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War Comes To Bethesda

This week on ‘Top Chef D.C.’

Marc Tracy
August 12, 2010

There’s an old line about poker: If you sit down at the table, and within five minutes you can’t figure out who the patsy is, it’s you. This is brought to mind as Amanda Baumgarten wakes up to a new episode and says, “The best of the best are definitely in the competition. I’m starting to believe I can do it. I’m still here.” Q.E.D.? Or is Amanda the patsy?

The Quickfire Challenge is a cooking relay race: Two teams of four; each chef gets ten minutes to cook; other chefs must wear blindfolds until it is their turn. You have to figure out what the prior chef was going for. There is no more immunity on the table, but the winning team does get to split $10,000. (Which recalls Lorne Michaels’s famous offer to The Beatles: “If you want to give less to Ringo, that’s up to you—I’d rather not get involved.” Alex Reznik being the equivalent of Ringo, or maybe, at this point, of Pete Best.)

Ooh, money! Amanda is excited. “I’m broker than broke right now,” she explains. Crack alcohol clothes are expensive.

There are two captains who alternate in choosing their teams: Just like on the kickball field! And the last two picked are the two Jews: Just like on the kickball field!

“I could care less getting picked first or last,” says Alex. “Doesn’t really make a difference to me.” Good point Alex: It only makes a difference to your teammates.

Obviously, Alex and Amanda are placed in their teams’ number-two spots, which is where you put your slowest runners during relay races. Amanda seems in control. Alex? “I see some kind of broth, I see the fish, okay, I season it with just a touch of salt.” Tiffany, who has just finished her segment, wants to know why he is dealing with the fish. “We have 30 minutes, leave the fish alone!” She also worries that Ed won’t see the salt and will therefore oversalt the fish, while she and Alex stand there, unable to shout, ‘Stop!’ Fortunately, Ed doesn’t salt the fish. Unfortunately, Angelo, cooking in the anchor position, does. He then realizes his mistake: “The fish is already salted,” he says, “which absolutely makes no sense to me.” That’s because you’re not thinking Alex-style! He adds cilantro as balance. You can imagine how well that works out.

And the guest judge is … whoa! Nancy Pelosi! Nice get, Top Chef producers! “I’ve been a foodie for a long time,” she says. Yup, before they even called it foodie!

The Blue Team—Amanda’s team—made a shrimp dish. “Coming from San Francisco,” Pelosi says, blah blah blah, trying desperately to make her constituents forget that she actually comes from a venerable Maryland political family. The Red Team’s red snapper is—surprise!—too salty. “Freakin’ Alex!” says Tiffany. So Team Blue wins—which we should have guessed, given that the judge was the Representative from the People’s Republic of San Francisco.

“It’s my first win of the competition,” Amanda boasts, neglecting to point out that she had a 50 percent chance of winning. “I’ve got $2500. I’ve got the taste of it, I just want more.” Yes, you’d never peg this one for a recovering addict.

By now, Top Chef enthusiasts, seeing the two teams, have figured out what the Elimination Challenge is: Restaurant Wars! In this seasonal favorite (hint: There is always a surprise) each team creates its own restaurant—name, décor, concept, and menu. Tiffany is worried about Alex, because “you’re only as strong as your weakest link.” And this year, Restaurant Wars will be held at the Redwood Restaurant at Bethesda Row. Guest judge? Frank Bruni! New York Times, in the house.

So then they … wait, what? Bethesda?

Okay, skip the next paragraph if you want, but the fact is the restaurant is a ten-minute walk from where I grew up, so I’m going to have my say. Bethesda, which is the smartest city in the country and the prototype of Blue America, used to be a sleepy commuter town back in the postwar period. Strictly bland. (True story: The deed on my house says that no “Negros” or “Hebrews” are allowed to own it. Oops.) By the early ‘90s, it was something of a joke how many restaurants Bethesda had, but it was still fairly quiet. (Well, except for Lockheed Martin, which is based in North Bethesda, but nevermind.) Then: The Barnes & Noble happened. This Barnes & Noble opened on Bethesda Avenue sometime in the early ‘90s, and all of a sudden this eastern half of downtown Bethesda—which had previously been neglected in favor of the more restaurant-heavy western half—blew up. Soon came the ethnic restaurants. Then the dog-biscuit bakery (swear to God). Then the Landmark indie movie theatre; the prestigious tapas place; the Apple Store (Bethesda had two Apple Stores before New York City did); and, a couple of years ago, Bethesda Lane, this block-long mixed-use promenade with a Le Pain Quotidien and art galleries below condos (one of which, let’s face it, will probably be inhabited by my parents by the time the decade is out), and, finally, this restaurant, Redwood. In case you’re wondering, the Equinox gym around the corner opens any day now.

Okay, back to Restaurant Wars. Alex is quickly designated his team’s front-of-the-house person, i.e., a minimum of cooking. No kidding. On the other team, Amanda is doing the strip steak; Kelly is front-of-the-house. It’s weird because it’s a small kitchen, and all the teams are meshed together. Which is where the Alex Advantage comes in: He can steal the other team’s stuff for you!

But seriously, folks, Alex is having trouble doing even the small cooking tasks asked of him. “I see Alex messing up,” trying to butcher the steak, reports Angelo. “He’s fucking destroying it.” Adds Tiffany, “The striped bass Alex cut for me is not correct. There are scales and bones everywhere.” Scales and bones? This is a fish, Alex, not a cocaine-themed rap song!

Meanwhile, Amanda is having trouble with the wood-burning grill. “Every grill has its own personality,” she says. Not really—that’s just something you say, to be polite, when it’s not a very physically attractive grill.

“One of the difficulties of Restaurant Wars is front-of-the-house,” Alex philosophizes. Yes that’s equally as prestigious as the cooking. So Alex gives the staff his “marching orders,” which seem to involve him treating them like subhuman idiots. Here he is demonstrating elbow grease, which is at least a relief from the type of grease one normally associates with Alex.

“We gotta do it quick,” Alex says, clapping his hands. “Mucho rápida.” Be consistent in your gender, fool! Oh, and by the way, your waiters probably speak English!

“I’m a very nice boss,” Alex concludes. “All my employees will tell you they love me. And if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.” Being dislikable is definitely something worth bragging about. “Alex is very rude with the servers’ team,” adds Kenny, “and it’s bringing some bad negative energy.” They are setting us up for Alex’s fall. But every season, Restaurant Wars surprise.

(By the way, someone pointed out to me recently that Alex always carries a spoon in his arm-pocket. I suggest that whenever you see Alex’s spoon, you shout, “Spoon!” and throw plastic spoons at your television.)

The people walking in to the restaurant are all dressed up, which is how you know it isn’t authentic Bethesda; we tend to rock Tevas.

Okay Frank Bruni is in Bethesda, this is cool. “Frank Bruni is a pretty tough restaurant reviewer,” says Alex. “It’s intimidating, especially me being out front, not wearing my chef whites.” Believe me, Alex: In front of Bruni, the last thing that you, of all people, want to be is a chef.

Alex’s team is called EVOO, because that stands for extra virgin olive oil, and they are Mediterranean-inspired. (It also means they are Rachel Ray-inspired, which means they are condemned, not so much to lose as to die very painful deaths at the hands of all decent people.) They start with a confit of tomato soup, squash and olive crouton and a crudo of black bass and yellowtail snapper with meyer lemon-caper relish, with summer salad right on top.

“Why summer salad?” Tom asks.

“Because that sounds better than saying microgreens,” Alex responds. However charming you think you are, Alex, subtract by 30. Then divide by 1000.

Next up—after a delay; they are making the judges wait—is striped bass, stewed spinach, chorizo and clams. As someone who never eats pork, even I know that those are four ingredients that are always put together. Then, slow-baked turbot, eggplant caviar and black olive jus. Ed’s turbot gets raves, and Tiffany’s striped bass is liked, too.

Next, the dish that Alex conceived. He presents it with a special flourish: “Braised … no, broiled … lamb chop … no, pork chop.” Alex literally cannot explain his own dish.

Guess which: Pork or lamb? It’s lamb!

And guess which: Braised or broiled? It’s pan-seared! With English pea purée (!!!!!!!!!!!), smoked bacon, and parmesan foam. There is also seared rib eye with crushed walnut, potatoes, and fig reduction, because, oh yes, Mediterranean.

“The service has been hit-or-miss,” Bruni summarizes. “Let’s also not forget that he told us we were having pork when we were having lamb.” You see, Alex always has trayf on the brain.

Back to Amanda, still having trouble cooking grass-fed beef, which she’s never done before. “It’s like a wild animal,” she says. You killed it first, right? You remembered that step?

Next up: The other restaurant, Twenty One 21, serving progressive American cuisine under an awful, awful name. Kelly welcomes the judges, which Alex failed to do.

First up is chilled sweet corn soup with Maryland blue crab salad and beet salad with warm chorizo-citrus vinaigrette (good thing Michelle Obama isn’t judging!).

Next: Amanda’s oakwood grilled strip steak with roasted sunchoke and maitake mushrooms, and also pan-roasted halibut, fennel marmalade, and tomato-fennel emulsion.

The steak is too thin. There are other problems. Wait—is EVOO going to win after all? I’m telling you, Restaurant Wars always has surprises!

“Kevin should paint,” Bruni says, looking at his halibut. “Excellent, thank you,” Kevin says when told this. Mensch.

For desert: Crispy aged goat cheese and strawberry-rhubarb relish, with arugula (cause we are in Bethesda!). The goat cheese goes over almost astonishingly poorly, which is weird, because Kenny made it, and along with Kevin and Angelo he is pretty clearly among this season’s top three chefs. There is also dark chocolate ganache tart and blackberry-chocolate ice cream.

Time for Judges’ Table. Twenty One 21 collectively professes that it will be shocked—Kevin’s “mind blown”—if it is the loser. Kevin, prepare for your mind to be … blown!!! (I told you Restaurant Wars always has surprises.) EVOO has won. Alex is safe. To repeat: Alex will be on the next episode!

The overall winner is Alex! Just kidding, it’s Ed. Awesome fish, dude.

Now it is Twenty One 21’s turn. They have finished in second 2nd, which is to say, they lost.

Amanda is told her steak was overcooked. She is shocked. See?

More chastisement from the judges follows, until … whoa! They are totally selling out the other team! They are saying Alex did not conceive the lamb dish and did not cook at all and everyone was supposed to cook, them’s the rules, and that Alex should go home because he sucks! “I’ll say it,” Kevin says. “I’ll say it to him, I’ll say it to anyone: Alex needs to go home. Bottom line.”

I don’t think this has quite happened before! Look, Tom has never seen this before.

Back in the pantry. Kevin is screaming! Kenny is screaming! They are all screaming! Alex tries to explain what he did, but Angelo, canny motherfucker, cuts him off: “There’s no need to justify anything,” he calmly says. And he’s right: The judges are having none of it; a member of Twenty One 21 is going home. Who is it going to be?

It’s Kenny! Whoa!!! “The reality is,” Kenny says, “Alex didn’t prepare his food at all.” This is sad. And I cannot believe both of our Jewish cheftestants, mediocre as they are, are in the final seven. This is ridiculous. Then again, are you really going to kick a Jew off … in Bethesda?

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.