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There's a new 'Top Chef'

March 30, 2011 | 10:19 pm

It was the showdown in the Bahamas, pitting two polar opposites: Mike Isabella, the brash, swaggering bull of a guy with the passion for big flavor, and Richard Blais, the neurotic perfectionist with the spiky hair who every week seemed to pull a new trick out of his knife bag. With $200,000 plus extras at stake, each was given five hours to prepare "the restaurant of their dreams."

The season finale of Bravo's "Top Chef All-Stars" Wednesday night was vintage material.

There were the two competitors, each charismatic in his own way. There was the twist (it's "Top Chef"; of course there was a twist): Each chef had to choose a team of three helpers from the season's also-rans, but had to do it by blind-tasting a series of dishes.

There were the star judges: Lidia Bastianich, Alfred Portale, Hubert Keller, Art Smith … oh, and somebody named Curtis Stone, an Australian Rod Stewart look-alike who had appeared on "The Apprentice" and, not coincidentally, will be hosting "Top Chef Masters" this season.

And there was the emotional quotient, which the producers seemed to ratchet tighter at every turn.

By the way, there was also what appeared to be some really spectacular food. It was like watching a great tennis match, each chef volleying fabulous dishes back and forth. Blais opened with an uncredited homage to his mentor, Thomas Keller, with his version of Oysters and Pearls –- this time a raw oyster served with frozen creme fraiche "pearls." Then came hamachi with veal sweetbreads, garlic mayonnaise and pickled celery.

Isabella countered with a beet salad with mozzarella and chocolate vinaigrette, followed by steamed halibut with kumquat marmalade, cauliflower puree and pancetta crumbs.

Then back to Blais: black cod with bone marrow, beets, Brussels sprouts and kumquats, followed by beef short ribs with mushrooms, red cabbage marmalade, celery root-horseradish puree. Isabella: braised pork shoulder with pepperoni sauce, roasted cabbage and turnips and a dessert of rosemary caramel custard with pine nuts, citrus, celery and apple.

Blais' dessert alone offered almost enough twists for its own show. Originally he was going to do an ice cream flavored with Cap’n Crunch cereal (hey, he did call his restaurant Tongue & Cheek), but switched at the last minute to foie gras ice cream. No, it didn't sound good to me, either. And after the first seating, when he realized the ice cream was too crumbly, he instituted a last-minute fix, thinning the base with more milk and re-freezing it.

There was applause aplenty. The consensus of the judges seemed to be that this was the best head-to-head pair of meals ever in a "Top Chef" finale. Judge Gail Simmons might have summed it up best by saying, "Mike's was the restaurant you'd want to eat at during the week, but Richard's was the restaurant you'd want to eat at on the weekend."

There was the inevitable "why do you deserve to win?" question, with both competitors near tears. But wait, there was more: The producers brought out the competitors' family members, who had flown in.

But in the end, as they constantly reminded us, there could be only one "Top Chef."

And when they called his name, I swear Blais' hair stood up even straighter.

-- Russ Parsons

Photo: Mike Isabella and Richard Blais. Credit: Bravo