By Ken Tucker
Updated July 09, 2009 at 03:40 PM EDT

Bravo to Neil Patrick Harris for proving himself the master of yet another TV genre: the television cooking show. As the special guest hosting a dinner at Los Angeles’ Magic Castle, Harris was more tartly critical than many other celebs have been on the Top Chef shows. Good for him: who needs a wishy-washy diner on a show like this?

The four competing chefs were given their challenge via a card trick performed by magician Max Maven, and you won’t catch me making fun of his pulled-tight ponytail and hocus-pocus airiness: I’m a magic fan, and admire Maven’s skills. (As cornball as it looked, I’d love to get invited into that invitation-only Magic Castle, wouldn’t you?)

Each chef’s playing card revealed his or her theme for the main-competition dish: Surprise, Mystery, Spectacle, and Illusion. This was a tad unimaginative on the part of the producers. I mean, when it comes to cooking, is there really much difference between making something that’s a surprise or an illusion?

Anyway, Harris was as articulate a judge as any of the professional ones surrounding him, pronouncing, for example, chef John Besh’s icky-sounding horseradish and creme fraiche sorbet “executed as [well as] he had probably imagined.”

I have to say that the winner [spoiler alert!] made a dish that looked — well, chef Anita Lo covered up most of her “illusion” with another plate, so it didn’t look like much to me, but Harris and the judges were impressed with her braised daikon with kombu caviar and steak tartare. Lo described it as “a seascape that if you listen really carefully will crackle,” because she’d coated it with something like Rice Krispies. Personally, I think someone in charge of sound on Top Chef Masters should have put a microphone right on that plate, and if it didn’t make a crackling sound, I’d have docked her a few points.

But once again, Top Chef Masters worked its overall charm: the competition brings out the best, not the worst, behavior in the competitors, making this one of the most civilized and pleasant of all summer reality-competition shows.

What did you think of Harris and the food magic?