Thursday, January 20, 2011

Top Chef Restaurant Wars, Up Close and Personal

Photo from

 My husband and I were guests for last night's Top Chef All-Stars Restaurant Wars episode.  The twist this season was that diners ate at both restaurants and the winners we determined solely by diners' votes.  It was interesting to watch the show and see what was going on behind the scenes in the kitchen, as we were only privy to what we were experiencing in the dining room that night.

It was also surprising to see how different people's reactions are to the same food, personalities and presentation.  As my 6-year-old says "You don't know MY tastebuds!"

Here are my impressions from the night (which up until now I couldn't talk about less I risked death, dismemberment or law suits)....


Didn't really understand the concept.  It didn't evoke any sort of strong theme or through-line during the meal.  It was as if the chefs decided what they each wanted to make and then barreled on through.  There wasn't anything really unique or unusual about their menu or point of view.

We were excited to see Tiffany as front of the house cuz' who doesn't love them some Tiffany?!  We asked about her recent marriage, if she had time for a honeymoon, etc.  While she was friendly, she did seem nervous and distracted.  Our table (which then became the Judges' table when we switched restaurants) was turned in such a way that I was straddling a table leg throughout the meal.  We called Tiffany over and suggested she may want to turn the table before the judges sat there, as the lovely Padma will not feel beautiful straddling a table leg in her hot Little Black Dress.  I did not see them take our advice.  Tsk, tsk.

We ordered two of everything on the menu and shared with our party of four. 

Tiffany's Egg & Asparagus Salad-my last meal on Earth would include a runny egg, so I was looking forward to this dish with the chorizo, egg, asparagus, etc.  This dish was soooo salty, none of us could eat it.  Watching the show, I wonder if it was the salt/sugar cure for the egg yolk that did it.  Unfortunately, it was inedible for our table.

Angelo's Fluke Crudo-I loved this dish.  I thought it was well-balanced and one of my favorite dishes of the night. Grapes and a peppercorn vinaigrette and lemon zest...nice.  Although, I think it's time Angelo got off the crudo train soon.  It seems to be his fallback dish.

Mike's Lamb and Cauliflower Puree-Our lamb was also a bit cold and undercooked for my husband's taste but the cauliflower puree was freaking amazing.  Had we not been on camera, we would have licked the plate.  Or maybe we did and they edited it out.

Mike's Pork Belly, Octopus & White Bean Puree-This was my very favorite dish of the night.  It had everything in one bite-creamy, chewy, smoky, silky, etc.  Contrary to what the judges thought, ours was well-seasoned. 

Antonia's Oxtail Gnudi-Yes, it was a bit salty but not nearly as salty as Tiffany's egg dish.  Too bad because this could have been excellent.  Could she have saved it with more acid?

Marcel's Roasted Monkfish-I remember almost nothing about this dish other than after one bite I willingly passed it off to the other diners at my table.  And of course it came with FOAM!  When the plate was presented to us we all said "Must be Marcel's."  Dude, you have totally played out the foam thing.  Move on.  Or pair it with Jamie's scallops. The judges' comments about the monkfish were, "It's like baby food." Ouch.

Marcel's Duo of Peaches with Coconut FOAM!-What was this?  It was all flash and no substance.  Yes, cool to see a smoking, icy bowl coming toward your table but this was so bland and awful tasting.  He used tapioca pearls in a tasteless, watery coconut FOAM (aargh!!!)  that felt like eating fish eggs and glue.  Blech!  And if you know me personally, you'll notice it was me who commented on desserts being the Top Chef kiss of death.  Who will be brave enough to make dessert?  Oh, Marcel.  The one interesting note on this dish was the use of the apricot-sized unripened green peach.  I'd never seen that before and it inspired a lot of discussion at our table.  I believe Tiffany told us it came from Japan? 

Photo from


Concept: Very fun, tongue-in-cheek concept for Bodega.  Even the menu was funny and irreverent with its descriptions of the menu items.

Service: What can you say about Fabio?  He could sell ice to an Eskimo.  There is no better pick for a front of the house person than him.   I think great service and a great atmosphere can greatly impact your dining experience and even elevate the taste memory of the food.  We felt like he spent a lot of time at our table talking with us.  I think he showered that same attention on everyone.

The Mojito Cocktail-This was not great.  It was watered down and lacked any punch.  We took a few sips and then switched to wine.

Dale's All That and a Bag of Chips-Yes, please.  Potato chips with fried rosemary and sea salt.  These were amazing.  I could have made a meal out of these.  In fact, we asked Fabio for another bag and he happily brought us one.  The presentation was fun too.  Literally a plastic vacuum sealed bag of chips that he cut open at your table.

Richard's Can of Tuna-Again, funny presentation but not memorable for me.  In fact, watching the show last night, I had no recollection that crispy deep-fried chicken was part of that dish.  I know the judges loved this dish.

Richard's Chicken Fried Cod-I remember the brussel sprout "kraut" underneath but the fish underwhelmed me.  Full disclosure: I'm rarely blown away by cod except for Nobu's Black Miso Cod.

Dale's-Bacon, Egg & Bread dish-I loved it when Anthony Bourdain said "This is perfect stoner food."  Again, a runny egg-key to my heart.  But for me, the homemade ketchup was a little overpowering and threw the dish off balance.

Trey's Pork Shoulder with Grits and Corona Lime Sauce-This was good, hearty, soul-satisfying food and the Corona flavor was very clear.  Everyone at our table unanimously enjoyed this.

Fabio's Amaretto Cake with Cappucino Mousse- I am so sorry Fabio, but I do not remember this dessert.  Let's just chalk it up to the amount of Terlato wine consumed by this point.  Or the fact that we were laughing and having such a good time at Bodega that I didn't give your dessert it's due attention. Um...the judges liked it.

Carla's Blueberry "Pie"-Whootie who!!!! The blueberry compote on this was so delicious I asked Fabio for the recipe and he gave it to me.  There was a crispy sugar and cinnamon coated puff pastry triangle and ice cream-- a deconstructed Blueberry Pie.  A great way to end the meal.

The Scorecard:

Service-Bodega, hands down.  Fabio is the king.

Concept-Bodega.  Funny, interesting, consistent.

Food-Here's where it gets interesting.  We taped this episode about 3-4 months ago so my memory is not crystal clear on every aspect of each dish.  But, the food I remember most is the crudo, the cauliflower puree, the pork belly and octopus, the potato chips and the blueberry "pie".  That adds up to 3 dishes for Etch and 2 for Bodega.

So what weighs more heavily, service and atmosphere or stand-out dishes?  After a lot of back and forth, I gave my vote to Etch.  Because if I could return to that restaurant just to eat the pork belly, cauliflower puree and crudo again, I would. 

What I took away from this experience was that food is subjective to one's taste; the people you are with during the meal; your mood.  Not to mention the fallible human who may have over-seasoned my plate before sending it out and under-seasoned yours.  I was surprised to see how different the judges felt about some dishes I loved and vice versa. 

The judges are paid to be critical.  I, on the other hand, empathize with the chefs.  I imagine they feel as I do.  Everytime I cook for someone I want them to love it.  I want to pour all the joy, love and comfort I can into my food and give it to them as a gift.  It's hugely disappointing when it's not received in the way you intended it.  As someone I know supposed, "Carla cooks with love.  Marcel cooks like a dick." 

I think critics opinions and restaurant reviews are a good starting point, but you really need to judge it for yourself.  Because one man's baby food may be another man's monkfish. With FOAM!!!!

To see photos of all of the evening's food click here.


Jim Longo said...

Nice to hear from someone "on the inside" who doesn't have a vested interest in the show! Very well written and very well thought out blog.

I just have two nitpicks. First off, this season has put the kibosh on the "Jamie the Scallop Queen" thing. As she's said in the past and has demonstrated this time around, her fallback is soup, not scallops.

Second, dessert is not automatically the kiss of death. We remember Fabio's great FOH in Season Five's Restaurant Wars, but the winner of that episode was Stefan, who did the team's desserts and wouldn't let Hosea or Leah near them.

And the season before that, Stephanie did both FOH AND one of the desserts for Restaurant Wars, and won.

Robyn said...

Thanks for the insider-POV; it's nice to hear from a "real" person.. :) What follows is my impression from what you posted, so it's all 'my humble opinion'...

You say you gave the edge to Etch because of that one dish that you would Please eat again... yet you mention getting the Recipe for the blueberry compote and the table wanting a second bag of chips because they were so amazing..

Now, maybe you'd've asked for the recipe for that Sh'mazing dish at Etch if you'd felt Tiffany was at ease enough that you could have-- but I dunno... it still sounds like there were more Really Great dishes at Bodega that maybe it would have balanced it out more if there had been... less wine, as you yourself mention... ;-) Wine, after all; can affect the details of a memory even as it can also enhance the general feel of one. :)

And Y'know... the "Feel" of a place like that... I personally would probably have given it an edge even over the more memorable food... I would choose a place that is Really Fun with Great food over a place that is less Fun even if it has Even Better food... especially if I'm with friends. But Then, I wasn't there. :(

So in your 'official' vote-- did you vote as a table or as individuals? Does this mean you were one of the 17 that prefered Etch, or is this just based on your memory?

Thanks again.

Meredith said...

@Jim, true some of the chefs have passed the dessert course with flying colors. As for Jamie, my circle of friends will always reference her as "Scallop Jamie"!

@Robyn-by my mathematical calculations Etch had 3 dishes or elements I really liked and Bodega had two. I debated back and forth about the things you mentioned-ambiance vs. food. I went with food on this one. I can have fun with my friends anywhere but I'd like to crave the food too.

As for the wine, one could argue that maybe it was more relaxed and fun at Bodega because it was my second restaurant and wine service.; )

Every individual diner had a vote. It was not done by table. My table mates went back and forth also before making their choice.

Thanks for your feedback!

Anonymous said...

Can you tell us how you got so lucky as to be able to have this restaurant meal? and where was it? by the editing, it looked like DUMBO, but it could have been anywhere. I'll be so grateful for an answer. Thanks. and thanks so much for your illuminating post.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic insight! Thanks so much for giving us a peak under the tent. I think I would give some percentage of weight behind the ambiance of "Bodega." Apparently the judges did as well. Was the lamb undercooked at your table?

Anonymous said...

Your blog has been tagged by a commenter on Skillet Doux, a respected Top Chef blog.

the dogs' mother said...

Thanks for posting. I loves behind the scenes stuff!