“The Strong Buzz! Special TOP CHEF edition!”
Hello all and Welcome to this special TOP CHEF edition of THE STRONG BUZZ!
As some of you might know from watching Top Chef last night, I was a secret "blogger" on the Restaurant Wars episode. Needless to say, this was really exciting and a lot of fun. (A big thanks to the folks at Magical Elves for having me on the show.) After a trip to NBC studios for a sort-of audition, I was flown down to Miami and put up in the Fontainebleau for filming.
This was way back in April and it's been very hard to keep this a secret all these months. I've wanted to tell you all, but a million dollar confidentiality agreement does tend to be an effective muzzling tool. So now that I can speak, let me say that it was a great pleasure to be a part of the show. Getting to spend some time in Miami was nice, but hanging out on set and watching the inner workings of a reality show was fascinating.
One of the most interesting parts of being in a show like this is meeting some of the contestants without that backstory and knowledge of who they are and what their personalities are like. You don't know who the darling is, who the villain is, who's the kiss-ass, who's the blundering fool. And that lack of knowledge does give you a great objectivity to judge on the food alone and not on the contestant's winning (or losing) personality. Now that I have watched the show, I know that I really like Casey, Tre and CJ, and I didn't really love their dishes, and had I known more about them and their personalities, I might not have been as clear-sighted in my judgments.
Also, I've never worked in TV, and so I was completely blown away by the incredibly well-managed chaos that is the art of the Reality Show. Behind the scenes there are dozens of cameras and booms, PAs running around like chickens without heads, producers with earbuds and walkies, and just this amazing unstoppable energy. I hope that one day they do a Behind the Scenes of Top Chef so you can see what it's all about. For instance, the Top Chef kitchen that is so pristine and fabulous is a working set that was built from scratch for the show. They have to completely take it down before they leave the sound lot. And beyond the silver Top Chef doors, there's nothing. You'll find just a lot of open industrial space filled with tons of people running and rushing and recording and filming.
Every chef has a camera on him or her at all times, and every moment is recorded so that those bits of dialogue that may turn out to be important in a story line are there to be sliced and edited into a dramatic plot line. It was truly amazing to get a sense of what goes on behind the scenes and the number of people it takes to get a show like this off the ground. It was also a blast. I also want to say up front that I was in no way influenced by the producers. They pretty much just said: go, eat, have fun, and tell us what you think. After I had dinner in both restaurants, they asked me to write reviews of each of the contestant's restaurants-Restaurant Garage and Restaurant April. Here's what I thought, as written the night the episode was filmed.
Naming a restaurant is sort of like naming a child. It's not something to be taken lightly. In fact, other than hiring your chef, it may be the most important decision any restaurateur makes. It will become your identity, your signature, and the word (or words) that will most closely be associated with your restaurant. So it's rather important to use a word or term that encompasses what your vision of your restaurant might be. That's why I was so perplexed by the fact that this team of chefs decided to name their self-proclaimed American bistro Restaurant Garage. I don't know about you, but the idea of dining in a garage is not that appealing to me. The word garage connotes clutter, dirt, grease, and perhaps some anti-freeze and windshield washer fluid, not to mention that the word bears an alarming resemblance to the word garbage. What's more, when you think of garage-centric activities you think of things like filling up on gas, changing a tire, or on your best day, flirting with a cute mechanic. Having a great meal, or any meal other than one of vending machine snacks, just doesn't come to mind.
So it was with much hesitation that I took a seat at Restaurant Garage, a stark red, white, and black restaurant decorated with garnet curtains, silver mirrors hung at crooked angles, and sickeningly sweet vanilla-scented candle centerpieces. Why burn vanilla candles in a restaurant? People go out to eat to smell their food. They stay home and take a bath when they want to burn scented candles. While the candles were nice-looking, their suffocating vanilla perfume masked the aroma of every flavor that was trying desperately to be noticed. And so we took matters in to our own hands and removed the offending centerpieces from our table to the floor. Ahh. Much better.
Other than the vanilla madness, I was also not very impressed with the choice of black as a tablecloth color. It's not really warm or inviting to dine on something that resembles Dracula's cape. It was very Billy Idol. And I have no interest in dining off of Billy Idol.
But restaurants are not judged by design alone (though good design can't hurt), and so I was interested to see if these kids could cook, even though I wouldn't trust them to decorate a high school locker. My first impression was very positive; their bread service was great. They offered a few slices of fresh French baguette with a housemade hummus, each dollop piped onto a bread plate and drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with lemon zest. It was delicious and also showed great attention to detail. Nicely done.
I also loved the first course-a tuna tartar that I imagine was a riff on a pan bagnat, the sandwich of egg, tuna, olives, and anchovies on French bread. They presented a glossy mound of diced ruby red tuna with an egg vinaigrette, an olive tapenade, and blanched white asparagus cut on the bias, with a few lightly crisped homemade crackers. I liked the interplay of flavors and textures and thought the transformation of the hard-boiled egg into an egg vinaigrette was very clever. Again, I was impressed. The room seemed to open up and somehow grow prettier.
The next course, a Parmesan risotto with wild mushrooms accompanied by a truffle and foie grad nage (a sort of sauce), didn't fare as well. While the risotto was well-seasoned, it wasn't as much risotto as it was mac ‘n cheese with rice standing in for elbow macaroni and Parmesan making an appearance for cheddar. This dish was sticky and almost gummy, not delicate or elegant or slightly brothy as proper risotto should be.
But things really fell apart with the next course. While it read well-braised lamb shank with sunchoke puree, vegetables and natural jus-it was quite another matter to eat it. This lamb shank was more a lamb baseball bat, and could have been used for a base hit it was so tough. I could barely get my knife through it. Perhaps a power saw? A cleaver? And in terms of vegetables, I counted one onion and a few diced zucchini, which to me make the case for leaving them out completely rather than be so skimpy.
For dessert, things turned around. We were served sweet ruffled crepes, delicate as doilies, and filled with orange marmalade and dark chocolate, ending the meal on a surprisingly fine note. While the orange marmalade was a tad too cloying, I like that the chefs decided to pair orange with dark chocolate rather than something more commonplace like strawberry or raspberry and milk chocolate. It's a sophisticated choice that I appreciated. And the tableside dollop of bitter chocolate whipped cream was also a nice touch, and it ended the night on an up note. While I would not want to dine at Garage again, perhaps if they named it something more inviting (and promised more hummus), I could be convinced to change my mind.
As opposed to Garage, the world April actually makes a fine restaurant name. The word connotes the arrival of springtime. It signals bright blue skies, warm sunshine, flowerbeds filled with tulips, and soft, gentle breezes. There's a sweetness to the word April, and something soothing and calming about it that's inviting. A restaurant called January? Not so much. But April, yeah, April works.
The chefs did a good job of bringing that Spring-like warmth to the space with a tall flower arrangement, accents in gold and sage, twinkling votive candles along the walls, and bud glasses with freshly cut pale roses as table centerpieces. If only they did as well with the food.
Our dinner was supposed to begin with an amuse bouche of oysters with watermelon ginger granita, but instead it began with an announcement to my table of four that there were only three left. While most of my table declined the oyster (I think because they were afraid of food poisoning), I asked for one. I love oysters and if there was even one left, I wanted it. The host, a rather sweaty chap named Brian who might want to invest in either a swim suit or a truckload of Right Guard, frantically ran to the kitchen to fetch it. It was served (rather, dropped in front of me) just as our first courses arrived-a scallop atop a corn and black truffle custard. Since I was the only one with the oyster, the rest of my table watched as I slurped (rather sucked) down my watermelon-drowned oyster. Oh dear, this was just pitiful. I actually felt sorry for that little oyster, all suffocated under a frosty slushy of watermelon granita. There was no brine, no bite, no taste other than the slurpee sweet bath of watermelon ice. How sad. Let the oyster be. Less is more, people.
My seared scallop was not much better. It was overcooked and quite rubbery (bounce, bounce) and tasted as though it had been sitting around awhile. But it was redeemed by a terrific fluffy corn and truffle pudding stocked with sweet ripe niblets that reminded me of a sort of corn soufflé. I was happy that the kitchen chose to let the truffle play a background note. Oftentimes, chefs add way too much truffle, which can completely overpower a dish, but in this case the chef was judicious and because of that, the corn pudding was a highlight of the night.
At this point sweaty Brian was pulling off some wild air-traffic movements in the dining room, directing runners with plates with alarming fervor, and wiping his brow so as not to drench the floor or overly-season passing plates of food with his perspiration. I had to feel for him. Here's a guy who's used to being in the kitchen, and he was totally out of his element out on the floor as a host. But then again, his counterpart Dale at Garage managed to keep it together with half the sweat.
As Brian continued to burn calories, we were fed our next course-Key West grouper with shellfish and artichoke pistou. This was again, sadly, a miss. First, the portion of fish I received was more of a nugget than a fillet. It was about the size of a quarter. In addition to its puny size, it was overcooked, which I could have dealt with, but the broth it was floating in resembled a swamp of algae and was so bracingly acidic that I found it inedible. It was actually slightly alarming.
I pushed it aside and while we waited for our next courses, just took in the show, wondering if Brian would actually slip out of his clothes due to excessive sweat. The final course of the evening at Restaurant April was a filet of beef crusted in wild mushrooms and Gorgonzola on smoked potatoes with port wine reduction. This was an example of "more is less." The tenderloin was beautifully cooked-pink in the center with a good char on the outside crust-but did it need the addition of both Gorgonzola and mushrooms? No, not really. Maybe a Gorgonzola maitre d' butter alone, but having both those ingredients crust the filet was quite frankly just unfair to the beef. Give the beef a chance on its own. Let it take the spotlight and show off its ripe flavor and lovely marbling. Instead, that beef was obliterated by its accessories-especially those smoked potatoes. They might have been a fun idea in theory but in practice were so overly smoked, that I was in need of either fresh air or an ashtray.
Next up was a lemongrass and mango sorbet was sent as a palate cleanser, but it was flat. Mango can have such a lovely pucker to it, but this sorbet was completely flavorless. It tasted like frozen air. For dessert, the sound of Apple Tarte Tatin was wonderful, but that was the only wonderful thing about it. It was about as far from a tatin as you get. Tart Tatin is an upside down apple tart that's known for the delicious caramel that forms while the apples and sugar are cooking. What we got was a circle of cold pastry dough topped with what could have been a Del Monte diced apple selection. The flavors were reminiscent of something from a Passover meal.
On a positive note, I will say that I loved the fact that each one of the chefs served one of the courses. It was a personal touch that made me feel a connection to the food. While it was unnecessary, sometimes those little extra touches-the things that you don't expect-are the best part of a restaurant experience. And that was a really sweet touch. It seemed fitting for a restaurant called April.
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