Top Chef, D.C., round twelve: Out of this world!

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Tiffany got sent home from Top Chef this week. I was a little distressed when Arnold was told to pack his knives a few episodes back, because his problems were the fault of mean-spirited Lynne, and also I expected him to come up with some interestingly piquant dishes over the season. I was surprised at Kenny's exit, though I could never figure out if Kenny was a magnificent kitchen animal or just thought he was. But Tiffany, who seemed the warmest and nicest of the bunch, Tiffany of the infectious laugh, who was usually willing to help others, who won so many challenges, and whose first professional experience was serving at an IHOP where she was told women didn't belong in the kitchen, Tiffany whose food sounded welcoming and full-flavored -- her loss was genuinely sad. She was gracious in leaving, but her eyes kept filling. "Just so close," she murmured.

Four chefs remain now: Kevin, Ed, Angelo and Colorado's Kelly Liken, and they're all off to Singapore for the finale.

For the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs had to create dishes to go with specific wines; Dana Cowin of Food and Wine magazine was the judge. Kevin and Kelly ended up on the bottom. Despite the short time frame, Kevin had planned to braise pork belly. When he realized the meat wasn't cooked, he hastily -- and pretty cleverly, I thought -- substituted tiny, quick-cooking quail, which tasted fine but weren't a good match for his wine. Cowin disliked the blue cheese emulsion Kelly served with her wild boar tenderloin. Tiffany and Angelo did best, with Angelo winning not only the Quickfire but a trip to London. "Maybe he's got his mojo back," mused Kevin. Oh, yes, he did. The second challenge was to make food that could be flash frozen for astronauts in space, and Angelo won that, too.

Apparently I'm not the only one who's been complaining that the show has lost its zing: Tom Colicchio mentions viewer disappointment in his blog. But he adds that the coming finale is strong, and this episode certainly was an improvement over the last few. Athough the Elimination Challenge wasn't that interesting in culinary terms, space travel (now sadly curtailed) is. We got Kelly, who admits to a nerdy fascination with space, gazing around starry-eyed as the chefs clustered in the Goddard Space Flight Center. We listened as NASA food scientist Vicki Kloeris explained the limitations they'd have to take into account -- sugar and large pieces of food don't freeze-dry well, she explained, and flavor gets damped down, so astronauts crave spice. I've never thought much about how astronauts eat, and I'd love to have heard more.

Those sampling the final dishes included Buzz Aldrin, Kloeri, and two very cool, smart current astronauts -- out there, they crave crunchy, one of them explained, and also spoons are important. "I still have my spoon from Apollo II," Aldrin said.

There was more focus on food throughout the episode, and we got to hear more about the contestants' reasoning. Spurred by the mention of spices, Ed was going for rack of lamb Moroccan-style. Kevin mused about food that was comforting but also refined, and chose New York strip steak with bacon and jalapeno marmalade and corn puree. Angelo, presentation conscious and always keen on originality, sketched out his plate on paper. Her food came from the soul, Tiffany explained; she was also thinking about getting a little more adventurous. Unfortunately the mussels she bought for her curry froze, leaving her with plain halibut. The flavor of the fish wasn't strong enough to balance her vivid sauce, according to the judges.

Anthony Bourdain was a guest judge, and that was a plus, too, because he was -- in the most humorous way -- quite argumentative. When Eric Ripert criticized Ed's lamb, Bourdain retorted, "I've been to Morocco, and I think Ed nailed it." The two disagreed on Angelo's short rib plate, Ripert finding the pickled mushrooms too acidic while Bourdain riposted that the entire dish was very sophisticated. Kelly's halibut with artichoke and fennel barigoule was Ripert's favorite entree. Insufficiently original, harrumphed Bourdain.

Because everyone wasn't agreeing on everything -- and because each dish was in its own way very good -- the judges had to get far more specific and analytic than they'd been in the past, and the result was the kind of informed, thoughtful conversation everyone who loves food and cooking wants to hear. Though I still haven't figured out why Bourdain was so passionately contemptuous of Kevin's choice of meat: "It's Top Chef. Sirloin, for god's sake," he exclaimed. Is there something about sirloin I don't know?

Despite Kloeris's admonition, Angelo's short ribs -- braised and obsessively laquered with the braising liquid -- were tooth-achingly sweet. Still, everyone agreed the dish was great, and Ripert was particularly impressed with the juniper berry-breadcrumb-ginger topping.

Later in the anteroom, Angelo held the key to the Toyota Avalon that came with his win between his fingers like a rosary. "Thank you so much, Jesus," he said.

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