Top Chef Season 8 Episode 7: Now With The Daily Sip’s Eric Arnold for Extra Flavor

"Somebody get a sponge."

This week, OT’s usual commentators on the most recent edition of Top Chef — Caroline Potter and Ed Cotton — are both out of town. So I’ve been asked to step in and take over for the next two weeks. Normally, I’m the editor of The Daily Sip, a free, wine-centric e-newsletter; and you can usually find me waxing about the wines of New Zealand–and other booze-related topics–herehere, and here.

Each season of Top Chef, we’re expected to look forward to Restaurant Wars, when the remaining contestants are split into two groups that square off in a battle of pop-up restaurants. It’s also usually the episode in which an otherwise strong contestant is shown the door because he or she ran the front of the house like it’s the DMV.

Some Restaurant Wars battles have been better than others, and this one, unfortunately, belongs in the scrap heap. For starters, the contestants weren’t put under nearly as much pressure as in previous seasons: No shopping for flatware, dishware, curtains or scented candles — just cooking. While one could argue that this levels the playing field, it really didn’t last night because someone still had to run the front of the house and, potentially, sacrifice food quality. And truth be told, last night’s Top Chef proved beyond doubt that the contestants will make or break themselves in the kitchen all on their own, no matter the challenge. So why not just keep them all in the kitchen?

Nevertheless, therein lies Top Chef‘s strength as a series: It’s the little things, from sliced fingers to stolen fishes to drunken kisses, that evoke an emotional response from viewers one minute to the next. I had plenty last night, in fact. Here they are, in order from last night:

* Ah, the brief recap — and yes, what fond memories we have of Jamie finally being sent packing last week. Oh, snap: Tonight’s episode starts at Le Bernadin?! Oh man, what I’d have given to see her survive another week and return to the scene of her braised-celery crime. Oh well.

* I work exactly six floors above Le Bernadin. How did I not know Top Chef was shooting down there? Wait, is that Bobby Flay in the window in the background, shouting, “Bar Americain is around the corner! Come over here! Come over here! I’m sick of Food Network!”

After an epic meltdown that Eric didn't anticipate, Marcel sleeps with the fishes.

* Is it just me, or is Marcel way more mature than in he was in Season Two? He seems more focused, more calm, more professional and less foam-obsessed. (Then again, there was a point in Requiem for a Dream when it looked like everything was going to turn out OK, too.)

* Why does the winner of the Quickfire always say he’s not going to lay down in the Elimination Challenge? One of these days I really want to see someone say, “I earned it. I’m taking the night off. I’m not even showing up. In fact, I’m going to stay at the loft, drink gin out of a paper cup and watch that new show on Playboy Channel about Brooklyn couples having sex. If they do make me show up for the challenge, I’m cooking pantsless. And on my way to the kitchen, I’m sticking a banana in Padma’s tailpipe.”

* By the way, where exactly were Padma and Tom for the first 15 minutes of the episode and the Quickfire? Hunting for rolling papers? Again, I work right above Le Bernadin. If you walk over to 7th and take a right, there’s a bodega two blocks up. They sell Zig-Zags. Even Bourdain could have told you that.

* Ludo!

* Speaking of bodegas, is team Dale out of their frickin’ minds? (Apparently not in the slightest.)

* Yes! Marcel tells Tom to get lost during the walk-around prep interview. One of these days someone will throw a squid at him for hogging too much cooking time.

* Crap, Marcel just made a foam.

* Oh look, it’s Dana Cowin. Hey Dana, Joseph called — he wants his technicolor dreamcoat back. (Ed note: Eric, I think she must have borrowed that from Padma.)

* Loving the contrast between what the diners and the judges say; the diners are who matter. And they actually sound like they know what they’re talking about. Well, some of them….

Tom and Anthony are crestfallen when they learn that Fabio will not, in fact, be making love to them.

* I’ve now counted 8 million times that they’ve said the diners decide the winning team. We get it already! Is that why this episode is longer than usual?

* Caroline, please bring some chorizo back from Mexico for Padma. Apparently she needs more on her salad.

* Woah, Padma is not clearing her plate because she’s “trying to pace herself?” I guess she and Tom couldn’t find those rolling papers.

* My goodness. I think Fabio shagged half the women who walked through the door of Restaurant Bodega, as if he were in that old SNL “Bellisima” skit (here’s the same skit from Spanish TV…at least watch until the Uggs go in the air). Watching Tiffany run the front of the house, however, almost made this episode feel like Curb Your Enthusiasm: Joyous at one moment, gut-wrenchingly uncomfortable the next.

* Why all the different effects on the Bravo Voice Over Guy’s promos for Real Housewives? One phrase he sounds like he’s in the room, the next they make it sound like he’s speaking over a ham radio. And what does he look like? My bet: Verne Troyer.

* Only 17 diners picked Restaurant Edge? Ouch. And, what’s with the one diner who looks like Rick Moranis in a Members Only jacket? This guy hasn’t enjoyed a single morsel of food placed in front of him by either team. He should pack his ‘tude and go.

Anthony explains to Padma how it is that Fabio is the #1 lover man in his particular postal code.

* Team Bodega wins. Unfortunately, Fabio couldn’t give Blaise a victory hump since he’s out of gas from all the women he made love to in the restaurant. Blaise breathes a sigh of relief.

* Marcel went thermonuclear tonight, and there’s no question the judges sent home the correct contestant. Though it’s hard to say just how bad Marcel was or inspired a choice it was by Dale to make Marcel the opposing team captain. That one could go either way.

Tonight, Restaurant Wars was more like a Restaurant Goliath Picking His Teeth With David’s Bones. Just not even close, and that’s unfortunate. What makes Top Chef exciting is when the judges’ choices are difficult, not when they’re easy. On the bright side, though, there’s every reason to believe that this episode will be bracketed by two solid ones, given last week’s overdue dismissal and what, from the previews, appears to be on tap for next week.

Need to stop typing now. I think Fabio’s reaching through the screen and touching my leg.

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