Bienvenidos a Miami, or Welcome to Miami, as they say. And what a welcome it was. Miami is such a beautiful and eclectic city with so much culinary inspiration -- from fresh seafood to tropical and Latin flavors, with a particular emphasis on Cuban roots. There is so much exciting cuisine to explore if you can remove yourself from the beach and the beautiful people long enough to have a decent meal -- although those Cuban sandwiches and cafe con leches can probably sustain the average club-goer for an entire weekend.
My colleagues and I had some bigger fish to fry.
I cannot think of a better way to kick off the season in Miami than to have a Quickfiire challenge at the Casa Casuarina, the former Versace Mansion, which is a relic of Miami's wild Birdcage-era past in itself. Tom and I certainly caught the chefs off guard by surprising them at their cocktail party and putting them on the spot. Little did they know that the ingredients they were noshing on were to be the very same ones used for their first Quickfire, giving the winner immunity in the next challenge. I agree with Tom, the three top picks not only fit the bill of what an amuse bouche is -- to convey the identity and personality of the chef in one concise bite -- but they were also the tastiest.
The amuse bouche challenge could be a way for them to set the tone for the entire season, which actually parallels the definition of an amuse bouche -- a tantalizing morsel of food that should excite the palate and set a precedent for the whole meal. I was impressed by what some of the chefs came up with on such short notice, especially Sara's and Hung's dishes.
The briny taste of Sara's oyster was nicely complemented by the smokiness of the salmon and sweetness of the tropical fruit. Hung's sweet, sticky egg rice was offset by the saltiness of the olives -- an interesting twist as well. However, Micah's flavors shined through in a well-put-together morsel that didn't seem to come from leftover canapes at all.
The elimination challenge was definitely one of the most exotic and perhaps difficult in "Top Chef" history. When I first saw the table of ingredients I thought I had walked off my own set and onto the set of "Fear Factor." I would be in for either some wildly creative culinary delights or hideously gamey bites. I must admit that I was a bit nervous not only for the chefs this time, but for the judges as well, since we were the real guinea pigs (which I am surprised weren't on the menu). I had heard of many of the proteins being used but hadn't tasted a few of them such as black chicken, rattlesnake, and kangaroo.
I was really impressed with some of the chefs' creative preparations of these proteins, especially since many of them didn't have complete knowledge of how to prepare these ingredients properly.
The standouts were Lia's sea urchin panna cotta, which was silky and delicious. Sandy's dish of fried frog legs were succulent, and CJ's ostrich tartare with crab salad was most clever in combining the two elements, rather than serving them separately as many of the chefs had done. Tre's ostrich and abalone dish was arguably the most visually pleasing and best tasting. The meat was cooked perfectly and seasoned well, and he made the exotic and intimidating ingredients more approachable.
It was a shame that Howie could not serve his frog leg lollipops alongside his risotto, which was actually really tasty. Even though I do not love sea urchin, this had a nice fragrant taste to it and really brought out a flavor in sea urchin that I may have overlooked in the past. This is what I love about food -- trying something once or twice you may have an aversion to it, but depending on your mood or the preparation, a previously shunned ingredient can become something you crave.
All in all I was really impressed with this first performance from each of our contestants, with a couple of exceptions. I do think we're in for a fantastic season. Tre may have taken the first challenge -- an achievement that seems to have given good karma to the past two Top Chef winners. We will see if this holds true in this season.