Thursday, June 5, 2008

Top Chef 4: TC does PR

by Xani and Erin

Well, here we are folks-- almost to the end of season 4 of Top Chef. It's been a good run, and aside from a little (ok, two week) slip up we actually managed to post about most of the episodes! Who says this generation has no attention span? And did you see the previews from the next season of Project Runway last night?? Wait, what was I saying...?

Anyhow, let's get to the show. We're left with two superstars, Richard and Stephanie, and two "ho-hums", Antonia and Lisa (not that they are hos, but you know what we mean). They all arrive in San Juan after the hiatus ready to cook and compete. In no time they are faced with their Quickfire Challenge, to create frituras, or little fried treats, for the judges to enjoy with beer. The twist is that they must make two different preparations and each must feature plantains, a staple ingredient in Puerto Rican cuisines. Wilo, the guest judge, is a big-time chef in PR, but has no connection to the movie Willow, as far as we know. Antonia prepared a fried yellow plantain with spicy slaw and some crispy oysters on top of a cilantro plantain jam. Lisa made a plantain and chorizo fritter and a tostone (smashed piece of plantain that is fried) with duck and mango-papaya salsa. Richard prepared plantain chips with plantain salsa (served in a measuring cup, to boot!), and little pork meatballs with a plantain sauce. Lastly, Stef made pork and shrimp fritters with lime and basil and tostones topped with seared tuna. Yum!! But, Richard and Antonia end up in the bottom, mostly due to their use of uncooked plantains, which can have a slimy texture. Stephanie and Lisa come out on top-- and then Stephanie gets her very fist quickfire win, and a "very special" advantage in the Elimination Challenge.

After a pointless (and at times awkward) scene at a welcoming party, we head to the main event. For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs are presented with their main ingredient-- a whole pig! They must create at least two dishes out of the pig for a cocktail party the next night, and to help them, out come four of the eliminated chefs: Spike, Dale, Andrew and Nikki. Stephanie's advantage is that she gets to assign the sous-chefs. She takes Dale for herself (eliminating a whole mess of potential drama right there), Richard gets Spike, Antonia gets Nikki and, ruh-roh, Lisa gets Andrew! Then the chefs are told that they must remain in the kitchen with butchering duties, while the sous-chefs go to market to pick up all the fresh ingredients. They're not all that happy about it, but luckily they've got 60 pounds of pork to take their aggression out on! The hack, saw, chop, and carve the piggies into component parts. Then the sous-chefs return and everyone gets to cookin'! After a few hours of prep, they pack everything away... OR DO THEY?? In the harsh morning light, turns out Dale left Stephanie's pork belly un-refrigerated all night. He's totally horrified and frustrated with himself, completely devastated, as he should be. Stephanie seems (understandably) shaken by this, until Dale comes up with an idea to save the day: salad with chicharrones (crispy pork skin). (This begs the question: What salad is complete without a serving of pork skin??) All the chefs are hard at work and finally, evening rolls around and the party begins!

As the judges tastes all the chefs' creations, you can already see them identifying the highs and lows. They like Stephanie's salad and the plantain blini, as well as Richard's Malta-glazed ribs and pressure-cooked pork belly. We can already tell Lisa and Antonia haven't made as good of a showing-- the sauce on Lisa's relleno dish is too sweet, and Antonia's pigeon peas are undercooked. There's blood in the water (not literally).

No surprises here, Richard and Stephanie get called back as the top two (hey, don't they usually switch it up one episode and call back the losers first to shake everything up? I don't remember that happening this season), both are praised and then Richard is announced as the winner! And he's won a new car! I half expected Bob Barker and his (litigious) Beauties to come out and pose by it!

Then Lisa and Antonia face the judges. Lisa didn't make the pork the focus of the dishes, and her tostones were poorly cooked, in addition to having the overly sweet sauce. Antonia had those undercooked beans (although I can sympathize with her preference for "al dente" beans-- I like mine that way too Antonia! Love, Xani) as well as a "rustic" plating style that Chef Tom obviously hated. Cue the dramatic theme music... Antonia must pack her knives and go. Gasp!

Post-elimination drama is minimal, but Lisa does give Richard and Stephanie a hard time for not congratulating her. AWKWARD! Since when does the one who doesn't get kicked off get congratulated?? And we're off to the finale next week!

Xani's take:

Well, I earned 12 points this week in our Fafarazzi game, but honestly its looking like a lost cause at this point-- I'll never catch up to Kit and EP!

Really enjoyed this episode-- I mean, fried treats with beer AND pork, what's not to love? I was glad to see Andrew back and wished they would have highlighted more of his craziness (him speaking spanglish at the market was funny, but I wanted something along the lines of the infamous "culinary boner" line). I cringed when Lisa made her forced attempt at a joke re: Jews cooking/eating pork-- I hate her! And I can't believe she is in the finale. WTF?! You know?

Dish I wish I were eating: So many good choices! Probably Richard's pork belly, because I am a major sucker for pork belly. Or, Stephanie's pork satay on sugarcane, which sounded absolutely delicious. I was eating a second helping of "leftovers fried rice" (with asparagus, bacon, peas, shallots, white rice, bulgur, and other assorted random bits... this is because I'm moving in ONE WEEK. When every item you don't eat becomes something you have to move or throw away, you find ways to get them eaten!) and was drooling over all the delicious pork creations.

Favorite Chef at the moment: My pick for the big winner is Stephanie-- she's likeable and obviously a talented chef. I certainly won't mind if Richard wins, either, b/c I also like him and now that EP has been to his restaurant, I like him even more! I will be FURIOUS with Bravo if Lisa wins... she's unbearable. "I want to punch her in her eyebrow ring," as a wise person once said to me.

EP's Take:

This week I earned the same 12 points as Xani since we picked the same people: Stephanie, Richard, and Antonia. I'm still in second place in the league, which is fine with me. I don't mind being second to Kit!

I/we earned points for Stephanie's Quickfire win and some cursing on her part, plus points for Richard's win, but those were cancelled out by Antonia's loss (though I earned three points for Antonia's crying!). Overall, I really enjoyed this episode and thought the chefs produced both creative and incredibly delicious-sounding and -looking foods. Having to butcher a whole pig is something we've never seen on the show before, and it was great! Interesting that Stephanie had never butchered a whole pig before and yet still came out on top! She's mighty good, folks.

I shuddered with awkwardness when Lisa made the Jew joke - gives us all a bad name! Also so awkward/sad when Dale left the pork out could just feel his heart sinking. But, the fact that he and Stephanie worked together to think of something amazing to make with the remaining pig parts proves that they are Top Chef material. I loved watching Dale cook again - I'm sad that he's not in the finals!

One thing I'm confused about is whether they will kick off one more person (ahem, LISA) and then have the final two duke it out like in Season 2 (Marcel v. Ilan), or whether they will have the three chefs go head to head like in Season 3 (Hung v. Casey v. Dale)? I would guess the latter but sometimes those Bravo producers can throw a curve ball!

Dish I wished I were eating: All of the fried delicious snacks in the Quickfire looked pretty awesome, especially Stephanie's pork and lime fritters with lime, basil, and brown butter. Gimme!! The mains looked great as well: I would have loved to try Richard's Malta-glazed ribs and Stephanie's salad with chicharones. Speaking of chicharones, we order these whenever we go out for Salvadoran food (my most favorite of the Latin American cuisines), but it's not pork skin, but instead it's tough little pieces of (often fatty) pork, served alongside fried yucca. Anybody know what I'm talking about here? In any case, I would have eaten pretty much anything the chefs prepared - everything looked so delicious!

Favorite chef at the moment: I'm admittedly torn between Stephanie and Richard. Now that I have tasted Richard's food for myself, although it was not as innovative as what he produces on the show, I feel I have a bit more of a connection to him. He seems like a very smart chef and I really like him and his style a lot. On the other hand, Stephanie is so cute I want to shrink her and put her in my pocket! She's also one hell of a chef. Her flavor combinations are almost always a hit and she is calm under pressure. I'm jealous of my cousins and uncle who have eaten at her restaurant!! I am going to bet that Stef takes the Top Chef title, although I would love if Richard won too. If Lisa wins, I will never watch Bravo again! (Oh who am I kidding?? I can't resist Project Runway and Step It Up and Dance!)

We look forward to your comments!

X & E

ps. Any word on when the (presumably QUITE heated) reunion will be??

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Atlanta Eats: Part 2

by Erin

After our day and night of fun in ATL, we woke up late and discussed all the good times we had the night before at the BBQ, just like in college! But this time, there were no crazy hook-ups, fights, or crying like in college - a bonus, if you ask me.

Anyway, we soon got all ready to go to brunch at a restaurant called Home Restaurant and Bar, a Richard Blais restaurant! That's the Richard from Top Chef!! I was so excited to eat at Chef Blais's restaurant, and I was so hoping he would be there and I could add him to my "List of Top Chef Contestants I've Met," which currently consists of only Michael from Season Two. (I still love you Mikey!) Unfortunately, when we asked the waitress if he was around, she informed us that his wife had just had a baby three days before, so he was a bit busy with that. Mazel tov to the happy couple! I guess he went home and fulfilled the promise he made to viewers in the "Common Threads" episode that he wanted to "go home and make some babies"...eeew.

Anyway, onto the review! From the outside, Home looks like a real home! It's obvious that they gutted the whole thing and left the charming outside in tact, so you really feel comfortable walking in.

There is a lovely bar and lounge area, a dining room on the main floor (that's where we ate), a dining room upstairs, and a private dining room and wine cellar in the basement. There were also portholes where you could look into the kitchen and watch the chefs in action. I couldn't resist taking a peek. The kitchen was huge but had windows all along the walls, letting in a ton of sunlight. I feel like whenever you see industrial restaurant kitchens, they are all stainless steel and flourescent light, but not at Home!

Okay, onto the food. We decided to share the Fried Green Tomatoes with Buttermilk Dressing as our starter. The tomatoes were not sliced but rather cut into sections and breaded in a crunchy crust (cornmeal, perhaps?). Instead of being served with buttermilk dressing, it was served with buttermilk ice cream! The ice cream was savory and had herbs (chives, I think) in it, and it added a whole other level of texture and, of course, temperature to the dish. A wonderful way to start out the meal!

For our mains, Tori ordered Buckwheat Pancakes with Maple Foam and Caramel Butter, Rachel and Lisa each ordered Shrimp & Grits with Andouille, Citrus Salad, and She-Crab Butter, and I ordered the Crispy Fried Chicken, Cauliflower Mac-n-Cheese, and Honey Vinegar.

The pancakes were very good - a little dry (is this due to the buckwheat?), but the maple foam was very maple-y and light, and the caramel butter was rich and intense. Put them all together and that is a tasty little bite!

The shrimp and grits were also quite good, and perhaps my favorite dish of the meal (even though I only had a small bite). The dish had edamame and a citrus salad of grapefruit and oranges, plus big cubes of fried up andouille. The grits were creamy and delicious, and the whole dish worked so well together. It was definitely a unique and upscale version of an old down-home classic.

Last, there was my fried chicken. I had seen someone else order it and I couldn't resist it! It was perfectly cooked - delicious, crispy skin on the outside, and moist, yummy meat on the inside. The skin had a slight sweetness to it, presumably from the honey vinegar. The cauliflower mac-n-cheese was good, though the pasta was a little overcooked. It was tasty, but not as good as the truffle mac-n-cheese we had in St. Croix!

Then it was time for dessert! We were all pretty full so we got one dessert to share between the four of us. Although all of the desserts looked awesome, we ordered the Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Ice Cream (the other choices, FYI, were: Moon Pie with Coca-Cola Float, and Sour Cream Pecan Cake with Sweet Tea Ice Cream).

This was a wonderful dessert! The cake was very dense, and there were lots of layers so you always got a bite of the classic cream cheese frosting. The cream cheese ice cream paired with a bite of cake was a bite of heaven! It was such a wonderful match and probably the best Red Velvet Cake experience I've ever had. This makes me think maybe I want Red Velvet cake for my birthday cake next month...

It was a great experience at Home, although the service was not as great as we would have hoped. I would definitely go back though, but probably for dinner. I asked for a copy of the dinner menu (because I am nosy and annoying) and some of the dishes look absolutely irresistable: Beef Short Rib with Corn Cream, Vidalia Onion Rings and Whiskey Jus; Buttermilk Pancakes with Foie Gras Butters and Blueberry Syrup; Fried Okra and Shrimp 'Po Boy.' YUM! The menu also says that the veggies are served family style and are "farm to table vegetables" - yay eating local!

Anyway, after chatting away over more coffee (mostly about whether we thought Richard had won or not and if so, whether he'd told his wife) and a brief photoshoot in the lounge, we left Home and headed to the Georgia Aquarium! Apparently, the Georgia Aquarium is the largest in the world. Who knew?? We had a great time at the aquarium (the otters and Nico, the beluga whale, were my favorites), and a great time overall! Thanks again to Lisa and Alex for having us. We will see you next year at the WEDDING!

Post-brunch photoshoot


Happy upscale/down-home eating,


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Atlanta Eats: Part 1

by Erin

This past weekend, I traveled to HOTlanta to have a reunion with three of my best friends from college. We lived together during our sophomore year at Washington University in St. Louis, and what a time we had! At this point, we are all scattered about the east coast: me in Baltimore, Rachel in DC (you might remember her from our Memorial Day post), Tori in Durham, NC, and Lisa in Atlanta, GA. We had been trying to get together for a while and finally, we found a weekend that worked for everyone! We stayed with Lisa and her brand new fiance Alex (read their incredible engagement story here) in their new home in the Atlanta suburbs. They are like grown ups!!

On our first morning, we went to a Jewish deli called Goldberg's Bagel Company & Deli, which was pretty authentic considering how far it was from old New York. The four of us plus Alex sat down at a table in the middle of the bustle.

Rachel and Lisa, so happy to be waiting for a table

The walls were painted with murals from musicals, so I was happy as a clam. It was about noon so we had a split at the table between those who ordered breakfast, and those who ordered lunch. I for one will choose lunch over breakfast 9 times out of 10, and that's exactly what I did. I got one of my favorite sandwiches: the Reuben. And it was great! It wasn't too messy (I didn't have to bust out my knife and fork), the corned beef was thinly sliced, cheese was melty, and it was grilled to perfection. Yum!

Rachel got the whitefish salad, Alex got the lox plate, Lisa got chicken salad, and Tori got scrambled eggs. Poor Tori - the lone gentile in a sea of Jews at a Jewish deli!! But after all those years of living together in college, she's an honorary Member of the Tribe, so she did just fine.

Whitefish salad

Scrambled eggs

Bagels and lox

Chicken salad with some awesome looking bagel chips

Me and Rachel
The happy couple
After brunch/lunch, we parted with Alex and got our nails done, and then we headed back to the house to relax and later, prepare for the Housewarming BBQ at Lisa and Alex's house. We had a blast at the party! We met some great folks and played flip cup (first time in a LONG time for me), and I still got the knack!

Good sportsmanship, even in Flip Cup

Thanks to Lisa and Alex for hosting us - it was an amazing weekend! And thanks to Rachel and Tori for making the reunion happen - it was so great to be all together again!!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Atlanta post, which has to do with a TOP CHEF contestant!!

Happy eating, ya'll!


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