'Top Chef': Consider the Spot Prawn

After a week's hiatus, Top Chef was back in all its lurid glory, injecting viewers with its characteristic dose of pre-fabricated drama, grown-up babies with sleeve tattoos, and ill-prepared seafood.

Last night's episode also gave us what was possibly Padma's worst choice of apparel yet: a bright green feathered jumpsuit-type ensemble that made her look like Kermit the Frog with camel toe. During the Quickfire Challenge, it was difficult not to stare uncomprehendingly at her instead focusing on the contestants or guest judge Tyler Florence, who looked as though he was being portrayed by the Madame Tussaud's version of himself.

The Quickfire Challenge was inspired by loose change and Mad Libs: contestants pulled the lever on a slot machine to draw three-word combinations that would dictate the kinds of dishes they prepared. "Hot spicy Asian" and "romantic tart Latin American" sounded more like escort service ads than anything you'd want on a plate, but oh well. Jen, who was battling some sort of stomach ailment, failed to impress Florence with her "adventurous nutty American" dish of diver scallops with salmon roe ("restaurants have been putting salmon roe on scallops for year," Florence sniffed), while Eli mangled his "stressed umami Latin American" mushroom ceviche.

Florence was more impressed with Michael V.'s yuzu curd with whipped Greek yogurt and seaweed cracker and Kevin's "stressed hot and spicy Asian" char-grilled pork with daikon and Vietnamese herb salad. Kevin was the winner; given the choice of $15,000 or immunity, he chose the former, undoubtedly more excited about the prospect of a wad of cash than he had been about a box of Calphalon pans.

Padma was coy about the Elimination Challenge, telling the contestants to go home to prepare for a dinner party. When they arrived, they found that their kitchen had been visited by the Top Chef elves; naturally, they'd be doing the cooking. Outside, Padma waited with Florence, Govind Armstrong, Tom Douglas, Takashi Yagihashi, and Nancy Silverton, all of whom bore grocery bags and looked so serious that you would have thought they were attending a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee instead of being paid to hang out in Vegas for a day.

Padma, gravely referencing "these tough economic times" and plugging Macy's all in the same breath, announced that the contestants would pair up and cook family-style dishes with the ingredients contained in each of the guest chefs's grocery bags. Mike I. naturally got Robin, "the only person I don't want to work with." Annoying as Robin continues to be, it was difficult not to feel a twinge of pity for her as Mike groused about the injustice of their pairing. "I was livid, I was angry, I was upset," he confided to the camera, as if he'd just found out his home was being foreclosed on or been diagnosed with erectile dysfunction. He dealt with his feelings by ignoring Robin completely, even though she actually knew something about the Asian flavors their dish required, as viewers offered a silent prayer for his summary dismissal.

Meanwhile, Ash bent all the way over for Michael, ceding any type of control or decision making to the latter's staggering culinary prowess. Eli and Ashley embarked on a shaky voyage with spot prawns and gnocchi, Laurine and Bryan did inventive things with halibut and polenta cakes, and Jen and Kevin seemed to be having the time of their lives with a couple of racks of Kobe ribs.

At the dinner table, the judges inhaled the ribs and Laurine and Bryan's halibut, and, despite Mike I.'s ignorance of Asian ingredients and cooking techniques, approved of his and Robin's lightly seared tuna with marinated mushrooms and pickled Asian pear roll. They were less happy about Ash and Michael's pancetta-wrapped halibut, which was both over- and undercooked, thanks to faulty electrical wiring. Most offensive was Ashley and Eli's gnocchi with spot prawns: not only was the gnocchi too salty, but the spot prawns were undercooked. "Spot prawns are to be cherished," Tom Douglas intoned solemnly. "They're too beautiful to let that happen to." "It's like a Monet: good from a distance," Toby Young observed, presumably ignorant that Alicia Silverstone had gotten there first.

At the judges's table, Bryan and Laurine and Kevin and Jen were praised for their work. The judges loved the former team's halibut with polenta corn cakes and chorizo-sherry vinaigrette, and were agog over Kevin and Jen's Kobe beef with cardamom-tomato broth. As the broth's creator, Jen won a $10,000 shopping spree at Macy's and promised to buy Kevin a suit.

Next, Ashley and Eli and Michael and Ash were called upon to account for their sins. It was hard to tell what was more shameful, though: Michael's badly executed halibut with egg yolk ravioli, or Ash's insistence that working with his partner was akin to washing paintbrushes for Picasso. Michael looked as though his mother had shown up to tell the judges what a special little boy he was; even our TV blushed a little bit.

But more cringe-inducing was watching Ashley take the fall for the gnocchi and spot prawns. Although Eli had oversalted the gnocchi, Ashley had been the one to grill the prawns, an act that the judges treated like a war crime. And so Ashley got the axe, and it was hard not to weep for her along with Jen. Although we waited in vain, week after week, for Ashley to wash her hair, she was far more appealing than Eli, and her roguish swagger and stories about growing up in the woods will be missed.


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