The annual Restaurant Wars episode provides the usual smoke, fire, and flameouts, with Dale's team making some seriously unappetizing choices

By Vanessa Juarez
Updated May 22, 2008 at 12:08 PM EDT

Top Chef

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People always say they don’t want history to repeat itself, especially in the case of war. But the recurring ”Restaurant Wars” episodes ofTop Chef are too good to resist, if only because most of the instant restaurants the cheftestants create bomb like a meatball in soup.

(First, I’d like to give a shout-out to my fabulous colleague Adam, who wittily covered for me last week while I was at the R. Kelly trial in Chicago. And I’d like to send my apologies to the Vanessa haters our there because I’m (delighted to be) back for the rest of the season.)

After last night’s ep, I’m bummed that I didn’t have a chance to get my egg on at Lou Mitchell’s while I was in Chitown — and even more disappointed that Tom didn’t come nudge me out of my hotel-room bed so we could partake in a little morning sunshine together. As for the former, I love the aura of a diner run by Greeks. It says family. And although co-owner Helena, with her eyeliner, dark lipstick, hoop earrings, and eyebrow raising, reminded me of some of my favorite New York haunts, watching Richard, Stephanie, Antonia, Dale, Lisa, and Spike flip eggs, potatoes, bacon, and sausage for the quickfire challenge still left a lot to be desired. It was kind of a nonevent, which Antonia won in case you missed it. Watching Olympia Dukakis flip that egg in the toast in Moonstruck is more fun than this.

Fortunately, the elimination challenge was a good one. The space they had to work with for the restaurant war was the best I’ve seen: raw and rustic, with wood floors and brick walls. There was also track lighting, which I thought meant that there would finally be a restaurant war in which the spaces didn’t look like a Kmart. But by the time the teams had finished decorating the space, they had somehow eliminated all the original ambience. The more notable change was Tom’s announcement that he had a charity event to attend and would be missing the elimination challenge. The cheftestants must have been like, Oh, no, Dad’s not going to be there to validate my touchdown. But wait, badass Anthony Bourdain is taking over. Sold. Bourdain said he was bringing his ”warmer, sunnier disposition to this challenge.” Right.

Antonia’s quickfire win gave her the advantage of picking her partners out of the quintet. This was as predictable as a football draft: She went for Richard and Stephanie. They dubbed their gastropub concept Warehouse Kitchen. Meanwhile, Lisa, Dale, and Spike, who have not played well together, instantly chose to go Asian and settled on the name Mai Buddha — the only two times they were able to reach a consensus for the entire challenge.

Spike was in charge of Mai Buddha’s front of the house, and he was inspired to decorate it with — guess what? — Buddhas, as well as purple napkins that Bourdain said looked like they came from ”the back of Prince’s van.” The Buddhas didn’t inspire any culinary enlightenment, nor did they help Spike realize that he’s the worst kind of jerk: the type that doesn’t think he’s a jerk. The tomato-chicken-lettuce thing in the last episode was so childish, and his unwillingness to participate in this ep as if he were taking some kind of high road was equally obnoxious. In the kitchen, Lisa and Dale were a hot stinky mess. Lisa’s laksawas too smoky, and her sticky rice was mush. Dale made an avocado mousse that looked more like some nasty veggie baby food, and he decided that butterscotch would go well with scallops.

Warehouse Kitchen was better thought-out in both interior and gastronomical design. Stephanie seemed to be juggling quite a few things: getting started on the homemade pasta that Antonia was having a ”heart palpitation” over, making a gorgonzola cheesecake, and running and decorating the front of the house. Both teams eventually got some help from former season 4 Top Chefers. Jen went to Mai Buddha, and Nikki to Warehouse Kitchen; the latter was a bit of a lifesaver by calling out those gritty clams before they went out.

NEXT: Now taking bets

Bourdain checked in with the teams, à la Tom, but he’s so much more of a Chatty Cathy, providing some comic relief now that Andrew the maniac is gone. ”The difference between the two teams’ comportment is very striking,” Bourdain said. ”Antonia, Richard, and Stephanie’s team are deliberately creating modest expectations. It makes it a hell of a lot easier to exceed those expectations. But nobody is reaching too far or taking any big chances with this menu. Over at Mai Buddha, things could go really, really well here or really badly. They say they’re all very comfortable with Asian food. You know, Asia’s big. How good can you be at all of those things? I hear the word laksa, I have very high expectations. But if Dale, Lisa, and Spike pull this menu off, it would be an inspiring accomplishment. We have two very different teams tonight, and they’re offering us two very different dining concepts. This should be a really interesting meal.” Bourdain should have taken bets.

José Andrés, who has a PBS show called Made in Spain, was the guest judge this time around. He, Bourdain, Padma, and Ted Allen first tried out Warehouse Kitchen, where they cumulatively had the following to say: ”This is delicious.” ”This is a nice presentation.” ”I really love this dish.” ”How much do you love that they leave the skin on the trout?” ”It’s like, my God.” ”They’re not joking around on Top Chef.” If you were on the other team, how would you like to follow that? Not so much, right? Though you might have a leg up on dessert as long as you don’t have any brown smears on your plate, which reminded Ted of ”New York City sidewalks.”

As food started to go out on the Mai Buddha side, Lisa noted that ”it’s probably the first time I made a huge mistake in this competition, and I’m going to suffer for it big time.” I just want to utter four words: magenta, drunken Polish sausage. But maybe this was worse. Dale and Lisa cannot coexist in the same kitchen. There was constant yelling about who could take what criticism and who’s negative. And it obviously affected their food, according to the judges and the customers: ”It was just too damn smoky.” ”Compared to this atrocity, it wasn’t bad.” ”I don’t know exactly what we’re eating here.” ”It’s baby vomit with wood chips.” ”It was like putting my face in a campfire.”

(Gosh, before I get to the judges’ table, I have to say this: Richard, for goodness’ sake, we thought your hairdo on its own was bad, but take off the headband!)

Team Warehouse Kitchen received plenty of kudos, with Stephanie ultimately winning the challenge and a trip for two to Spain. Team Mai Buddha was lambasted for their lack of teamwork and really bad ideas for food. ”You’re the executive chef, and you don’t even know what a laksa is?” Bourdain said to Dale. Regarding that dubious seafood dish, he said, ”Hearing the words ‘butterscotch’ and ‘scallops’ together in the first place was very worrying to me; it looked like a melted candy bar.” Dale was forced to pack his knives, which wasn’t a total surprise this time but would have been a shocker in recent episodes. The entire episode hinged on that coin toss of executive chef. If Lisa had won that, I think she would have been saying goodbye, not Dale.

What do you think? Should Dale have gone? Were you surprised that he was so teary-eyed and felt so disappointed in himself? Would things have been different if he had made friends instead of alienating himself from the pack? Who are your ideal four to make it to the finale? As for next week, what do you suppose that red-rover business at the judges’ table is about?

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Top Chef

Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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