Thursday, February 12, 2015

Top Chef Finale (Episode 15) - Mano a Mano

This was a terrific finale, and again, it was like that coin being tossed in the air, because I realized as it went on that I really, really wanted Mei to win even though I really, really (how's that for being articulate?) like Gregory too and admire his talent. I loved that they gave them two sous chefs each, I loved that it happened to end up boys against girls, and I loved that they gave them five hours to cook. And I thought neither chef played it safe.

Mae served her meal first at Cent'Anni. Her first course was octopus with a fish sauce vinaigrette, avocado-coconut puree, and herbs. Gail thought it was a stunningly beautiful plate, and the judges thought the flavors were big and bold; the only problem was that they found the octopus itself a little tough and dry.

The second course was a congee (essentially a peasant rice porridge) with carnitas, scallion puree, homemade hot sauce, peanuts, and an egg yolk. This looked pretty amazing, and Tom said it was delicious with great balance. I also loved that it took a classic Asian dish and mixed in some flavors of Mexico.

Mei's third course was duck with braised lettuce, kimchi jicama, and huitlacocche. Gail felt that everything went well together, but Hugh said he wasn't sold on the way the fat was rendered.

Finally, the fourth course was dessert. I couldn't believe when Tom said to the other judges, prior to the course being served, that if he was a chef that didn't normally do sweet desserts, he wouldn't do one now; he would do savory. I was surprised to hear him say that, but I suspect he was worried that a terrific meal might be ended with a medicore dessert, like a chocolate lava cake or something. Well, the dish was one of the two stars of the evening. It was strawberry lime curd with toasted yogurt, milk crumble with bee pollen, and yogurt lime ice. Disaster threatened when Mei and her sous chefs, Melissa and Rebecca, realized that things were too sweet, but Mei was able to add more of the tart lime ice to balance it out. Tom admitted at the table that he'd been wrong, and it was the best dessert he'd ever had on Top Chef. Later, at Judges' Table, he said it was one of the best desserts he'd had in his life, and you could tell that Mei was blown away by that. Tom is generally fair but not easy to please -- did you notice the other judges' faces as they waited to find out what Tom thought of the dessert?

The judges then traveled to a restaurant called "The Restaurant" (!) for Gregory's meal. Assisted by Doug and George, Gregory also served octopus for his first course. Specifically, his dish was grilled octopus with prickly pear, xoconostle, passion fruit, and cashew milk. Padma called it sublime, while Tom said it was a "powerhouse" dish, and it was clear they preferred it to Mei's octopus.

Gregory's second course was a shrimp broth with green chorizo, pickled nopales, and crispy shrimp heads. One of the guest judges thought it ate like a Mexican gumbo, and they seemed to like it, but the shrimp heads were a little too coarse. They often like some texture like that, but apparently this felt more like having shells in the broth, which they found slightly unpleasant.

The third course was a striped bass with roasted carrots, radish, pineapple, and tomatillo. Gregory realized that he'd forgotten to add sugar and vinegar to the carrot sauce at the right time, and tried to remedy it by adding sugar at the last minute. Then it was too sweet, so he added salt. But that wasn't enough to compensate, and Tom said that the dish was sweeter than Mei's dessert. He also felt that the fish was not the center of the dish as it should have been.

And finally, another stunning last course: red mole with short ribs and agave sweet potato. Padma kept remarking on the tenderness of the short ribs, and Hugh called the dish spectacular. They definitely all felt it was Gregory's best dish.

By this time, I thought it was fairly straightforward that Gregory took the first course, and Mei the second and the third. So, since both fourth courses were so spectacular, I thought that Mei had the edge. I feel like the judges wanted us to feel more suspense, though, because even though they had earlier remarked on the sweetness of Gregory's third course, and Tom said he preferred Mei's duck to Gregory's fish, which a guest judge noted "felt like a dish from a different chef," they still said that maybe it all came down to the final course, implying that the third course had also been a tie.

In the end, though, they did give it to Mei, which pleased me to no end. Gregory was a strong competitor, and he knows his flavors, but I think the reason I was rooting for Mei so strongly at this point is partly because I thought she would be devastated far more than Gregory by not winning. That's not really a reason to root for someone, but I do also feel like Mei has a shade more technique and refinement than Gregory does.

This was a good season overall.

I don't even know if they did a fan favorite this season, but I would have a tough time picking. It would be between Melissa, Doug, and (!) George -- there's something likeable about him.

And the dish I most wanted to taste: that dessert! I see the Top Chef website has posted the recipe, but I know that it isn't something I could attempt in my wildest dreams. It's funny, I've pretty much lost my sweet tooth as I've grown older; I like one bite of dessert and then I'm done, so I never order it. But that looked amazing. The second dish I would most like to taste is Gregory's mole with short ribs.

Until next season!

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