Restaurant Wars

Stephanie Izard gives her take on Restaurant Wars and her fellow Chicagoan, Radhika's, performance.

Well I guess even if I had not seen the previews alerting that it was time for Restaurant Wars, it would have been fairly obvious when the guest judge appeared. Stephen Starr is of course one of the top restaurateurs in the country and his success is due to the philosophy he mentions ... it is not just about the food but also about the concept, the decor, the service ... every detail counts.

Though I was disappointed not to see the culinary relay race that I thought might be the Quickfire this week, I did like the concept behind the challenge. The chefs are to act as though they are doing a tasting for a potential investor. Not only does the dish have to impress Starr, but the concept is to intrigue him as well. The question is: Do you really want to be the team leader (or restaurant owner) for Restaurant Wars?? There is a track record of the head of the restaurant going down and packing their knives no matter who on the losing team is most at fault. There was a bit of controversy on our season when Dale was sent home as chef of the losing team of Restaurant Wars; there were many issues with the food that night but as chef, Dale was considered at fault. Leadership skills are just as important in this challenge as the food itself.

Though Leah is a bit thrown during the Quickfire with the snapper that seemed a bit past its prime, she manages to pull through with a tasty looking dish that impressed the judges and won her a spot as restaurant owner. Rad seemed to have the winning dish of the Quickfire with her use of various spices and cultural influences. It was no surprise that Stefan was chosen last for a team in this challenge. He is probably the most consistent chef still standing but I am sure that neither woman wanted to attempt to be his "boss." Leah ends up with the European Bobbsey Twins and her special friend, Hosea. I would guess that amongst this foursome her voice is not going to be the strongest. Rad's team seems promising with Carla who has been impressing the judges with her pastry skills, Jamie who we know can make a mean scallop and Jeff who just seems to work well in a team setting.

The teams get together back at the joint apartment and right away the two leaders are not really coming across as the leaders of anyone. Leah's team is pretty much taken over by Stefan right away. He seems to have the most ideas for the menu and concept and is really running the show. Leah of course gets frustrated, which was of course understandable, but I would have to disagree that Stefan was fully in the wrong. Someone has to take charge or nothing gets done. I am sure Stefan is hard to deal with, but especially as a woman you often just have to speak up for yourself and deal with it. Make your ideas heard. It is your ass on the line after all more than anyone else on the team. It is of course brilliant for the Rico Suave of Italy to take the front of the house. There is something about that accent that even draws me in a bit.

Over on the other team, it seems a similar situation was taking place during the other teams meeting as well, though not quite as extreme perhaps. Jamie is clearly the strongest personality on the team, and probably the strongest cook, so she pretty much takes charge of the discussion. I do really like the name that Rad came up with, Sahana; maybe she should hold on to that one for her next place in Chicago. It seemed a bit like Rad was backed into running front of the house. I immediately thought of Jeff for this position. He seems like a good speaker and is a bit more comfortable with people, from what we have seen. Or Carla with her bubbly personality could have been a lot of fun out front. It is a tricky part about this challenge because many chefs are in the back and really just prefer it that way, aside from some visits with a few tables throughout the evening. Running the house is a whole other beast and with Restaurant Wars can be a bit overwhelming. The night finished off with a little makeout session from the two lovebirds ... something that was seen coming for a few weeks now. I'm sorry but did you not remember that there are cameras watching you at all times???? If you are so in love with your significant other then maybe you should at least tell the camera men you are going to sleep to get them to leave for the night, then get to cuddling. Just sayin'. Just seems that there is a big day coming up (Restaurant Wars ring a bell?) and that you might be there to, I don't know, cook? OK, back to what is important.

Both teams head off to Whole Foods and Restaurant Depot. The Depot is a monster of a store. I remember losing Antonia over and over and stressing as much about that as I was about getting the food. It is nice to get some of the shopping, especially for meats, done there. I love my Whole Foods and shop there more than often, but that is just a lot of lamb shank and short ribs to buy retail.

I thought both of the teams were smart with their menu planning. It is a lot of food for three people to put out in a short amount of time. You are not going to go with something like beef tenderloin and worry about temps ... braised meets are a quick and easy pickup. Not only are the chefs faced with very few cooks on the line, there are servers that (a) are trained for about 30 minutes, if that and (b) are not really your employees which makes it hard to get them to do their best work. If you want the rims of your plates clean you better wipe them yourself. Rad seems to be doing fine at first. She is friendly at the door and is calm and relaxed when going over the menu with the judges. The food all looked pretty good. Soup is another smart option for such an evening and the judges seemed to love the addition of the raita, and the scallops with chickpea cake (Jamie's two favorite ingredients) seem to be a big hit. Things slowly begin to take a turn for the worse. The entrees go over OK, though the tomato water was clearly not a favorite. The desserts, however, were a mess. The freezer situation really threw Carla off her game, and she was unable to fix the situation. Sending out non-frozen, frozen yogurt is going to hurt a bit. Not only was the food going down but so was the service. At this point, Rad was no longer in control and details, such as silverware with which to eat the melted dessert, was not on the table. When Tom suggested they try to get up and walk out without being noticed, I hoped Rad would get over just in time to make sure this did not happen; but, they made a clean getaway.

Now over to Sunset Lounge. The name makes me think more of a gentlemen's club than a restaurant but that is just me. Maybe it was all the excitement between members of this team that tainted it a bit.

Fabio welcomes the judges with an amuse spring roll. The flavors do not seem to impress the judges or other diners, but I think it was a nice touch. The savory food on this team actually took a back seat to the desserts. The sashimi was bland, the soup was described as just OK, and the cod dish was a mess. Leah did not seem to have her "A" game and sent out nearly raw fish to the judges. Though the lack of leadership was less visible on this side since Leah was tucked away in back, she seemed to be the weakest link on this team. Stefan, on the other hand, pulled through with impressive desserts and a perfect last mango and chocolate bite. Between the strong finish with the sweets and the acknowledgment of their departure, the judges walked away with a slightly higher opinion of Sunset Lounge. I am traveling abroad at the moment and was only able to read about the results rather than getting to see Judges' Table, but I can guess how it went down. Leah's team was declared the top of the two though I would be surprised if she was not called out for the fish issue. Stefan was the clear winner of the challenge and from what I hear wins a prize.

On the downside, it was time to say good bye to my fellow Chicagoan. Though Carla had some issues with the desserts, she had clearly turned to her leader for input during prep time and she was given no direction. Radhika was a bit out of her element in the front of the house and it showed. I of course wish her the best of luck with all back in Chicago, and hope to see a local version of Sahara some time soon.

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