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'Top Chef Masters': Oh oh it's magic, you know

July 9, 2009 |  7:26 am

Oseland If you never take the time to read the "Top Chef" post-game blogs, do. They're often enlightening in ways that a straightforward viewer recap can't be -- and, in James Oseland's case, too amusing.

This week, Oseland, the editor of serious foodie read Saveur magazine, dissected just the elimination challenge, which at the end of the night didn't seem to have a clear-cut winner, at least not one so apparent to this regular "Top Chef" watcher. (Oseland, however, did take a crack at John Besh's quickfire "snarling mess of a baked egg dish." What was he doing for those 30 minutes that he only managed to serve a single, unadorned egg? Half a star is a new "Top Chef Masters" low that I'm guessing won't soon be matched.)

The evening's bigger task? Tend to the carnivorous needs of Neil Patrick Harris, his guests and the magicians of Hollywood's Magic Castle. Each of the contestants -- Besh, Mark Peel, Anita Lo and Doug Rodriguez -- were to prepare a single entree inspired by one of four magical words: mystery, surprise, spectacle and illusion.

There were no out-right disasters (on the order of Ludo's time-consuming quesadilla) to pass snap judgments on, so Oseland provided a more discerning eye. 

About Peel, of L.A.'s famed Campanile, who prepared a snapper en papillote that seemed to bowl everyone over, Oseland explains his surprisingly low score:

I think it was Mark Peel who embraced most clearly the connotations of his assigned word — mystery [...] It looked great, like a little present we all couldn’t wait to tear open. But it sat around, and it suffered for that: it lost the gorgeous immediacy and whoosh of steam it would have had had it been served and sliced open right away. (The leeks and the fish, especially, seemed overcooked; hence the lukewarm score from yours truly.)

Ah, reality-TV editing. To hear Gael Greene tell it, it was darn-near perfect. Little did viewers know that Peel had guessed right: As he waited that extra minute to serve the fish, it overcooked in its wrapping. That didn't seem to bother Greene or guest judge Gail Simmons -- but Oseland discerned that it was not as perfect as producers would have led us to believe. Tricky.

Anita_lo Besh's Salmon Three Ways certainly appeared to be the prettiest of the four chefs' offerings, but Oseland said he suffered from his poor sorbet execution. So cold "it was almost painful to eat," he wrote. Harris was equally unimpressed. (Wasn't he a harsh critic? I thought so.)

But pity Rodriguez, whom Oseland predicted will henceforth be known as Doug “Flaming Coconut” Rodriguez. I'd wondered what the effects of rubbing Sterno stuff on the coconuts might have had on the taste of his food, and now my suspicions have been confirmed:

From the moment he left the kitchen, he was trailed by the unsubtle petroleum smell of Sterno, which clung to the food as well. There was no overcoming it. (It was instructive to hear that he’d been hoping to use 151 proof rum to ignite his coconuts. I’m kind of relieved that didn’t happen. If he’d gotten his hands on it, some eyebrows might have been singed.)

And then there's Anita Lo, who came out guns blazing in the quickfire challenge, obliterating her competition with her Asian soft-scrambled eggs. Oseland described her winning elimination challenge dish, which I admit I had trouble conjuring up in my mind, in a way that made me want my own helping. Even if he did initially compare it to "Texas Chainsaw Massacre":

When Anita Lo presented her dish, crafted around the word illusion, it did indeed look like the scallop it wasn’t. The culinary chicanery wasn’t instantly appealing, though. Raw beef inside of poached daikon? My reaction upon slicing in was “Hello, Texas Chainsaw Massacre!” It was pretty gory in there. Then, within seconds, I was overtaken by a glorious aroma wafting up from the plate: hints of sesame oil and kochujang, that delicious Korean soy-and-chili condiment, from the beef, and the muted fragrance of seaweed and bonito from the dashi-like broth. This was serious food, and eating it was purely satisfying because it engaged all the senses. The daikon was perfectly poached and tender, and the lush tartare was one of the best I’ve ever eaten. I’m not generally a fan of fusion cooking — cooks are too often careless, wantonly throwing “exotic” ingredients around — but Anita knew every element of that dish and what to do with it. The whole package completely seduced me.

What do you all think so far? The finalists are a formidable bunch: Hubert Keller, Suzanne Tracht, Rick Bayless and Anita Lo. Two more to go, but anyone placing any early bets on who'll take the crown? Sound off below.

-- Denise Martin