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Alrighty folks, this is what we’ve all been waiting for: the famous restaurant war challenge. Nothing says “Top Chef” better than taking a vacant space and an empty kitchen and turning it into a restaurant inside of two days. The key is, learned from seasons past, don’t be too haughty explaining the wines, don’t serve raw chicken and kill the guests, and for the love of Pete, do NOT use scented candles. Let’s hope our final six can keep these lessons in mind as they step one challenge closer to Puerto Rico and the final show-down.

Eggsactly the way I don’t want to be woken up.

It’s 5:45 in the a.m. at the Top Chef house and in walks Tom to rouse the remaining six chefs. He skips banging on a pot with a wooden spoon (as I would have done) and gently creeps into each room and turns on the lights to wake the cooks. They are not happy to be awake and have looks of groggy dread. He is there to take them to a popular local breakfast joint where they will each take turns working the egg station. Spike says that being a short order cook at a breakfast place is one of the toughest culinary jobs going but he spent some time on a line and isn’t too worried.

They arrive at the restaurant and meet Helene, the owner. She lets them watch the regular grill and egg line cook to get the feel of the job then each contestant gets a turn making the orders as they are barked in by the wait staff. Antonia is up first and handles herself pretty well. Stephanie makes a right mess out of some attempts, Richard has issues with the diner slang, and Lisa burns a Styrofoam to-go box. Spike does alright and Dale takes his turn admirably, even in the face of four orders coming in at the same time. After all have had their shot at the line cook job, Helene says that Antonia did a great job by being calm and in control and she took direction well. Dale did a good job too, Helene says, but Antonia wins. Tom says she’ll get an advantage in the Elimination Challenge and he hands her a slip of paper with the address of their EC location. Tom bids the group adieu, saying he won’t be there to judge because he has a “charity event” to attend. With that, the chefs pile in their car and try to find this mysterious locale.

Battleground.

The chefs arrive at what appears to be an empty warehouse of sorts. The room they walk into is a large vacant space, save for some stacked chairs and Padma, who gleefully announces that the restaurant wars are back! There will be two teams of three and they will each decorate half of the empty space. There is a kitchen in the back of the building, which they will share. The budget per team is $1500 for food and $5000 for decorations from Pier One. Antonia, for her QF win, gets to choose her team and the other three will be stuck with each other.

Antonia wisely picks Richard and Stephanie, who not only have multiple wins between them but are also not do not possess problematic personalities. That leaves Spike, Lisa and Dale to duke it out on the other team. The teams are the same (sans one member each) as in the Wedding Wars challenge, so this is a bit of a rematch. Dale understands why Antonia picked Stephanie and Richard—he would have too—and he thinks things will go better this time because Nikki isn’t there and he has one fewer person to worry about.

Antonia, Richard, and Stephanie mutually decide to go with a fine dining in a casual atmosphere theme and call their restaurant “Gastro Pub”, which sounds to me like a digestive aid. Antonia is going to be the executive chef, Richard will be the “chef de cuisine” which is apparently in this competition the guy who does a lot of the cooking stuff, and Stephanie will do some cooking as well as front of house duties.

Banking on their collective Asian cuisine experience, Dale, Lisa and Spike are going for an Asian-themed menu and call their restaurant “Mai Buddha”. Lisa and Dale squabble over who will be executive chef, but Lisa eventually cedes the position to Dale. Spike takes front of house duties, probably because he has the least offensive personality. Antonia privately wonders if Dale can cook anything but Asian food, but Dale correctly points out that he is Asian so he knows what he’s doing.

The shopping scenes are pretty uneventful. Because the kitchen at the site is empty, both teams spend all of their $1500 food budget in a hurry. The only snag is that there is no sticky rice and Dale finds some kind of substitute for it, which Lisa agreed to accept. At Pier One, Dale and Spike go hog-wild picking up every vaguely Asian-themed knickknack while Stephanie looks for appropriate dinnerware for her team. Then it’s off to the kitchen to start their 5-hour cooking session before the 35 or so diners arrive for each restaurant. I would love to know how people got picked to eat at these restaurants. There is a multitude of FoRTers who live in the Chicago area and we could have had a spy in the house!

He’s baaa-aaak!

Because there are only five hours until service, things get off to a quick start. Spike and Stephanie work furiously at setting up the décor items. Spike’s only dish is a braised lamb dish, which he says won’t take too much babysitting and will give him time to set up how he wants to. After all, there about 3000 Buddhas to glue to the wall.

As time goes by, Anthony Bourdain strolls into the kitchen. He’s filling in for Tom while he’s off at his “charity event”. Spike is worried because Bourdain knows Asian cuisine—he’s been all over Asia and his travels have been documented on television. Bourdain first stops and chats with Antonia, Richard, and Stephanie. He finds out what each person is doing and expresses some condescending shock that Stephanie is not only running front of house but has also opened her own restaurant in the past. Yeah, Bourdain, not only loud-mouthed ex-heroin addicts are allowed to open eateries. Some successful restaurant owners even have lady parts.

He also has a meet and greet with Spike, Lisa and Dale. There he learns that they plan to make a laksa, which is some kind of spicy noodle soup. He says that he loves laksa, which makes everyone a bit more nervous than they were before. He also asks if they were all on board with the Asian menu, and they all agree they were.

After meeting with both teams, Bourdain notes that both teams exhibited widely disparate comportments; the Antonia-Richard-Stephanie trio seemed to be deliberately creating modest expectations, which will allow them to easily exceed those expectations. The Dale-Lisa-Richard team perplexes him; he says that Asia is a large place and there’s no way that they can be equally good at all Asian cuisines. He does think their menu is ambitious and if they can pull it off, it will be a big win.

Before Bourdain leaves, he brings in Andrew, Mark, Nikki and Jen and allows the teams to pick one of these eliminated contestants as an extra pair of hands. Dale picks Jen, a choice Lisa wholeheartedly agrees with. Mark the calendar kids, Dale and Lisa agreed on something! Antonia is thrilled to pick Nikki; Stephanie had made a pasta dough and Antonia was worried about the timing of making the fresh pasta, especially since they have no pre-made backup. Nikki jumps on making the pasta and it’s off to the races, cooking-wise. Mark and Andrew probably head off to the nearest pub and get smashingly drunk while laughing at the poor bastards still in the competition.

All is not well with the Mai Buddha team. Dale is making some avocado concoction for his halo-halo repeat and he’s used a brown avocado, turning the whole mix into an ugly grey mess. He tries to fix it, but this screw-up has put him off his game and he pulled Lisa’s rice off the burner too early. She’s then flustered and no one is happy except Spike who is busy playing Martha Stewart in the dining area.

Gastro Pub is not without its complications. Nikki has gotten all of the pasta made and they’ve put together a tasting dish of the pasta with clams. Nikki gets grit in every bite she tastes so Richard has to rewash all of the clams. Between this and the scales on the fish, I think Richard doesn’t have much experience prepping his own seafood proteins.

More drama erupts on the Mai Buddha team. First, Lisa’s laksa is too smoky for everyone and Spike doesn’t offer any suggestions on how to fix it. He petulantly says that Lisa should have gone with his recipe. He also privately notes that he’s glad he went with the front of house job and doesn’t want to be held accountable for Dale’s and Lisa’s screw-ups. There is also a problem with Lisa’s sticky rice for her mango and sticky rice dessert. It wasn’t the right kind of rice to start with and it isn’t getting sticky. Dale offers all manner of suggestions to fix it and it ends up as some kind of rice pudding thing. Now, sticky rice with mangoes is one of heaven’s desserts—it sounds weird, but if you ever get to try it, you must. But rice pudding with a heavy cream on the rice and mango just sounds like crap and undercuts the surprising lightness of the dish.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!

It is finally time for these restaurants to meet on the battlefield. Spike has cleaned up, put on a suit, and given the hats a rest. Stephanie has on a fetching brown dress and boots to show she can still kick some asses if need be. The wait staff seem to be, on the whole, more competent than in seasons past and the tables are set properly with no dust on the plates and no scented candles about. The judges are Bourdain, Padma, Ted, and guest judge Jose Andres, who is known for his Spanish cuisine and a show on PBS. The judges dine at Gastro Pub first and sample these courses:

For the first course, there is a choice of (1) beet salad with goat cheese and ras el hanout spices and (2) linguine and clams with sausage and horseradish crème fraiche. Bourdain enjoys the pasta while Ted praises the choice of goat cheese in the beet salad. Both dishes get good reviews from the diners.

For the second course, the choices are (1) trout with cauliflower and (2) lamb loin and braised lamb shank. Both Ted and Bourdain both compliment the presentation of the lamb dish and Ted notes that the flavor was quite good. Andre was impressed by the trout.

And for the final dessert course the judges have a choice of (1) a savory gorgonzola cheesecake with sweet potato puree and concord grape sauce and (2) banana “scallops” with banana guacamole and chocolate ice cream. Ted is not a fan of the brown smear of chocolate under the ice cream, but Andre loves chocolate so he can forgive it. Bourdain thought the cilantro on the bananas was an odd touch but gave the dish points for taking a risk. Padma thought the savory cheesecake would be weird but she can’t get enough of it.

After what seemed to be a well-enjoyed meal at Gastro Pub, the judges take themselves across the room to Mai Buddha where they get to eat even more food. Even before service, Ted and Bourdain snark on the silver and purple table linens. Bourdain says it’s like being in the back of Prince’s van while Ted thinks it’s more reminiscent of a Aerosmith microphone stand. Before long, the food comes out and they taste these courses:

The first course is a choice of (1) spicy coconut shrimp laksa and (2) pork and pickled plum pot stickers. The judges universally agree the laksa is too smoky but Ted and Padma enjoyed the dumplings.

The second course offers (1) braised short ribs with pickled red cabbage and apple basil salad and (2) butterscotch miso scallops, spicy eggplant and pickled long beans.
The braised ribs are liked by the judges, but the butterscotch scallops are too much for Bourdain, who notes they are Willy Wonka-esque, and Ted who is just scared by the idea of butterscotch on scallops.

Finally, the dessert course is a choice of (1) halo-halo with cantaloupe, coconut, kiwi, avocado and candied nuts and (2) mango sticky rice with toasted coconut. Andre likes the halo-halo idea and wants to steal it. The sticky rice dish goes over like a lead balloon and causes Bourdain to note it was like baby vomit topped with wood chips. And he officially kills my appetite for three days.

In the end, a lot less World War II and a lot more Anglo-Zanzibar War.

Padma retrieves Antonia, Richard and Stephanie from the holding area and brings them to the Judges’ Table where she wastes no time in telling them they are the winning team. Bourdain says he was really impressed and they ask who made three of the dishes: the beet salad, the pasta, and the gorgonzola dessert course. Richard made the salad and the other two were Stephanie’s. Then Jose announces that because of the menu contributions and great teamwork, Stephanie wins the challenge. She gets a sweet prize too—a trip for two to Barcelona, four-star accommodations, and a guided tour of a winery. Stephanie, if you’re looking for a traveling companion, please drop me a line!

The winners head back to the waiting area and send Dale, Lisa and Spike to face the music. Padma tells them that the diners considered their performance to be the weakest. Bourdain starts in with the décor and asks who chose the linens. Spike says they all did, which raises Dale’s and Lisa’s eyebrows. Dale fesses to the butterscotch scallop dish; Jose says nothing worked on the dish and Bourdain likened it to a melted candy bar. Lisa gets called out for her laksa for being entirely too smoky by Ted. Spike said he came up with the idea of a laksa but Lisa didn’t use his recipe. Dale claimed he didn’t know anything about making a laksa so he had to trust his teammates; Bourdain calls him on this, saying that, as executive chef, he’s responsible for the dishes. They then ask who made the braised ribs, which causes some conflict. It finally comes out that it was Spike’s recipe but Lisa and Dale carried it out. Only then are the chefs let in on the fact that the ribs were the only successful dish of the night on their team. Finally they get to the sticky rice incident. Lisa says she made it but did not pick the rice, Dale did. She says he picked it because the store didn’t have the right kind of rice. Dale then denies that he picked the rice and then he goes on and on about how difficult it was to manage the kitchen with someone *cough*Lisa*cough* smarting off to him every time he made a suggestion. Jose makes the salient observation that Spike played the challenge well by staying as far away from those two as possible.

The judges then deliberate privately for a few moments. Ted says that if they are looking for a reason to send Dale home, they need look no further than the awful scallops. Bourdain says that Dale also screwed up as a manager and executive chef. Padma points out that Lisa botched two dishes—the stick rice and the laksa—both of which she’s made before. Bourdain notes, as many before him have, that Lisa can’t take criticism.

The bottom three return to the Judges’ Table where, in the Tom role, Bourdain sums up the challenge by saying that this challenge involved a lot of skills not required in other challenges. Dale fell down hard on both his leadership skills and in his scallop dish; if his team was dysfunctional, he should have accounted for it. Lisa’s soup tasted like a campfire and the rice was bad. Spike picked the right day to be in the dining room, whether he was there by luck or by guile. Padma then tells Dale to pack it up and head home.

Dale departs by saying a heartfelt goodbye to Richard, Antonia, Stephanie and Spike. He pretty much ignores Lisa on his way out, but it’s not like anyone expected them to break out into hugs. In his exit interview, Dale tears up and says he is disappointed and let down but he has met some good people he will miss—Richard, Antonia and Stephanie—and he has a hard time with goodbyes. In the first true shock of the season, Dale continues to cry on camera, which almost makes me feel bad for him. Almost.