Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cheers for Fears!

Dexter wrapped up its fourth season on Sunday, delivering Showtime its highest ratings ever and giving a gruesome Christmas present to most Dexter fans.

This season again followed the formula by bringing in a Big Bad nemesis for Dexter and stirring ambivalent feelings within him. However, they managed to up the creepy factor by bringing in John Lithgow as the Trinity killer, a psycho who slips into bathtubs to slice open womens' femoral arteries, then forces housewives to plunge to their death, and in his spare time, he also enjoys clubbing men to death with framing hammers. Not exactly pina coladas and getting caught in the rain as personal ads go, but hey. And oh yeah, if that wasn't enough, he also does some unspeakable (and unshowable on even Showtime) things to ten year old boys. Still not convinced he's a monster? He called his wife a cunt at Thanksgiving dinner! Oh yes he did! It was quite possibly the quote of fall TV. "Shut up, Cunt."

Dexter certainly does want to kill this guy as one of his trophy targets. But it's the discovery that Trinity does have a wife, and a couple of children, that throws Dexter off his game as he feels compelled to "learn" from this guy to see how exactly he pulls off this balancing act of being a bloodthirsty psycho while incorporating a family life as cover. Along the way this season, Dexter made some uncharacteristic mistakes while trying to juggle all his responsibilities as a father, husband, blood spatter analyst, brother, and an accomplished serial killer in his own right.

I'll admit, the pace of this season did test me at times, but in every episode were some hidden delights. Michael C. Hall's portrayal of Dexter is still absolutely riveting. And John Lithgow was...well, John Lithgow. He was terrifying like no other adversary and brought a level of revulsion previously missing. The big delight of the season, though, was Jennifer Carpenter as Deb, Dex's sister. She had a trying season, as always, but she was absolutely heartbreaking in some of her scenes and seems to have really upped her game.

This year, the show fixed one of its finale flaws. In seasons past, the penultimate episode generally had the big shocks while the finale was often a letdown. This year, they saved the best for last, and for most hardcore fans, it wasn't just seeing Dexter ultimately dispose of the deranged Trinity. It was the big final twist, which really had been speculated since mid-season, but I don't think anyone really thought they'd actually do it. Dexter did get Trinity on his table, but unbeknownst to him, Trinity beat him to the punch and paid a visit to Dexter's home. When Dexter returned from his Trinity kill, feeling refreshed and reinvigorated and newly devoted to his family, he discovered his wife Rita dead in the bathtub.

At this moment, normal audiences would've gasped in horror. But we're Dexter fans here, people. We're allowed to take the joy and squeal as though we just opened a present on Christmas Eve. I mean, come on. It's RITA. She's just always been a dirge and fucking annoying and cramping Dexter's style, and this season she became insufferable. And since she's not a real person, but just a character in a show, I squealed with reckless abandon, loving every second of it. I even applauded.

Well done, Dexter. Well done.

Flesh for Fantasy

In other show news, are you watching Chef Academy still? If not, here's what you missed: Emmanuel naked! That's right, this week was literally the battle of French Ass. Chef Novelli, who simply is an ass, and Emmanuel, who showed his. Oh, you knew it was coming, right? Yeah, they made him strip down to just his apron to serve a special dessert to another classmate, and he even let her fondle his ass for an extremely prolonged period. Again, totally contrived show. But it's a contrived show with a great ass!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Best Top Chef, Ever!

Not only does Michael Voltaggio become Top Chef, he bests his older brother and overcomes both the reality TV car curse and the dreaded "douchebag edit" to do so.

For their final challenge, Bryan, Mike, and Kevin got assigned a Chopped-like basket for one of their courses where they had to utilize rock fish, crab, lemon, squash, matsutake mushroom, and anise hyssop (WTF?) in their dish. Then, they were allowed to cook whatever they wanted for a second course, and then a mandatory dessert.

First they drew knives, and Kevin obviously got the dull knife when he pulled Preeti as his first sous chef, and he simmered in rage about it and lost a lot of time the first day due to her sub-par skills. This was strikingly reminiscent of the first episode when Preeti bombed out on the relay race by being unable to shuck clams. Luckily for Kevin, he had Ash for the second day, and Ash was superstar for him. Bryan, meanwhile, drew Ashley and Jennifer, so he was set up perfectly, and Mike got Jessie and Eli, which worked out well for him.

The twist arrived early on the second morning of their prep when their mothers showed up at their hotel. Kevin's mother was absolutely lovely. A redhead, natch, and southern lady who obviously adores her son and they were just too cute for words. Then we got the requisite comments about how poor Mom Voltaggio must feel proud but also torn, seeing her kids compete against each other. Seriously? This isn't something to cry about, producers. They're competing against each other in a cooking show, not fighting against each other in fucking World War II. This angle was also exploited later at the dinner table. When the chefs arrived at the kitchen, they were told that they now had to do four courses, and the first one must be be reminiscent of their childhood, and their mothers ended up at the table to taste the first course. It was like Sophie's Choice when Padma asked Mom V which of her son's dish was better. But, unlike Meryl Streep, Mom V just wouldn't choose.

Kevin stayed true to his roots all through the meal, serving up a first course of crispy chicken skin with tomato and squash soup which was well received, while Bryan served up ostensibly under-seasoned sardine with panko to honor his mom's tuna casserole. Meanwhile, the dish that Mike served was textures of broccoli with a spot prawn, which looked characteristically goofy and interesting, which is another way of saying it had Mike V seasoned all over it. These spot prawns are also rapidly becoming a Top Chef suicide dish, as the entire table never agrees if they're cooked properly. Someone is always bitching about undercooked while someone else likes it.

But as much as the dish itself was interesting, what grabbed my attention was something that Michael finally articulated, which I'd somewhat suspected, and which is probably why I tended to connect with his food ideas from the start. He said he had always been a picky eater and doesn't really like a lot of food, so he approaches a lot of cooking as a way to create the ingredient in a manner that he'll like. I just totally get that. I love food and I love to eat, but I've also been somewhat narrow in my likes/dislikes, so I really respond to different interpretations that can introduce me to ingredients. It's like when someone says, "I don't like tuna." Okay. So you don't like tuna from a can, but how about seared ahi? Whole different world. And that's what he does with food -- opens up new and unexpected avenues.

So then they kicked the moms off the table so that they could talk nasty about their children's food without making the moms feel bad. Or, perhaps, they just sent them away because they sadistically like to keep people hungry. Either way, the moms made a trip to the kitchen, hugged goodbye, and were sent away without any supper. Second course came, the one with the rock fish and mushroom, and everyone agreed that Bryan's was nice, if slightly underseasoned again. Kevin fucked up his matsutake mushroom and made it tough. And Mike seemed to do the best overall by crisping the mushroom and making the lemon pop and cooking the fish correctly.

The third course was probably the most indicative of each chef's true culinary personality. Bryan cooked a venison saddle that was extremely well received. Not the least bit shocking, Kevin cooked pork belly, which, completely shocking, didn't go over exceptionally well. Some of the judges thought it was a bit undercooked, or just didn't pop. At this point, I knew Kevin wasn't going to win. He's got a pig tattoo for Chrissakes, so if his slab of bacon in this dish didn't connect with everyone, he was a goner.

Mike served fennel squab with pistacchio cassoulet and real and fake mushrooms, and there was, as is customary for his dishes, both high praise and some criticism. Donatella Arpaia dinged him for his mushroom puree that was shaped into a mushroom and called it a gimmick, and it was at this exact point that I realized I was really rooting for Mike because I wanted to pop her in the face for it. I don't mind her when she's contrary to Jeffrey Steingarten on Iron Chef, but otherwise, she generally bugs me. Nevertheless, it's not even just Mike's cooking in general that polarizes, or even specific dishes, but even elements within each dish that causes dissent in opinion, and that's when I knew that he was definitely going to win.

When dessert came down, Bryan's was the most well received, as it was the most balanced and sophisticated with his dulce de leche cheesecake with a fig sorbet. Kevin then delivered himself the death blow by serving a chocolate-bacon sauce along with roasted banana and bacon sprinkles. Okay, look. This is what sums it up for me with Kevin. An awesome chef and cook, he most certainly is. But I never connected with his dishes, and a big part of that is because -- go ahead and get ready to hiss at me here -- I don't really like bacon. I know, that seems like an unreasonable statement, but it's true. I don't mind pork belly, per say. Sometimes I like some pancetta. But American bacon is always too smoky and too salty and I dislike it as an element in dishes because it's all I end up tasting. Most people say that any dish can be improved with bacon, whereas I think it ruins most stuff. And though I do enjoy sweet-salty flavor combos for some dessert, I don't ever want bacon near my chocolate. And, apparently, Stephen Starr of Buddakan agrees with me on that point, so he dinged Kevin's dessert.

Michael's dessert looked like it could be his undoing. It was a chocolate cake with a caramel-lava filling accompanied by pumpkin ice cream and candied pumpkin seeds. He fretted about overcooking it, and, indeed, everyone agreed that the cake was too dry. However, everyone also went to great lengths to rave about the flavor combos and the idea of it and the candied pumpkin seeds and it was all over except for handing out the prize money.

At judges' table, they were asked to speak about why they should be chosen Top Chef. Again, a bullshit little factor for television sake, as I don't care if the chef is sometimes a dickhead (obviously) or if he/she can eloquently argue their worth. The decision should come from the food. Bryan looked flustered at having to give this speech, and he rambled on a bit about his reasons with the usual stuff that should be said.

Then, when they asked Michael why he should be Top Chef, he said, "Because I don't want Bryan to be Top Chef." Outstanding! It was funny alright, and Bryan got cracked up, and finally one of his "tacky" cocky comments came off the way it was intended.

Then Kevin said something, but he was mostly feeling sad that his bacon wasn't well received, and I think he knew at that point that he was going to pack his knives. And, indeed, it seems as though poor Kevin may have paid the price for drawing Preeti as his sous on the first day and having to do too much himself and therefore not having the perfection factor that he usually had. So he was dismissed in third place, leaving the brothers. Kevin was, again, adorable, as he put his head on his mom's shoulder in consolation.

Bryan was squirming like crazy. Usually so composed, the tension just oozed out of him by this point, and that's when I felt a little bad for him. At least Kevin had wracked up some nice cash and prizes along the way, and he's definitely a shoo-in for fan favorite. Meanwhile, Bryan got the goose egg all season, and I'd actually peg him as my fan favorite at this point, but he doesn't have a shot in hell at it. He picked up that stuffed shark for his son and is going home empty handed other than that. On the upside? I wasn't kidding about wanting to dine at his joint, Volt, but it seems I can't get a reservation until 2011. 2011. He says his restaurant is now operating at 100% capacity, every night. Good for him. Fucking, good for him. I guess maybe that goose egg was actually the goose that keeps laying golden eggs for him. (too forced a metaphor? tough shit, it's all food related, so cut me some slack!)

So then Padma said, "Michael, you are top chef." And the hugs ensued and I don't think she ever got to tell Bryan to pack his knives, because Mom V was there, hugging Michael but giving the cow eyes to Bryan over Mike's shoulder. Bryan was super-classy and stoked for his brother, and meanwhile, Mike cried and said he wished that they could have both won!

I shit you not. And it was totally believable. After all the trash talk all season and pumping himself up to beat Bryan, it was as though he hadn't finally slayed the sibling birth order disorder, but instead was just watching his beloved brother lose. Awwwww. I have a feeling that within three seconds he was over that, though, and rubbing Bryan's face in it, which is exactly as it should be.

And, finally, the bitter taste of last season is washed away. I know, I know Michael gave a couple of quotes that gave people the ammunition to dislike him personally. But, seriously, he split up his $10k prize and shared it with his teammates. Would a genuine asshole do that? There are a lot of nice people who wouldn't do that. In the "actions speak louder than words" department, that was pretty damn generous of him.

The knives are all packed up now, and save for the reunion next week, we don't have to see Tom's twatty face for another year, and we won't hear Padma's slow-talking, or see Gail's boobs or horrible dresses.

Mike Voltaggio was a perfect match for the flash and sass of the Vegas setting with his sexy and often funny plates. But, also like Vegas demands, it was his willingness to take big risks that put him over the top to cash in with the big reward.

Friday, December 04, 2009

With a Grain of Salt

Alas, our darling damsel Jennifer ducks out of the final competition that'll be between Bryan V, Mike V, and Kevin. Though twat-Tom was pleased with the duckiness of her dish, her braised duck legs, confit duck breast and foie gras vinaigrette ducked up her shot at the big prize. Though Bravo makes certain to edit the judges table with as much ambiguity as possible, they coyly dropped the hint at the start of the episode when they featured Jen saying how "even an extra grain of salt" can get you eliminated at this point. And it was, ultimately, the fact that her dishes were oversalted that caused her to leave.

Or, for those amongst us more jaded and who saw the new promo showcasing the brothers jousting/fencing with rolling pins and a spatula, Jennifer finally had to go because we had to have this final three. Salt, drama, siblings, bacon, grapes, whatever. I felt bad when she had to do the Jeff Lewis head turn to avoid crying right at the camera, though.

There can't even be any debate at this point that this leaves the very strongest three cooks and chefs in the competition, and that this final three is, by a wide margin, the most talented group ever on Top Chef. So relax, fans, there will be no sneaky, sucktastic Hoseaing of the final. Whoever wins is a worthy winner. Kevin cooks great food and always seems to please the judges' palates. Bryan combines creativity and cooking to serve up some of the most succulent and sophisticated dishes ever displayed on this show. And Michael, well, plenty of people will be gnashing their teeth and pissed if he wins, but not because he doesn't have the culinary chops. He's twice been tagged as Picasso, and as of last night, he also got his second "genius" comment. His cooking is innovative and challenging, combining technique and unusual flavor profiles with often flirty or fanciful results. What would upset viewers about him winning is that he's simply been portrayed as an asshole.

Jen was darling just before her swan song. I loved the little visit to the Rutherford Hill wine caves with Tony Terlato himself for a private tasting. Jen, of course, whimsically asks the big guy how much alcohol is in the juice! I will refrain from commenting on her newly permed hairdo out of kindness for the cutie. (This is a courtesy that I will not extend to Padma's bangs. What. The. Fuck. Padma? Between her hair and Gail's boobs unceremoniously falling out all over during the crush party it was a strange moment for feminine wiles.) Also cute about Jen? How badly she wanted to win the Prius in the quickfire challenge. She admitted that she didn't even have a CD player in her car and that she still listens to her high school mix tapes. Though endearing, I certainly wouldn't have begrudged her upgrading and winning. But, alas, was not to be. They had 30 minutes to cook something that showcased grapes while on the moving Napa train with Michael Chiarello judging.

Anyone watch Top Chef Masters? I've always liked Chiarello and I think he can cook. But he was such an asshole on that show that I was wondering if he was going to dish out more shit to these contestants. Instead, he was jovial and kind, complimenting them all, save for his disain with Bryan for using concord grapes, as they aren't local. Fuckers. If they didn't want him to use concords, why put them out there? As a trap? Fuckers. Kevin struggled with motion sickness on the train and Bryan, well, besides the concord thing, he always bombs on quickfires, so it was Mike V who won the Prius by using not just the grape in his scallop-grape kabob thingy, but also the leaf and stems in other elements of his plate. This fact should actually thrill those are now thoroughly reVOLTed by him, because, as you probably know, there's some Reality Show Rule where those who win the car don't win the grand prize. Don't believe me? Just ask Colby Donaldson, or Richard Blais, or Memphis or on and on and on.

But it naturally just made Mike more cocky entering the elimination challenge where they ended up having to cook two dishes for the crush party. Mike, for his vegetarian dish, made a 63 degree egg with vegetable pistou and I was shocked by this not because his idea was that when you'd break and mix the egg, it would become a pseudo-custard, but because I had no idea that eggs were vegetarian. Can someone out there please explain to me what exactly is vegetarian about an egg without striking other political cords? Anyhow, though Padma made some noise about how her egg could've been cooked more, that didn't go very far, because I think Tom was like, "pregnant shmegnant don't eat the raw egg Padma, yours is already fertilized as we can all see and I'm sick of people thinking I'm the baby-daddy and then laughing like that'd be absurd cuz you're too hot for me and I'm just hot in a gay-bear way but even though I'm soo over that it doesn't make me gay to notice your awful bangs even if I'm not banging you" so that he could devour more of Mike's turnip soup with foie gras and poached pear.

Kevin, meanwhile, as usual, cooked at the opposite spectrum by serving up roasted carrots and beets over a carrot top puree for his veggie dish and brisket over pumpkin polenta for his other dish. He got called out for his brisket not being tender enough, but he tried to talk his way out of it, saying that it needed to be more "toothsome" because it was over soft polenta and whatever. Ok. Look. I like Kevin. I think he's adorable and can cook. But, personally? I don't want to eat his food. Admittedly, southern cooking isn't my favorite genre anyhow, but it's just not really interesting sounding to me. On top of that, I go against the grain for those who think that Kevin is infallible in his wonderfulness. His talking game here was fine, and I have come to understand that part of the unfairness of Top Chef is that, sometimes, people can put up a good enough fight at judges' table defending their dish and they don't end up leaving. This sucks for the less eloquent or less inclined to verbally joust, but it's part of Bravo TV, you know? I had no problem with his defense of his meat here this time, but it reminded me of Restaurant Wars and his idiotic defense of his too rare lamb when he admitted that Laurine wanted "medium-rare" to be cooked more and then he said he didn't think either of them was right or wrong. Uh, that was talking in circles and there is a right and wrong when it comes to temperature of meat, and it was him talking around his major screw up. He never admits when he muffs it.

Add to that, I wondered if his rare-lamb wasn't a silent sabotage on Laurine, and now this week, he's the woodfire grill expert, and we see him giving Jen advice, but then the grill gets all fucked up and it's all Jen's fault. Granted, it was her dish and was her fault, but she thought Kevin was looking out for her. Kevin's the dude who point-blank asked Bryan Voltaggio temperature and technique questions and got them answered properly and it helped him win. But when he "helps" someone it generally leads to their downfall. I wouldn't mind that if he'd own it and take a little glee in it. Then again, perhaps the grill was just a bad coincidence and Jen was going home for a salt issue anyhow and it wasn't predetermined because of her previous faltering and Bravo's need for the battle of the brothers and kewpie doll Kevin. Salt, people, she oversalted!

For his part, Bryan Voltaggio has pretty much risen to become a really lovely guy on the show.

He speaks about how much he wants to go to the finals with Mike, and they give the contrasting shot of Mike saying that the "right" thing to say is that he wishes Bryan luck, but that he really wants to beat him and would be "relieved" if Bryan got booted out now! So there it goes for sure -- he does know the right thing to say, but then says what he really thinks anyhow! I love it. I have a feeling he'll NEVER have that kind of candor in front of a camera after watching this season air and hearing people's reactions to him, though. Anyhow, Bryan made fig-glazed short ribs and for his vegetarian dish a goat cheese ravioli with squash and fennel that "swept-away" Gail and made me want to lick my screen. Though there were some nitpicks about not enough salt and not enough fig flavor, he ended up winning the elim challenge, though this brought him no hard currency nor car.

So, the tally as I have it for the final three so far is:
Mike V -- $15k in a quickfire, $10k for Restaurant Wars, and a Prius
Kevin -- $15k in a quickfire, $30k in an elim challenge, a set of Calphalon, and GE appliances (which everyone agrees suck, but, still)
Bryan -- $0. So far, I think he's been bageled. He even refused the $2.5k his brother tried to give him from Restaurant Wars.

Who looks like the big winner? Yeah, I don't see Bryan leaving empty handed, and I have no trouble with that. I would love to eat at his joint someday. But, in this triumvirate, I have no trouble with Kevin winning, either. Just cause his food is not my thing doesn't mean I don't see the care, thoughtfulness, and yum factor for others in it. And Mike, of course, asshole he may be, but a badass cook he also most certainly is.

Now, I also want to talk about Bravo's new, other cooking show, Chef Academy. If you haven't watched it yet, it's much more Bravo-y than Top Chef. By that, I mean to warn you that the spontaneous drama is totally scripted, and the Michelin star Star Chef is Jean Christoph Novelli, whom the New York Times proclaimed the "world's sexiest chef," and who absolutely loves to be totally tan, totally French and totally psycho on TV. His histrionics and jerking around of the nine students is Machiavellian and sometimes borderline malicious, and you won't learn a thing about cooking by watching this show. It's all centered around food, but they exclude major ingredients so that his dishes can't be replicated at home and it's much more competition than classroom. As for the contestants, there's an OC Housewife chick and even a bona-fide porn star.

In other words, this show is pretty effing entertaining! I'll be watching it.

In contrast? Bravo's new design show, Launch My Line. Trainwreck. From the creepy twin gay hosts who want to be known as D-Squared but will definitely be known as Double Ds to the "dandy" and his dandy expert and the entire concept of there being a designer from another field getting paired up with an expert in fashion and they're going to only use 10 fabrics all season and whatever the fuck else strange constrictions get placed on them, Bravo is contorting itself to replace Project Runway, but I think Heidi and Tim can rest easy for a while. Trainwreck. In other words, I'll be watching it.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

SANTA Sale at Mundania Press

Mundania Press is now offering a special holiday sale for all their imprints. When you purchase direct from them, simply enter the discount code SANTA when checking out, and you get a 20% discount on the entire order. This runs from now through New Year’s Day, January 1, 2010 on Mundania, Awe-Struck, and Phaze Books.

You can take advantage of this for a couple of items of mine. My book, Trattoria is available in paperback for $15 (that's $12 after the discount), or e-book format for $4.99 (that's $4 after the discount), and it's right here in both formats:
Trattoria at Mundania

I also have a special, extra-smutty, Christmas themed snuggler available for just one dollar, so with the 20% discount, that's an 80 cent read. That's available right here:
'Twas the Night After Christmas at Phaze