The cooking gods have smiled upon us this good day. For the first time all season (or so it seems) there was absolutely no ceviche, which totally cut down on the number of drinks I took while watching. The glass was filled only with diet Coke…or that’s all I’m admitting to right now. Another benefit of this episode is that we’re down to the Restaurant War challenge, which, in my opinion, really ought to involve some remote controlled robots made out of cooking implements. A girl can’t have everything, can she?
For $120, that burger better come with fries.
Before heading off to the Top Chef Kitchen for the Quick Fire, the chefs ruminate about the state of the game. CJ is sad Sara N. is gone and blames her ouster on Howie. He says that Howie lacks tact and couth, and he’s done with putting up with Howie. Howie pretty much paraphrases one of Dennis Leary’s famous comedic songs about being an ass(hat). Sara M. (who is now just Sara) feels a little lonely without her sister-in-name, but will get over it and focus on the fierce competition.
Upon arrival at the TC Kitchen, the chefs are over the moon with the guest judge, a guy called Daniel Boulud. He is a mega famous chef who is, according to CJ, at the pinnacle of French cooking techniques. Hung looks like he’s about to wet himself with excitement; Daniel is a hero to him and he really wants to impress. Padma then announces the QF challenge: the chefs will peruse the Red Robin hamburger restaurant menu, especially the Adventure Burgers section and come up with a weird burger that isn’t on the menu. Maybe some of you are familiar with the Red Robin chain; there was one here about ten years ago and it lasted like 10 minutes so I’ve never been. In any event, Padma informs the contestants that the winner of the QF will not have immunity from this point on.
Daniel is apparently famous for making something called the DB burger which contains truffles. It runs, according to Howie, $120 per burger. Howie gloms on to the truffle idea and incorporates truffle butter in his burger prep. Others go for the seafood straight away. Brian wants to reproduce his winning sausage mix as a patty. Casey thinks there’s too much seafood so she goes for a more traditional meat and gets some ground chuck. Dale loves fried egg sandwiches and is going to work that into his dish. Tre wants to go surf and turf, and Sara decides to make a lighter burger. After an intense cooking session, where the time constraint nearly bites everyone in the bottom, the chefs turn out their burgers. Padma and Daniel taste them all, which include the following burgers:
Hung’s shrimp burger with tempura flakes and shiitake “bacon.” Daniel says it’s nice and juicy, and Hung almost giggles with giddy excitement at the praise.
Brian’s scallop, shrimp and sea bass burger with sweet chili glaze. Daniel thought it had too much bread.
Sara’s crab burger with citrus remoulade, orange and endive salad. She used a lettuce wrap, not a bun, to make it lighter.
CJ’s scallop mousse and shrimp burger with a slice of tangerine in the place of a tomato. Daniel liked the “fire” of the burger.
Casey’s “patty melt” with prot-salut cheese and grilled onions. She made an effort to have thin, crispy bread for the bun.
Tre’s surf and turf ciabatta burger with horseradish sour cream. He used a slice of beef, not ground beef for the “turf” part.
Dale’s ground tuna and asparagus burger topped with a fried egg.
Howie’s black ruffle burger with taleggio cheese, tomato and radicchio. Daniel liked the burger, saying it was good and moist.
After the tasting, Daniel said they all were good, but thought some dishes veered more toward the warm sandwich and away from being an actual burger. His least favorites were Sara’s because of the lettuce wrap and Tre’s because it was a sandwich, not a burger. His favorites were Howie’s, CJ’s, Dale’s, and Hung’s. He then picks CJ as the winner, who is happy at finally winning a Quick Fire. Padma notes he does not have immunity but he’ll have a “really useful” advantage.
New American Contemporary vs. Contemporary American Bistro
Now it’s time for the Elimination Challenge, which we all know from the endless advertisements is the restaurant war challenge. The contestants are really jazzed about this challenge and have been looking forward to it all season. They will divide into two teams and open two restaurants from the ground up. As his “really useful” advantage, CJ gets the honor and privilege of picking his three teammates for the challenge. He snaps up Tre, Brian and Casey. That leaves Howie, Hung, Sara and Dale in the second team and Hung worries about Sara and Howie clashing on the team.
Padma leads the chefs out to the back of wherever the heck they film this show. There are two spaces that open out to a courtyard or something. There are no doors, which just looks odd to me. The back of the spaces flow into the TC Kitchen, where they’ll be doing all of the cooking. These spaces contain only some chairs and some tables. The walls are white and the floor is plain concrete. The teams will have thirty minutes to talk about the concept and figure out who is going to be head chef, sous chef, front of house, and concept designer. The next day they’ll be given $700 to buy food to serve 30 guests and $2500 to outfit the space with tableware and decorating items. So, essentially, they have to do what the contestants on Top Design did and cook a several course meal for thirty people.
Over in the right corner we have Dale, Howie, Hung and Sara. They decide to call their restaurant “Garage” and conceptualize it as a contemporary American bistro with French influences. Dale is going to be the front of house guy. Sara volunteers to be the head chef and Howie will be the sous. Howie doesn’t want to argue with Sara, but knowing Howie, he’s probably glad to have a scapegoat if things go south. Apparently Hung is in charge of the design concept, but he doesn’t really function in that capacity, as you will see momentarily.
In the left corner, we have CJ’s hand-picked team who want to go for new American contemporary cuisine. How this differs substantially from Garage’s concept escapes me. CJ picks Tre to be the head chef, puts Casey in charge of the décor, Brian in the front of the house, and assigns himself the sous duty. Struggling for a name for their joint, CJ lamely throws out the fact that his sister’s name is April, so they decide to call it Restaurant April.
Scented candles: hot or not?
It’s going to be a long day for the Elimination Challenge. Brian secrets his suit out of the apartment so as not to tip off the other team about his plan to wear the fancy togs. Off they go a’shopping. Howie and Sara do the food shopping for Garage and Tre and CJ make groceries for Restaurant April. Both food shopping expeditions are the usual fairly organized running about in the Fresh Market.
CJ has dispatched Casey and Brian to get the décor elements and the tableware. He wanted Casey to go to “add a woman’s touch” so it doesn’t come out all black or something weird. She tries to buy scented candles but Brian nixes the idea, noting that the smell of the candles will compete with the food. They get all sorts of decorating items to spruce up the blank space and Casey reels in Brian’s spastic behavior and they get the job done. Meanwhile, Dale and Hung do the same shopping thing, but opt for vanilla scented candles, thinking that it will enhance the dining experience. Oh, those naughty foreshadowing gnomes have come out to rear their ugly little heads, haven’t they? Dale takes charge of the decorating shopping, but Hung does help out.
With the shopping done, everyone gets back to the TC Kitchen set to start preparing the spaces and the food. There is only four hours until service starts, so there is not a moment to spare. Howie starts making a risotto; he informs us he’s been cooking his personal style of risotto for ten to twelve years, and, while it’s different than the standard risotto, he knows what he’s doing. Someone please get those pesky foreshadowing gnomes out of here!
Tre is running around preparing what seems to be all of the dishes. He notes he is the head chef at his restaurant and worked hard to get to the top. CJ, his sous chef, is taking longer than he’d like to prepare the artichokes for one dish. Tre intimates that CJ should be faster on the prep.
For Restaurant April, Casey works hard to clean up the space and set out the decorations. Over at Garage, Dale is busting his butt getting the wall decorations ready and notes that Queer Eye has nothing on him.
With time ticking down, Tom comes in to check out what’s going on. He talks to Tre about the beef tenderloin he’s making; Tre has portioned out the beef and is marinating it in something. Tom then chats with Howie, who is busy on that risotto. Tom is a bit skeptical about Howie cooking the risotto so early, but Howie assures him he’s only par cooking it for now. Out of earshot of the teams, Tom notes that Tre should have kept the tenderloins whole for easier cooking and a better tableside presentation. He thinks that Howie’s team, despite the strong personalities, may be able to pull out a win because the members have more restaurant-running experience.
The cooking and space preparation pace really kicks into high gear. Tre is smoking some potatoes to go along with the beef tenderloin and accidentally leaves the potatoes in the smoker a little too long. He’s really frazzled, in part because CJ is not as helpful as he ought to be. With only thirty minutes to go before service starts, the servers arrive and get instruction from the front of house guys, Brian and Dale. The servers don’t say much and kind of look clueless. I wonder where they got these folks to serve.
You got served!
Time is up for the preparation and the diners begin to arrive at both spaces at the same time. The judges hit Restaurant April first, and no one in the kitchen is really ready. Brian awkwardly seats the judges at the same time as several other tables of diners and rushes back to the kitchen to alert the team that the game is on. Tonight is a Ted Allen night, so all is right in the world. Brian runs around the entire service, looking hot, distracted, and frazzled. Before too long, the courses are served; Restaurant April’s menu is the following:
Amuse: A blue point oyster topped with a ginger and watermelon granita. The judges think the flavor of the oyster is completely washed out. Between this course and the next, Padma alerts Brian that there is dust on her bread plate. That cannot be good.
First Course: Seared sea scallop on corn and black truffle custard. The scallop was overcooked and curled up, disappointing Daniel and the others.
Second Course: Seared grouper with shellfish basil pistou and artichoke hearts. More tableware issues ensue when the flatware was cleared and not replaced. Brian flies back into the kitchen and begs for help.
Casey takes up some front of house duties and presents the Third Course: Wild mushroom and gorgonzola crusted beef tenderloin on smoked potatoes. The smokiness of the potatoes overwhelms everyone’s palates, rendering the dish inedible. Some diners comment that the smoke flavor is rather disgusting.
Pre-dessert: mango lemongrass and sake sorbet, which gives the judges brain freeze.
Dessert: apple tarte tatin with brandy sauce and crème anglaise. The judges really enjoy the dessert, with Ted calling it beautiful and delicious.
After that dining experience, the judges make their way over to Garage. Dale is working the table service big-time; he says he’s half prostitute and half performer on the restaurant floor and all bitch in the waiter hold, because the servers are too slow. Sitting down at their table, Ted immediately notes the vanilla candle and asks Dale to remove it. Another diner complains about the candle, and discards it to floor. The Garage team starts rolling out the dishes for the judges to sample; they serve:
First Course: Tuna tartare with egg vinaigrette, nicoise olive puree and herb salad. The judges really like this dish, noting that it is beautiful, delicate, and a great way to start the service. Dale notes that Hung prepared the tartare.
After some time, out comes the Second Course: Howie’s wild mushroom risotto with foie gras and black truffles. Dale applies a sauce to each judge’s plate as part of his table-side service. The judges find the dish entirely too rich and not at all summery or in keeping with the Miami setting.
Third Coures: Braised lamb shank with sunchoke potatoes and baby vegetables. The judges unanimously don’t like dish, noting it is too heavy, especially following the risotto. The same snarky diner who commented before complains to Dale that the meat tasted like metal and that if that dish had a vegetable medley, then he’s a monkey.
Dessert: Sweet crepes with dark chocolate and orange Grand Marnier sauce, topped tableside by Dale with cocoa whipped cream. While Ted likes Dale’s tableside service, the judges find this dessert too heavy as well.
Service finally comes to an end and the teams have no idea how they did. Dale thinks they were screwed by their servers not doing their job properly. He worries he could be sent home for not cooking anything at all. CJ just wants to kick back with some wine and relax, but he can’t do that, since they still have to face the judges.
Candles and slurpees and smoke, oh my!
The judges don’t look all that thrilled when they convene at the Table. Padma reminds everyone that the challenge had several elements: restaurant concept, décor, food, and service. We also learn that at one of the tables was a restaurant blogger who critiqued both teams; the judges are armed with her thoughts on the two restaurants.
As for décor, Tom liked April’s soothing setting. The blogger took Garage’s candles to task, noting that scented candles are only appropriate for baths; Daniel thought the candles made Garage look like a massage parlor. As for the food, the judges liked Hung’s tuna tartare and hated Howie’s risotto, noting it was overcooked. Tre’s beef could have been good but the smoked potatoes overwhelmed everything else on the dish. Brian’s flustered appearance did him no favors; Tom called his performance lousy.
Padma retrieves the Restaurant April team. The Garage team takes this to mean that they’ve lost, as usually the winners are called in first. Padma disabuses Restaurant April of this notion immediately upon arrival before the Judges’ Table, stating that they are not the winning team. She then informs them about the blogger and Tom reads some of her comments. She first praised the décor but then goes on to note the sweaty and distracted performance by Brian. He admits he was flustered; no one on his team had front of house experience and he stepped up to the challenge. He acknowledges he didn’t really do that well and takes complete responsibility for any failings in the service.
Turning to the food, the blogger did not like the “slurpee” on the oyster. CJ says that he wouldn’t like a slurpee on oysters either, implying an apology if that’s how it was when the oyster was served. The judges also quote the blogger regarding Tre’s beef; she said it was a good idea but the execution, with the over-smoked potatoes, was terrible. Tre agrees that the smoke flavor was too aggressive, and Daniel concurs. Throughout this discourse we get shots of the blogger woman eating at Restaurant April. As it turns out, she’s at the table with the guy who was really vocal about the candle and the lamb shank at Garage. Her web-based anonymity is blown out of the water now! The judges ask the other three teammates if Brian should carry the burden of the team’s failing, but all admit to technical failings in the kitchen. There’s no bus-throwing-under for this group.
No loser is picked out of this bunch, and the Restaurant April team is dismissed. Team Garage then assembles in front of the judges. Padma points out that there were quite a few problems with their performance and asks what their concept was. Dale explains that they were going for contemporary American fare. Sara admits she nominated herself for the position of head chef, but says that the menu was a collaboration of the teammates. The judges bring up the blogger’s comments again, saying she was overwhelmed by the suffocating stink of the candles. Dale takes responsibility for the décor, including the candles. He says that most of the candles were scented in the store, but Tom points out that the other team shopped in the same store and came away with unscented candles. Dale says he has a low sense of smell and the candles didn’t seem strong to him. The blogger also took issue with the black tablecloths, saying it was like eating off of Billy Idol. That seems a bit extreme, and Dale says he picked the black tablecloths because the white dishes would really pop against the dark cloth. Maybe he isn’t so Queer Eye after all.
The judges shift the conversation to the food served. They really liked Hung’s tartare, though Tom thinks it had too much white asparagus. The blogger thought Howie’s risotto was more mac’n’ cheese with rice; this comment draws out the defensive nature in Howie. He says he tasted each risotto he put out and it was all good. Tom asks him how he finished the risotto and Howie says with cheese and cream. Tom says the creaminess of risotto should come from the rice and actual cream has no place in the dish. They get into a bit of a tiff over the desired consistency of risotto and Howie loses the argument. Ted asks Sara if she, as head chef, considered the seasonality of the dishes. She says she worried about the heaviness of the menu but thought it balanced out with the lighter dish at the start of the meal. Ted thinks that she and Howie lost sight of the team nature of the challenge and were more concerned about their individual dishes. Neither she nor Howie agree with Ted’s assessment, and Howie goes so far as to say that he likes heavy dishes all the time, and the more the merrier. He’d order braised anything every time he goes out to eat, irrespective of the season.
With that, the Garage team is dismissed for more deliberation. Tom thinks it is really difficult to pick a winner and a loser. Ted thinks Brian completely lost it as the front of house guy. Tom has issues with Dale’s lack of sense of smell and lack of taste in décor. The judges found the risotto to be a gooey mess. Tom particularly didn’t like the over-smoked potatoes in Tre’s beef dish and thinks the result will come down to the food. Tom also thinks that this group as a whole could have done better, but Padma doesn’t really think so. Ted preferred Restaurant April’s food overall. Then Tom says that he knows exactly what to do.
Having made a decision all the judges can live with, Padma retrieves Brian and Dale, the front of house guys for both teams. Tom addresses them both, saying that opening a restaurant is one of the hardest things to do in life. As for Garage, Tom says the judges had issues with the food and the lack of connexity between the food and the décor. Restaurant April, Tom says, didn’t have as much of a food problem but the service was terrible. Padma then says that they’ve decided to not send anyone home tonight and the teams will have one more chance to perform the challenge. Tom tells them to consider this go a soft opening and expects the next try to be excellent. Daniel gives each contestant a copy of his book, Letters to a Young Chef.
Dale and Brian return to the group, distribute the books, and announce that they have to do it all over again the next night and no one is eliminated for now. So, in this summer of sequels, tune in next week to see Restaurant Wars II: The &%#$ Just Got Real.