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It is on, people, it is on. The previews have promised the return of Restaurant Wars, and I’m psyched. It can be a dicey challenge, sometimes warranting a do-over, sometimes bringing a D-List relative of a pop icon, and sometimes ending up in a very sad elimination (Tre, buddy, I’m still bummed over that). But it’s never dull and it’s hardly ever without epic failure. Let the battle begin!

Enough with the fish guts!

Before we can set off to the field, the chefs must first face their Quick Fire; Tony Bourdain turns up at Le Bernardin (Eric Ripert’s restaurant) to challenge the chefs to a fish-prep competition. Tony isn’t there to spar with Monsieur Ripert (though that would be welcomed) but to sing the praises of Justo Thomas, the fish butcher of Le Bernardin. Apparently this man is a machine and can perfectly cut 1000 pounds of fish in five hours. I hope he enjoys his work because that kind of “dedication” seems like he has less of a social life than I do. Fittingly, for the QF, the chefs have ten minutes—two minutes more than it would take Justo—to butcher one cod and one fluke into Le Berardin portions and standards.

The butchering is not without a tiny bit of drama. Carla struggles under the time constraint, as does Tiffany, who is rightfully embarrassed at her product as she’s a fish chef. Fabio slices his thumb but doesn’t wuss out like Jamie. There are many fish guts, bones, and heads left in the bin when Justo surveys the end results. Carla didn’t finish and Tiffany didn’t cut the fish right, much to her mortification. Richard, Mike, Marcel, and Dale came out on top, so they have 45 minutes to use the heads, bones, cartilage, fins, gills, and whatever left-over bits to create a dish. This is Dale’s wheelhouse, as his family has been cooking head to tail since a wee lad. Richard has experience too, since his first job was preparing the Filet-o-Fish at McDonald’s. At the end of the time allotted, the chefs prepare:

Richard’s schnitzel of cod belly, ragout of braised collar and fried skin
Mike’s pan-roasted belly, confit of cheeks, charred collar and tomato sauce
Dale’s fluke back fin sashimi with cucumber and fluke liver sauce and bacon dashi with salt roasted cod collar
Marcel’s cod mousseline, yuzu chili oil fluke broth

Mike doesn’t care who wins as long as it isn’t Marcel; the winner gets immunity and that’s not something he thinks Marcel deserves. Mike shouldn’t have worried; Dale gets the win with showcasing the variety of the fish.

Strategery. Look into it.

Back in the Top Chef Kitchen, the chefs learn from Padma that Restaurant Wars are on. She’s there with Ludo Lefebvre, famous for his attitude on Top Chef Masters. He’s been playing with the idea of pop-up restaurants that last for a day or a few months. It sounds very flash-mob-ish to me, and kind of out-dated, but nevertheless, that is the concept for this season’s restaurant wars. At least this spares the chefs from wasting time buying decorations and tablecloths.

Dale, as winner of the QF, is one team captain and he gets to pick the other team captain. In what is the singularly most brilliant use of game playing strategy in the history of Top Chef, Dale picks Marcel to be the other team captain. Dale understandably doesn’t want to work with Marcel, but the choice is even wiser than that—what kind of team has much of a chance at success if it’s led by Marcel? Marcel then gets first choice, and instead of going for Richard, he picks Angelo. Maybe Richard’s invisibility cloak spared him. The teams shake out as such: Dale’s team has Richard, Fabio, Tre and Carla. Marcel’s team has Angelo, Mike, Tiffany, and Antonia. Padma then informs the chefs that the diners will chose which team wins.

The teams caucus to decide who will do what and the themes of the restaurants. Tiffany begrudgingly agrees to work front of house on Marcel’s team, but not much else gets decided due to Marcel’s ham-fisted way of communicating. Dale’s team decides on a bodega theme and organizes quickly. They’re going to play up the whimsy of the bodega idea and open with a bag of chips. Marcel’s team settles on a Mediterranean-inspired menu, squabble over the name, and finally settle on Etch, for reasons that are still cloudy to me.

The next day, the chefs arrive at the pop-up site and find their kitchens outside. Bodega’s menu is fairly ambitious, as it includes two desserts, the traditional kiss of death on Top Chef. Tom checks in and talks to Marcel, who apparently is doing everything at once and shoos Tom away. He also talks to Dale about the bodega concept, which he doesn’t quite get. Before he leaves, Tom drops the news that there will be only one winner and that person will get $10,000.

Fabio, the natural choice for front of house, gets to work setting up the service space and working with the waiters. Tiffany should be doing the same, but she’s still stuck in the kitchen peeling eggs, which came out wrong because of Marcel’s meddling. She leaves her egg problems to Angelo and heads to the front of house. Marcel has yet again made some kind of foam, which no one wants to serve. Meanwhile, in the Bodega kitchen, everyone is working quietly on their dishes; the quiet worries Richard.

Even the Magical Elves Can’t Cover the Obvious

The diners arrive—they’ll be eating in both restaurants—for the first wave of service. Dana Cowin, EIC of Food and Wine, pops in with some friends to sample the fare as well. She’s not on the judging panel, just a diner. Dana’s presence worries Tiffany even more. Dale gets really moody with the servers at the start of the service, but Fabio steps in and settles the argument.

Etch is having food issues; Dana’s table did not like the egg dish and other diners send back undercooked lamb. It is not going well at all for Etch. The diners switch and Dana is at Bodega being wooed by Fabio. The judges also turn up for food at Bodega; on the panel are Tom, Padma, Tony, and Ludo. First out comes Dale’s bag of potato chips with fried herbs and sea salt. After that, Fabio serves Richard’s raw tuna belly and fried chicken skin with chilies and lime, served in a can-like dish and Dale’s bacon, egg, and cheese with homemade focaccia. The judges notice Fabio’s excellent front of house skills, how he works the floor, checks in appropriately, and directs the waiters. For the second course, the judges are served Richard’s chicken-fried codfish and Brussels kraut and Tre’s pork shoulder, grits with cheddar cheese, and Corona and lime sauce. Finally the desserts come out: Fabio’s amaretto cake with candied lemon peel and cappuccino mousse and Carla’s blueberry pie with dry milk ice cream.

The judges head to Etch, where Tiffany is trying to work the crowd a bit too hard and misses their arrival. The judges notice the waiters are struggling and Tiffany is laughing louder than everyone trying to schmooze. The judges do finally get food; first up is Tiffany’s frisee and shaved asparagus salad with egg and chorizo and Angelo’s crudo of fluke, grapes, pink peppercorns and lemon zest. A diner complains that the lamb dish is too cold; Tiffany warns the folks in the kitchen, which causes Marcel to put the plates on the stove. He and Mike get into a tiff over the proper way to warm plates and bitching ensues in Etch’s kitchen. I think Antonia would dissolve into the floor if she could. The second course of Marcel’s roasted monkfish with kalamata olives, peperonata and parsley and Mike’s braised pork belly and octopus with cannellini beans. For the third course, the judges taste Antonia’s ricotta gnudi, braised oxtail ragout, arugula and lemon zest and Mike and Angelo’s slow-cooked lamb chop, cauliflower puree, turmeric and honey. For the final course, out comes a steaming (due to dry ice) tiny bowl of Marcel’s duo of peaches: unripened peach and sweet peach with coconut foam and powder. Tony holds back nothing and describes it as a perfect bowl of awfulness (cleaned up for the PG-13 rating of this site).

Service ends, and Fabio is confident that they did well but Richard is full of doubt. Meanwhile, Marcel thinks that Etch did a great job; Antonia openly disagrees and thinks Marcel must be into the drugs if he thinks they did well. After spending some time in the stew room, Padma retrieves Etch to face the judges. Richard needs to be consoled due to his fear of losing, so Fabio sits on his lap and gives him a backrub.

Padma informs Etch that only 17 out of 76 diners favored their restaurant; Marcel defends their team by saying there were problems in the pickups. Antonia cites a lack of calmness in the kitchen and Angelo wonders if maybe someone should have broken off and taken charge. The judges found Angelo’s crudo too complicated and not Mediterranean at all. Mike’s dish needed salt while Antonia’s needed less salt. Marcel’s over-use of foam and disgusting dessert get him in hot water. Tiffany’s dish also lacked flavor and the service was weak. She lets slip that it’s hard to manage front of house when there are arguments on the line. This sets off an argument between Marcel and Mike over how slow the service went; Marcel complains that no one will listen to him but Antonia counters he didn’t step up as a leader. Angelo is just plainly embarrassed at their childish behavior.

No one is booted quite yet; first the judges want to see the members of Bodega. Richard exhales loudly learning they are on the top, and Fabio gives him a knowing grin. Dale was the executive chef but Richard was the “technical advisor” and he came up with the bag of chips idea, which Tony found to set the tone. All of the dishes get praise, and Ludo gives Richard the win for his culinary advice to the whole team.

The judges mull over who to get rid of from Etch; everything was bad—food, service, concept. Tony says what I was thinking—Angelo identified the problem early on but kept his mouth shut. Marcel produced two terrible dishes and didn’t lead. Tiffany also put up bland food and couldn’t manage front of house at all. Mike’s and Antonia’s are also criticized, but not as strongly, so they’re probably safe. Etch returns, Tom reams them once again, and Padma drops the axe on Marcel. Happy dances break out in many lands. Marcel thinks that he didn’t do anything wrong except pick the wrong team and he swears he’s a nice guy. We’ll see if that “nice guy” comes out on his Syfy show.