Thursday, May 1, 2008

Top Chef 4: Common Threads?

by Xani and Erin

We've reached Episode 8 of this season of Top Chef which means half of the original competitors are gone! We were hoping that meant this episode would highlight the advanced culinary skills of the remaining competitors... but what we really got was microwaveable rice and kiddie meals?!?

Granted, the challenges were... challenging. The Quickfire Challenge forced the chefs to prepare a family-friendly entree in just 15 minutes. Surely not impossible, but they are given only seconds to figure out their dishes and begin to cook, plus they have to incorporate the awkwardly forced product placement, Uncle Ben's microwaveable rice. There were some creative dishes that came out of the challenge: Richard's tuna steak with whole grain and regular rice, tomato and yuzu, Dale's pineapple fried rice, and Antonia's "rice salad" (a dish her mother used to make) are favorites of the guest judge, Art Smith, Oprah's personal chef and James Beard Award winner. Antonia wins immunity for her rice salad, which Smith loved because of the hot and cold elements.

Onto the Elimination Challenge! The chefs are briefed on Smith's humanitarian organization, Common Threads, which brings families together to eat. This definitely strikes a chord with us BCD girls-- growing up, cooking/eating dinner together was a major part of our family life. We both started helping out in the kitchen at a very young age, watching both of our parents cook and learning by their sides, then sitting down to dinner together almost every night to talk about school, work, and, of course, food! We still keep this tradition going with our epic Sunday Dinners.

But the challenge isn't all warm fuzzy memories; the chefs must prepare a healthy, delicious, family-friendly meal for four, with a measly $10 budget! The chefs are NOT happy about this, and the shopping is a mess, with people buying tons of chicken (cheap, easy, mostly healthy) and Stephanie wandering around in a daze...

Back at the off-site kitchen where they will be doing the cooking, Padma reveals another twist (which were all knew about because of the previews for the episode): each chef will be paired with a young sous chef from Common Threads!

The chefs seem excited about this and Antonia immediately starts bawling as the theme of this episode is that she misses her daughter. Most of the kids seems pretty shy at first but then warm up to their partners, even Spike's kid who cuts himself with a peeler within seconds of picking it up. But tough little guy that he is, he goes right back to work! Tom Collichio remains in the kitchen during the whole challenge, observing, conversing, tasting, and generally making the competitors sweat. No great drama in the kitchen (personally we're glad no kids got horribly burned or lost any fingers during the challenge).

Unfortunately for viewers, there was no great drama with the dishes, either. With the constraints of the dish (family-friendly, simple to prepare, healthy and cheap), we weren't surprised to see pretty basic fare with little-to-no "wow" factor. The top three are Andrew (chicken paillard with fennel, apples, and oranges), Antonia (chicken and vegetable stir fry with whole wheat noodles), and Nikki (one pot roasted chicken with mixed veggies and tomato and cucumber salad). Antonia sweeps the episode by winning both the quickfire and the elimination challenge! As a single mom, she's got a leg up on the other contestants-- she makes food like this for her daughter all the time, and it shows. (Cue the creepiest line of the episode, Richard saying he wants to go home and "make babies." AWKWARD!)

The bottom three are Mark, who made vegetable curry, cinnamon rice and cucumber salad which the judges felt was too sweet with not enough protein, Stephanie, whose couscous was overcooked, chicken with peanut butter and tomatoes was "disgusting", and dessert – apples and granola was blah, and Lisa who made flavorless chicken over flavorless and undercooked edamame and black beans. A little drama when Mark accused Tom of not liking him... Tom defends himself but sends Mark home anyway, then awkwardly says they should have a beer sometime ("or a 'pint' as you guys call it" cringe-worthy).

Xani's Take:

Seriously folks, I should just give up now! I got ONE POINT this week-- ONE! I mean, a slight improvement over two weeks ago when I scored ZERO points, but still, majorly disappointing. I thought my team was pretty strong:

But Antonia was the dark horse this time, and I haven't had her on my team for weeks now. Anyhow, in addition to my disgusting score, I was not thrilled with the episode-- I make simple, healthy meals on the cheap for myself all the time at home, and nothing they did really wowed me. I am looking forward to the next challenge which seems to involve marathon cooking (14 hours?!) and weddings. OH, I will say that my favorite part of the entire episode happened after the ending credits, when many viewers might have already changed the channel or switched over to watching DVR'd episodes of The Office, the cut to a one-on-one shot of Andrew who says "I have a culinary boner right now." I can't even comment-- hilarious.

Dish I wished I were eating: Eh, maybe Andrew's chicken? Like I said, nothing much I was drooling over this episode.

Favorite chef at the moment: Looks like Stephanie has seriously taken a turn for the worse. Two weeks on the bottom! She needs to step it up and dance cook (wrong Bravo show)! I'm still an Andrew fan for now-- his filthy mouth earned me my one and only point.

Erin's Take:

Well, despite the fact that I spent all day yesterday in front of a computer, I completely forgot to change my Fafarazzi Top Chef fantasy team until it was too late and the website had been locked. So, my team was still Antonia, Stephanie, and Richard...and I CLEANED UP! I got 14 points because of Antonia (definitely the dark horse after last week's polish sausage-gate) and her clean sweep of this week's challenges. I am now in first place in the BCD group!

Despite the thrill of the win, I agree with Xani that the ep was pretty boring and I did not have an irresistable urge to eat or cook anything that anyone made. I did like that they had the kids in as sous chefs, especially Dale and his helper, who seemed to get along well since Dale saw himself in the kid. I also loved how when Andrew met his sou chef, he said "Honor to work with you, Chef" - cute! One other thing: Spike made Pasta Puttanesca for children - isn't that whore's pasta?? Well, at least it had vegetables, right?

I was sad to see Mark go, especially when Lisa and Nikki are so annoying!! He had a couple highs (remember his anchovy on quinoa, and his quail and egg roll from A Christmas Story?), but definitely many lows. I'm excited for next week's episode, which I believe is going to be "wedding wars." I don't think they've ever done a challenge like this, so maybe this is taking the place of the typical "restaurant wars" challenge?

Dish I wished I were eating: Dale's pineapple fried rice with scallops - sounded delicious and interesting, and since Asian food is Dale's specialty, I'm sure it tasted great. None of the kid-friendly dishes really did it for me.

Favorite chef at the moment: I'm disappointed in Stephanie - she showed so much promise! But, Bravo quite masterfully edits its shows, so I have a feeling we are being led to believe she is in trouble, but she will in fact wow us soon in the future. I really like Dale - he is finally showing his soul and you can tell he really puts his heart into his cooking. Also, Andrew is f-ing hilarious. Culinary boner?? I'll just leave it at that...

X & E

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Does Anyone Notice a Pattern Here?

by Xani

"If heaven doesn't have cupcakes, I'm not going."

It seems wherever I travel, I end up eating burgers and cupcakes! My most recent trip, which started in Cincinnati and ended in Detroit, was no exception. We absolutely had to hit Miller's Bar, yet another burger place on the list. So, during a break from our Passover prep work, EP, Karen, the two little ones and myself headed to Dearborn to check things out.

We arrived at Miller's Bar smack in the middle of the lunch rush. During our short wait, we observed the making of Miller's burgers in progress-- rows and rows of perfectly formed patties lined up in the griddle. Mouth-watering indeed. We were soon seated (in the non-smoking section... Side note: I go to a LOT of places and almost never get asked "smoking or non?" because "non" is usually the only option. So FYI to all smokers, Michigan may be the last place in the US where you can still smoke indoors), and munched on the house-made pickle slices (hey, we were hungry!) and Diet Cokes until our orders were ready.

A word about the orders: when we asked the waitress for menus, she gave us a look that said "I know you are first-timers." No menus at Millers. The menu is just burgers, fries and onion rings (although the waitress told us the cook would make a grilled cheese for the little girls-- how sweet!). In fact, if you check out the Miller's menu page online, you can see what they are talking about...

Soon enough out came lunch: three medium-rare cheeseburgers, one grilled cheese, and a couple of orders of fries and rings. No plates (the burgers were served on white butcher paper), no silverware, and no messing around-- these were some great burgers!

Check out that perfect medium-rare!

We all loooooved these burgers. Perfectly cooked, juicy, greasy, and flavorful. The cheese was perfectly melted and the bun was soft but not mushy. The fries and rings? Also top notch (especially the rings):

The little girls seem to enjoy their grilled cheese and their Mom proclaimed the lack of plates or silverware very "kid-friendly." So there you have it folks, expert parenting advice: bring your children to bars.

Overall I give Miller's Bar a full 9 out of 10 burgers! My highest rating since I established the rating system here. These are GREAT burgers, and at a very reasonable price ($5 for burgers, and its on the "honor system", meaning you don't pay your server, you go up to the bar after you eat and tell them what you had, and they tell you what you owe! Oh, Midwestern values... how quaint. We don't roll that way in Bmore!)

Um, anyway, I promised you both burgers AND cupcakes in this post, so off we go to The Cupcake Station in downtown Birmingham, MI. EP and I just HAD to check this place out for a number of reasons. Reason the first: It was, like, five minutes from Karen's house. Reason the second: Cupcake Station had been featured on our new favorite cupcake blog, Cupcakes Take the Cake. Reason the third: their motto is "Everyone loves a cupcake!" We concur!

Soooo many cupcakes!

After chatting with the helpful staff (who could tell how excited we were to be there) we decided to get a dozen cupcake minis (because whats the only thing better than cupcakes? Tiny cupcakes!!) and a local specialty, a Michigan Bumpy Cake cupcake:

Regular cupcakes and their miniature counterparts

Delicious cupcake minis!

We got a variety of flavors including coconut, chocolate peanut butter cup, lemon, carrot cake, Oreo, pineapple upside-down cake, red velvet, and classics like vanilla cake with chocolate or white icing. We ALSO got a complimentary extra mini in addition to our dozen (a baker's dozen, if you will) "to eat in the store." Fabulous!

As to be expected, these were a huge hit with the kids and adults alike! I felt that the icing was perfect: not tooth-achingly sweet, really great flavors (especially the cream cheese icing on the red velvet mini). The cake itself was also good-- maybe a tiny bit dry but overall everything was great!

Our trip to Detroit was full of fun, family, and delicious food. Who could ask for more? Well, I guess we can ask for more trips to Detroit!

Happy... burgers and cupcakes?? (why not?)


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