I thought this was one of the toughest challenges of the season. Create a dish from Depressed, Purple, Bacon! Green, Perplexed Tofu? That's hard. Then add on the last minute change in venue and the lack of any electrical equipment, and that's a challenge. But I was really impressed with the creativity and skill that the contestants exhibited, particularly Dale and Richard. The idea of perplexing the tofu by marinating it in rendered beef fat was really quite brilliant.
I was also impressed with Spike and Andrew and their yellow-vanilla-love soup. Yes, soup is just soup, but Spike's right -- a good soup, one that's memorable enough to make you want to lick the bowl (as Padma wanted to do), is one that's made with love and with layers of flavors, temperatures (a dollop of cold), and textures. And they did that all without the aid of a blender which made it a true labor of love. Tom's compliment to them was significant: "This is the best seasoned dish all season," he said at the dinner table to his colleagues. That's been one of my sore spots all season is the lack of attention to seasoning. It's what booted Zoi and what has frustrated judges all along. Finally, they're getting it. Plus you know Spike was psyched about being in the top two teams because of his soup after his previous incident with Antonia.
Now, speaking of Antonia, she and Lisa really shocked me in their blatant disregard of the challenge's rules. They had to use Polish Sausage and in my mind that means Polish Sausage. They took a major liberty with improvising the ingredients and substituting chorizo because "they don't cook with Polish Sausage." I'm sorry, you cook with it. You're a chef. Make it sing. Make it polka. Rules are rules and these were as clear as could be. You're skating on thin ice as it is, why take a chance like that? It makes no sense. Use Polish Sausage and secondly, don't show up and do a tequila shot and then leave the rest of your guests drooling for salt, lime, and one of their own. Now that's just plain rude in addition to being wrong. Drunken was part of the dish too, and the only two who were getting close were Antonia and Lisa. That was not only poor judgment it was lousy hospitality.
Jen and Steph's orange-asparagus-turned on salad also deserved to be on the chopping block. While it was funny and all to have the phallic asparagus in a dish meant to be "turned on," it was all about the goat cheese (which was not the given ingredient), and on top of that, the dish didn't exhibit all that much technique or skill. Ted Allen's comment about the dish -- "This dish isn't a Menage a Trois, it's an orgy," gets the Quote of the Show Award.
The Quickfire, a simple dessert challenge, should have been a breeze compared to the color-emotion-ingredient improv task. But it was tough for some and it reminded me of my interview with Nikki which I did for my blog The Strong Buzz. I asked her what she would recommend to future contestants and her answer was bring a dessert recipe. Despite the difficulty most contestants did quite well and even managed to impress Johnny Iuzzini, who's quite a talent and not easy to wow.Here in New York, dessert has recently been getting some star treatment as acclaimed pastry chefs keep opening their own dessert bars (like Pichet Ong's P*ong) and restaurants (Jehangir Mehta's Graffiti and Sam Mason's Tailor). Hopefully Johnny will be opening something soon, too.
While I'm a huge fan of Tailor, Graffiti and P*ong, those guys have gotten enough press and I wanted to give a little love to two under-the-radar dessert spots that deserve a little more attention. If you're in need of a homemade dessert fix, check out one of these sweets shops.
Mama Mudsliders, 120 Christopher Street, between Bedford Street and Bleecker, (646) 414-4447.
It's not every day that you can listen to the best of Bowie and Blondie while sipping on a house-made cherry lime soda and sinking a fork into the most decadent Mississippi Mud Pie north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But that’s what goes on at Mama Musliders, a sleek retro-American dessert bar and restaurant owned by pastry chef Hali Horn. She’s hung oversized paintings of pinup dessert divas (by local tattoo artists Baz), and set up a cool bar and 30-seat space designed by Ben Israel that’s packed with parents, kids, couples, and solo diners who can’t get enough of that Mudpie -- five layers of chocolate chip brownie, coffee ice cream, chocolate mousse, and ganache, her freshly fried beignets (filled with chocolate ganache, vanilla custard, or apples and cinnamon), her frozen banana custard with caramel walnut sauce, or her s’mores in the form of chocolate drenched popsicle. It’s heaven in there. Plus, you gotta love Debbie Harry with your Mudpie.
One Girl Cookies, 68 Dean Street, between Smith and Court, 212-675-4996.
On a quiet little street in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn a sign hangs over leafy trees and stroller-filled sidewalks. It says, simply: Cookies. And inside that's precisely what you'll find, baked fresh daily by husband and wife bakers David Crofton and Dawn Cassle, They're signature is their line of petite and buttery bauble-sized cookies (printed with jam, layered with caramel and chocolate, sandwiching ganache), but they've also added layer cakes (coconut, apricot-almond, dark chocolate), Whoopie Pies (the pumpkin and cream cheese is a must-have), and gelato ice cream sandwiches.
On Friday and Saturday nights, they transform their vintage cookie cafe into Confection, a dessert bar with dim lights, and cool music. Their Confection menu offers dessert flights of mini Whoopie Pies (Southern red velvet with sweet cream cheese filling, chocolate with hazelnut cream cheese filling, and pumpkin with ginger cream cheese filling), and mini cupcakes (carrot with goat cheese buttercream and spiced walnut, chocolate with mocha buttercream, and coconut with lime buttercream and flaked coconut), along with signatures like the Campfire S'Mores Tartlet -- a graham crust filled with chocolate ganache and topped with "burnt" Swiss meringue, a strawberry shortcake with tarragon mascarpone whip, and a jasmine panna cotta. There's no wine or beer yet, but the sugar high should not be underestimated.