of stewage and watch Julia Child. Then Jacques Pepin stops by and everyone gasps in amazement. I do too because if you don’t love Pepin you are not a nice person. He da bomb.

The Elimination Challenge is to come up with a dish inspired from Julia's cooking. Three hours to cook and one hour to finish on site tomorrow. They chat with Jacques for a while to learn the secrets of Julia, other than the fact that she was totally a CIA spy.

Doug is silent because of where he comes from. Texas shrugs as he says, "I grew up in East Texas and here I am meeting Jacques Pepin." Then he follows this ode to the state of Texas with, "I am from Texas so I can't pronounce things very well." C'mon Doug, your state gave us that Rick Perry character! He's fun to watch!

Doug is insistent on making a whole roasted foie gras. George is braising some veal and presenting it with some vegetables and pommes puree. There is some French going on around here. Melissa is challenging herself with shortribs. Mei is making duck a l'orange but you know it will show off some of herself. You can't spell Mei without ME. Gregory is making Coq au Vin. Tom wanders in during cooking to advise them to channel Julia and then they all try to sound like Julia. None of them will ever be known for their impersonation abilities.

We eat. It's outside. It's beautiful. The diners, or the we, are Dana Cowin, Jacques, Alex Prudhomme (related to Julia), Tom, Padma, Boston chefs Barbara Lynch, Joanne Chang, Mary Dumont, and little old me. I am hungry so don't talk much.

The food is really good overall. There were some issues like drier ribs, monotonous veal, raw foie, and maybe some flabby duck skin, but pound-for-pound they did the dishes well. Tops are Gregory and Mei, and the verdict is an interesting one. Gregory nailed a classic, but it was like he channeled Julia too much and did a textbook version, while Mei nailed a riff on a dish with her duck a l'orange. It is arbitrary who should win but Mei pulls it off and wins a just decision.

Not so arbitrary but still close is the bottom trio of Melissa, George, and Doug. Melissa erred in rib cookery. George cooked stunning veg but it was the veal that was a yawn. Alas, Doug bows out with his dish, a dish that he had never done but dreamed about. You don't just do roasted whole lobes of foie at the restaurant you work at, cause the owner chef would probably stab you if you ruined the 300 bucks in product. But this is TV money so he took a chance. The problem is that cooking whole foie is tricky. You can''t sear it too much or you will render away the beauty, and then you need to temper-roast it in a medium heat oven. Then it comes out and you rest it on a wire rack. It is pretty much served just warm. He did all of those steps, but over-seared it and then cooked it a hair hot, and not long enough, resultingin a greasy, yet raw internal. Funny thing is that the rest of the stuff on the plate was awesome. Well Doug, you were a favorite of ours and I wish you much success in Last Chance Kitchen.

And now we are four. Until next time.

For a good time, follow me on Twitter @hughacheson

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