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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Commercial Interruption: V for Vegetarian

Sometimes there's just too much television for one Channel Surfing blogger to handle. That's when we need a break to sit back, relax and indulge in some friendly back-and-forth (via email, of course — we don't actually like to speak to one another in person). Bloggers Kelly McBride, Malavika Jagannathan and Thomas Rozwadowski ate up last night’s "Top Chef" vegetarian challenge, but can’t believe underachieving Robin is still standing. With the top contenders beginning to emerge, we can’t help but wonder if we’re in for a repeat of Season Four.

Kelly: I wasn’t sure if "Top Chef" could keep the momentum going after last week’s epic Restaurant Wars challenge, but the cheftestants served up another golden episode with last night’s — it’s about damn time! — vegetarian challenge.

First of all, is it just me, or do the quickfire challenges keep getting better? After last week’s blindfolded team challenge, "Top Chef" busted out another winner with the TV dinner challenge. Each chef was asked to create a dish inspired by a classic TV show, with choices ranging from "Seinfeld" to "M*A*S*H" to "The Sopranos." Jolly Lumberjack Kevin once again showed his stuff, winning with his "Sopranos"-style never-go-against-the-family meatballs. Mikey I. drew "Seinfeld," a show he’d never seen. I can’t be alone in wondering how in the name of Festivus that’s even possible.

Moving onto the main event, the promise of cooking at Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak had the cheftestants salivating all over their meaty menu plans. But in a delicious twist, guest judge — and fellow vegetarian — Natalie Portman showed up, forcing the chefs to scrap the meat and go veg. Yahoo! The chefs’ reactions varied, from Eli’s quasi-good natured veggie bashing to Jen’s stern, almost angry, statement that she could never — EVER — become a vegetarian. Really, guys, it’s not that weird!

In the end, Kevin maintained his dominance, taking home the top spot yet again (and making me wonder why I ever put anyone else atop my power rankings). The bottom-dwellers included Robin (big shock there), a shaken Jen and the ever-cocky misogynist Mike (who apparently thinks leeks are proteins). In the end, Robin survived to cook another day, while Mikey I. was left to pack his knives and go.

I couldn’t disagree with the judges’ decision, but after eight — count ‘em eight — trips to the bottom for Robin, it’s nearly impossible to believe she’s still hanging on. Last week’s Restaurant Wars challenge clearly shattered Jen’s confidence, and I’m worried she may be beyond the point of bounce-back.

So Malavika, how long until we finally see the end of Robin? (or is she destined to become this season’s Lisa?) Is Jen gone for good or can she salvage her confidence, along with her culinary skills? How sweet was it to finally get that veggie challenge? And does anyone else have a nonsexual girl crush on Natalie Portman?

Malavika: First, let me address the most important question on your list -- Natalie Portman is hot. End of story. I am not ashamed to admit it.

If I had to gauge my excitement about the vegetarian challenge -- something I've seriously been looking for since season 1 -- I would rank it right between discovering that I have superpowers and the Astros finally winning the World Series. Now, clearly I'm biased. As a lifelong vegetarian, my eating habits have been misunderstood and ridiculed for so long that I've come to expect the mockery we heard from Eli and Jen on a regular basis. But... and this is a big but here... vegetarianism isn't exactly the "alternative lifestyle" it was ten or twenty years ago. Scores of restaurants serve up veggie fare -- many of them exclusively -- and it shouldn't throw real chefs for such a loop as it did on last night's episode.

My number one criticism -- and this goes for ALL the dishes served up yesterday -- was that no one apparently thinks vegetarians eat anything beyond vegetables. Not a single chef presented a pasta... rice... a risotto... or, hello, frickin' beans. I think Mike V. came the closest with a polenta to presenting something other than just sauteed or pureed vegetables. In fact, I'm shocked the judges let that fact slide.

As much as I would have loved to see Robin go, Misogynist Mike deserved to go on the fact that he thought leeks were, ummm, a protein and he couldn't come up with a "Seinfeld"-related quickfire dish (Hello, soup? Pastrami on rye? Heck, even a Junior Mint would have cut it!).

However, if Robin somehow survives to make the final 4, I will swear off "Top Chef." I'm not even kidding. She cannot -- CANNOT -- skate by on mediocrity, mediocrity she full admits to and is almost even proud of. As for my gal Jen, she needs to get a grip on herself. She's a great chef, but confidence is a big part of success... and she needs to pull herself out of this funk as soon as possible.

Now, Tom, as the resident carnivore on this here post... what were your thoughts on the veggie-friendly episode? And please limit your thoughts on Natalie Portman to a one paragraph minimum.

Thomas: Apparently, one of those "scores of restaurants" that serves regular veggie fare is Misogynist Mike's. 20 dishes on the menu! Some with yogurt!

If Robin survives next week, I have the sneaking suspicion that this season of "Top Chef" is going to play exactly like Season 4.

Kevin is Stephanie -- steady, solid, well-mannered and occasionally extraordinary. Michael V. is Blais -- experimental, innovative and far too full of himself to realize that risk-taking doesn't always equal the best dish (Volt's jab at Kevin's winning dish, that it was something he could have made as an intern, was the most "jerkish" thing he's said to this point. And for the first time, I really disliked him because of it. How's the air up on that high horse, Mikey?)

Michael I. is Dale -- arrogant, hot-tempered and out of the race a bit earlier than anyone probably thought, Bryan and/or Jen could be Antonia -- good enough to compete, but not great enough to win. And finally -- as Kelly alluded -- Robin could be, COULD BE, Lisa, the doo-rag queen of the damned. Be afraid.

In the end, I guess I'm most concerned about the top two because AIN'T NO WAY Survivor Robin poses a threat. With Jen so shaken, Bryan fading into the background more and more (could Mike continue to be a bigger assclown to him? -- "They're full of grease, anyways" -- know when to let up, man!), and Eli never really a serious contender, it's the Kevin and Michael show. Last night's pouty Elimination Challenge reaction from Michael set the stage ala Stephanie and Blaiser, except Richard was a good dude who couldn't rein his creativity in during the finale. It seems that more and more, Michael just wants to be rewarded for always having the boldest idea.

I liked the veggie swerve at Craftsteak, but ultimately, I thought all the dishes looked like appetizers. Eli's dinky eggplant appeared about as filling as eating two Tic-Tacs. Also, I had higher hopes for the Quickfire, partly because I thought some real creativity could have been shown by big-time TV buffs. Honestly, I had a hard time figuring out what each dish had to do with their respective shows, and I was really bummed that Bryan didn't have enough in his sorely lacking funny bone to deliver M*A*S*H potatoes instead of MASHED potatoes. C'mon, man! Also, Misogynist Mike should have just served up a big plate of nothing to capture the true essence of "Seinfeld." And really, WHAT was the DEAL with those LEEKS?

Finally, while I would love to drool over sweet, sweet Natalie -- How about that double entendre-laden dinner conversation? Yowza! -- I want to give a shout-out to guest judge Paul Bartolotta. He and his brother are Milwaukee-born and bred, and Ristorante Bartolotta in Wauwatosa is ridiculously good. Three words: braised duck ragu.

How do you like that, you lower life form vegetarians?

UPDATE: Since appearing on the show, apparently Ms. Portman has become a vegan, according to a column she wrote for The Huffington Post. Those chefs should be happy. Vegans make us look normal.

-- Kelly McBride,; Malavika Jagannathan,; Thomas Rozwadowski,

P.S. The booted Mikey I. will be hosting an online chat at 12:15 p.m. today. Check out the details here.

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I also want to point out something from last night that I just thought of again -- but did anyone find it strange that they showed Gail's surprised reaction to Jen and Mike Isabella hugging? Was there an ass grab there? Did the duration of the hug move past "just friends" territory? That really, really struck me as strange. I mean, I know some members of that crew are close, but Gail had an actual reaction to the emotion attached to that goodbye hug. Hmmmm ...

-- Tom

By Blogger Press-Gazette blogger, At October 29, 2009 at 2:31 PM  

Tom, now that you mention it, I did think it was odd. Wonder if we'll find out anything next week.

I have to comment about Jen's sauce making ability. It seems that it is her strong suit and she burned her sauce in the quickfire and didn't anything in the elimination challenge. I hope she can pull herself together and make it to the finale. I really like her and am also beginning to detest mean brother Volt.


By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 29, 2009 at 5:01 PM  

Don't forget Mr. B's, Lake Park Bistro, Bacchus, and Pizzeria Piccolo - all excellent restaurants in the Bartolotta Family Restaurant Group.

Malavika and Kelly - next time you're in the Milwaukee area you MUST eat at Cafe Manna (41 South, Capital Drive west past Mr. B's). Their veggie/vegan friendly dishes are mind blowing. Seriously.

By Blogger Ms. Quarter, At October 30, 2009 at 5:28 PM  

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