Let’s start with the branzino. Salt-crusted with a citrus sauce, the baked fish that the Top Chef: Las Vegas chef’testants were chowing at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare during Wednesday night’s episode was flavorful and melt-in-your-mouth moist. I know, because I was eating it while I watched.
In honor of his appearance as a guest judge on Top Chef, Paul Bartolotta hosted a watch party in the chef’s room of his Wynn Las Vegas restaurant. Friends, family and local media ate, drank, watched and quizzed the James Beard Award-winning chef on his judging experience.
“This was so terrible! Nightmares!” Bartolotta exclaimed as Robin approached the banana baby food-colored couch that Bartolotta and Padma sat on to judge the chef’testants’ Quickfire TV dinners.
The couch itself was another issue. “She looked so elegant,” the exuberant Italian chef remarked of Padma perched on the retro sofa, adding that he didn’t feel quite as comfortable attempting to scarf down the Quickfire creations inspired by popular television shows.
Harder than eating the dishes, he said, was judging them. “I felt terrible, you could see their faces,” he lamented of having to critique the chefs immediately after trying out their short-order snacks.
While the chef’testants dined on Italian seafood at Bartolotta on the flat screen, we downed bellinis and snacked on platters of lightly fried seafood, fresh raviolis, perfectly cooked rabbit and lamb medallions. Watching Top Chef is the culinary equivalent of a strip tease. The chef’testants serve plate after plate of expertly prepared food, and, usually, I sit at home on the couch eating humus and carrots and trying not to drool. At Bartolotta, the second I’d polished off one tasting portion, another arrived. This was a TV dinner the way the Top Chef gods intended.
Soon, the chef’testants were rifling through the walk-in at Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak at MGM Grand. Fully stocked with the finest cuts of steak, the fridge was chef’testant bait. Go ahead, the producers seemed to whisper, snickering, plan a meal around that protein. Little do you know… (Insert evil laugh here.)
What they didn’t know – and couldn’t possibly have guessed – was that Hollywood star Natalie Portman was waiting on deck to spoil all their fun. As the gorgeous and seemingly very entertaining actress announced that she was a vegetarian, the chef’testants’ faces crumbled like kids who’ve been ushered out of the candy store empty handed.
Despite having to ditch the meat, the remaining chefs buckled down on veggie-friendly spreads for Bartolotta, Portman and the rest of the judges. However, more interesting than watching them deliver the plates of poorly prepared leeks (Mike I.), salty squash blossoms (Robin) or tongue-pricking banana polenta (Michael V.), was watching Bartolotta watch himself.
As viewers, we always know that editing is involved to chop an hours-long dinner into a few palatable minutes. But we only know the half of it. More like the third, really.
As Eli served his confit of eggplant with lentils and garlic puree, Bartolotta served up one of his more memorable lines of the episode. “I feel like I’m in Provence sucking on a bar of soap,” the jovial chef proclaimed. At the restaurant, we offered a playground-style “ohhh!”
“I loved the dish!” Bartolotta protested in person. Huh. We never would have known.
Also filed under interesting extra info was Bartolotta’s take on Jennifer’s charred baby eggplant with braised fennel and verjus.
While the not-so-substantial plate landed Jennifer in the bottom three, Bartolotta said her dish was one of his favorites. Filling, no, but flavorful and well balanced.
Of course, Bartolotta wasn’t the only guest critiquing the vegetarian challenge, and eventually the win went to Kevin’s duo of mushrooms, a “manly” vegetarian meal according to Ms. Portman. Mike I. packed his knives, and with a non-committal goodbye left Top Chef: Las Vegas behind.