With frequent chef perambulations, restaurant closings, and the growing public discontent with restaurant rule-making, it’s no wonder that Ilan beat out Marcel on last night's finale of Bravo’s Top Chef. And it’s not just here in our little corner of Paradise. Did anyone else out there read and re-read Frank Bruni’s cover story on last week’s NYT Wednesday dining section??? Kissing napkin rings is a clever header, but his rapier-sharp wit aside, Bruni’s piece was brilliant. If you haven’t read it, you should do so. It’s hysterical . . . and very accurate. From NYC to LA, the scent of blood is in the water as angry restaurant-goers seem tired of pretense, showy food, rituals, rules, and any other obstacles that lie in the path of an easy and enjoyable eating experience, which is why the most popular new restaurants shun those negative markers with a passion bordering on obsessive compulsivity.
So with restaurants like Town Talk and 112 Eatery garnering all the love these days—and local all-stars like Alex Roberts talking publicly about opening uber-casual eateries—does it make you wonder to what degree the pendulum is swinging toward easy and away from elegant? Five years ago, the mood was different . . . it goes in cycles. I asked Roberts yesterday why he thought that his eatery was still going strong, in light of the fact that most of his peers whose restaurants are usually thought of as being in the same category have closed up shop? Alma is priced right, offers food that is recognizable, eschews tablecloths, and—despite the tasting menus—is a casual enough neighborhood eatery that people still eat at the bar, plunk down at a banquette, and share a few appetizers or wander in at 5:30 with kids in tow. It’s not a challenge to decipher Alma, on any level, even for the casual food addict.
And so last night, with all of this swimming in my head, Rishia and I put Noah to bed, ordered up some pho and spring rolls, and settled-in to catch the final episode of one of the few watchable food-focused reality shows on television—if you consider sticking a bunch of culinary semi-pros and pros into a jeopardy-laden series of contests staged for dramatic effect a “reality show.” Most of these shows jump the shark at some point along the way, but Top Chef is better than most, and the contestants (unlike Hell’s Kitchen) for the most part actually know their way around a kitchen.
I sort of checked-out when the two contestants shopped for their final dinner’s ingredients at a fake farmers market staged for the show’s story arc, but by the time the chefs started cooking, I was back on board. I mean, how many food shows actually have people cooking anymore these days?
The judges included regulars Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons, along with Wylie Dufresne—who looked as uncomfortable as I have ever seen him—a prescient Scott Conant, an overly enthusiastic Roy Yamaguchi, and a poised and elegant Hubert Keller.
Ilan cooks “all Spain all the time,” nothing wrong with that. He loves food and wasn’t trying to educate any diners or show off. If anything, his food was too simple (braised short ribs with Romesco sauce) for a competition like this, according to some judges. To Marcel, everything is an intellectual process. He’s experimental, daring (isomalt teardrops encapsulating a vinaigrette were planned, but not executed), and all his food has a philosophical point of view. After a while you get a headache from this stuff. After Ilan was selected Top Chef, Marcel said “I thought it would take more than saffron and paprika to beat me, but I guess I was wrong . . . .”
It don’t take a weatherman to see which way the wind blows…