Top Chef All-Stars, third course: Two eliminations

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In the film Dinner Rush -- a terrific indie that everyone should see -- the trendy young chef prepares a dish for an influential critic, played by Sandra Bernhard. We see him in the kitchen frantically throwing elements together, and the result is two angry red lobsters, feelers waving ferociously, rearing at each other as if about to fight. There's also caviar on the plate, rock shrimp, crispy fried pasta, a shallot-mint-vanilla-bean sauce and probably some other things I've forgotten. I assumed this was brilliant parody. But lo and behold, something very like this entree appeared on the table when four of the Top Chef contestants visited David Burke's Townhouse restaurant to taste his food and gain inspiration for dishes of their own that would be worthy of his menu -- and win them the Elimination Challenge.

And if that wasn't enough, there was also a living goldfish (though how long the poor thing would continue living was unclear) trapped in each cocktail glass. Wasn't there a 1960s fashion fad that had fish swimming not only in glasses but in lucite high heels? But at least then the self-parody was intentional.

Dale L, possibly sour graping because he got eliminated for a dish involving veal, peanuts, popcorn, and French toast -- he was trying to be jazzy and playful, he explained -- claimed that none of the contestants had actually liked Burke's food.

The other chefs fared better, eating at Michael White's Marea, Wylie Dufresne's wd~50, and David Chang's Ma Peche, and expressing various degrees of awe and rapture about what they were tasting. At Ma Peche, Angelo gave a detailed disquisition on his entree that annoyed the hell out of Tiffany, but that I'd have liked to hear more of. The man is both instinctual and analytic, a flavor master who takes intense risks -- like adding white chocolate to his turmeric-marinated fish -- and he seems to be a genius in the kitchen.

His dish was Chang's favorite, with Tre and Antonia also winning praise for dishes inspired by Marea and Townhouse respectively. Dale T. walked away with the big win. Aware that Wylie Dufresne loves eggs (or, according to Anthony Bourdain, "is a big egg slut"), he decided to downplay the chemical tricks Dufresne is known for, and create an egg dish that served as homage but still remained true to his own leanings as a cook. His egg dumpling with pork belly and milk ramen looked simple and delicious, and the judges commented that the sauce tasted like buttered toast.

And then, of course, the bad part: the summoning of those who had produced the poorest dishes -- a particularly tense exercise, since two contestants rather than just one were to be eliminated. These poor souls were Dale L; Tiffani, who I really want to see hang on because I enjoy her tough-minded, army brat personality; Stephen, out of his depth because he's been doing more front of the house work than cooking in the last few years, and who scattered so much fennel pollen on his salmon that Bourdain said it smelled like a head shop; and -- yet again -- Fabio. In the end, it was Stephen who was sent home with Dale.

This was actually a great Elimination Challenge, and the Quickfire was interesting, too. It involved the contestants, working in teams, frantically prepping garlic (amazing to see many of them smashing dozens of cloves at a stroke with a cutting board), artichokes and lamb, and then creating dishes from these ingredients. The win went to Richard, Tre, Spike and Stephen for a crispy lamb chop made with artichokes prepared three ways. Most of the credit clearly belonged to Richard, who had taken charge, and who's been preparing amazing food all season.

He and Angelo have been steadily on top, but there's so much talent among this lot that it's impossible to predict a winner. You also hear all kinds of praise for contestants who haven't broken the top ranks yet: Michael and Marcel, for instance, and also Casey. Her comments on the other chefs' work seem to be spot on too. Last week she said Jen's entry was sadly unappetizing; this week, she expressed concern about Dale L's French toast-veal dish.

Both challenges were exhilarating, but given the number of contestants, the cooking is still just a blur of tossed-off comments and flying hands. We'll see more actual food prep when the field thins I guess. But at the same time, there's no one among the remaining contestants I'm keen to see dismissed.

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