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Was the 'Top Chef' finale really that close? We taste-test the dishes and see.

March 31, 2011 |  1:30 pm

Dish1 Dish2 During the finale of "Top Chef" on Thursday, the judges insisted that the showdown between Michael Isabella and Richard Blais was nail-bitingly close. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a toss-up," said Tom Colicchio during the judge's table discussion. Later, Padma suggested that both chefs were worthy of the title, and Gail appeared so pained in her decision-making process, it was like "Sophie's Choice." You could almost hear her thinking: Do I go with my heart, or do I go with... pepperoni sauce?

To hear the judges tell it, this was the strongest, tastiest, bloodiest, steamed-fishiest standoff in "Top Chef" history. But was it really? Well, we tasted some of Isabella's and Blais' dishes on Thursday night, when Bravo invited press and fans to an event space in New York for a viewing of the "Top Chef" finale and a preview of its upcoming shows. (There was also a karaoke booth where "The Real Housewives of New York" fans could sing "Tardy for the Party," though that's another story.) And let us tell you, the competition between the two "chef-testants" wasn't even close.

One of the most unfair things about "Top Chef" is that viewers can't taste the dishes (hasn't Taste-o-vision been invented yet?), so we were only too happy to sample four of the final courses. From Blais, there was the raw hamachi with sweetbreads, and the black cod with pork belly, beets and mustard caviar. From Isabella, there was the halibut with cauliflower, pancetta and kumquats, and the pork shoulder with pepperoni, cabbage and turnips.

Blais' raw hamachi was so astoundingly delicious and clean-tasting, it was like a magical fish that's spent its whole life swimming upstream into a Brita water filter. And those rich sweetbreads, like tiny, perfect, meat-flavored french toasts, inspired one very delighted woman at our table to tell her friend, "You have to try this — just don't think about what they're made of." (Those poor, fuzzy, wide-eyed, unfairly tasty little calves and lambs!) By the time everyone got to the black cod and pork belly, the sounds of utensils scraping and re-scraping every last molecule of mustard off the plate were audible. When a waiter tried to clear the plates from the table next to us, we saw a woman grab her own already-spotless dish back from him, just in case she'd missed something.

On the other hand, remember Isabella's halibut, the one Colicchio called the best fish he'd had on the show to date? It was the worst dish by far, flavorless and cold, with a slightly sweaty texture, and the overly sweet kumquats lent it an aftertaste of jelly doughnut — which wouldn't have been so bad if it hadn't been paired with fish. And while Gail was right that the pork shoulder with pepperoni sauce was innovative — it was as if someone had nursed a tender baby pig from a bottle of liquid pizza —the turnips and cabbage were soggy on the plate. We saw many barely nibbled portions of both dishes carted away from the table.

Of course, it's possible that the folly was one of execution, not conception: The dishes were prepared by a team of chefs that didn't include the all-stars. But we've already seen some backtracking from the judges: On his blog, Colicchio wrote, "I commented about Michael's that it was the best fish I'd had on the show to date… though that was before I tasted Richard's." Plus, you don't have to take our word for it. Before he was crowned "Top Chef," (spoiler alert!) Blais told Isabella that he'd give him some of the money to start a restaurant. If he holds true to his promise, you might get to taste-test a bit yourself sometime soon. Anyone for white fish with jelly-doughnut sauce?


"Top Chef" finale recap

Full Show Tracker coverage of "Top Chef"

— Melissa Maerz

Top photo: Blais' hamachi, left, and Isabella's halibut. Bottom photo: Blais' black cod and pork belly, left, and Isabella's pork shoulder. Photo credit: Melissa Maerz / Los Angeles Times.