Top Chef Episode 11: Child’s play

Padma Lakshmi and Nigella Lawson take breakfast a la Bryan at the Venetian on “Top Chef: Las Vegas.”
Photo: BravoTV / Trae Patton

“Child’s play.”

That’s what guest judge Nigella Lawson called panna cotta on Wednesday night’s episode of "Top Chef: Las Vegas" right before sending Robin home for flubbing her version of the Italian dessert.

I’d reserve “child’s play” for plates like mac and cheese and scrambled eggs, but then again, I’m not a British cookbook author with my own line of curvaceous kitchenware, and Robin, I suppose, is not a "Top Chef"-obsessed journalist who considers following a recipe with favorable results a major victory.

Regardless, a cheer went up at the Freakin’ Frog (where local media dynamo Steve Friess and I were hosting a "Top Chef" watch party) when the matronly chef was told to pack her knives and go.

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With Robin out of the running, I’d like to say that things are finally getting serious, but Robin had long shown herself to not be a threat, and things got serious weeks ago.

This week’s episode started with the chefs “deep in the catacombs of the Venetian,” as Eli explained. I’ve never been to this mythical place, but I imagine it to be mazelike and full of people in patterned vests.

Of course, the chef’testants weren’t there to find the path to Oz or learn to deal pai gow. A kitchen phone rang, and there was Padma on the other end, still in bed and getting a bit hungry.

Room service is not something I have a lot of experience with. Every time a late night craving tempts me to order something via cart, a quick glance at the delivery menu assures me it’s not a good idea. I can get a pizza delivered for free from miles away, but sending a cheeseburger up the elevator comes with an insane markup.

Padma, on the other hand, likes her breakfast in bed. She can’t even bother to get up and open the door. Just cart it right on over, and mind the bathrobe, would ya?

Joining Padma for the eggs and bacon marathon was Nigella Lawson. In a pair of beds and robes, the two gorgeous foodies chowed through steak and eggs, blintzes, a benedict, something with rice and what Jennifer called S.O.S. or “expletive on a shingle.” Yum?

I adore breakfast, but none of these maybe me want to set my alarm clock. Eli’s corned beef Reuben benedict took the win for being, as Nigella called it, a great “hangover breakfast.” But even that didn’t quite hit the mark for me as far as morning fare. In fact, I feel slightly hungover just thinking about it.

For elimination this week, the final six were presented with a seemingly inevitable challenge: creating food inspired by Strip resorts.

Assigned to all MGM/Mirage properties, the chefs were presented with somewhat different tasks depending on the resort name taped to their chosen blade. Some had more obviously theme-y cuisine, like Eli, who wandered around Circus Circus in search of an actual circus that he never found. Others could pick an inspirational aspect of a property more tailored to what they felt like cooking, like Bryan’s sustainable halibut with bouillabaisse consommé based on the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay. Sprinkled throughout this episode were plenty of gratuitous shots of MGM/Mirage attractions – the Chihuly ceiling and Bellagio fountains, the Tournament of Kings at Excalibur, the Mirage’s dolphins, you get the idea.

When the chefs actually served their dishes to the judges and 175 lucky Las Vegans (including our own Melissa Arseniuk), the results weren’t entirely inspired. Eli’s Circus-Circus-style peanut and apple soup topped with popcorn went down grainy and odd, perhaps a bit too true to the resort it was based on.

Jennifer’s "Sword and the Stone"/Excalibur reference of New York strip steak with a red wine sauce, was a tad too stony for Nigella, who worked at it with obvious annoyance. “More 'Spamalot' than Camelot,” Toby offered. A rhyme that stays on theme? Goodie!

And then there was Robin’s panna cotta, an effort to bring art back into her cooking with a sugar “stained glass” homage to Chihuly. Unfortunately, the sugar never quite got glassy enough, and the most relevant item was left off the plate. What she did serve was too stiff, or, as Nigella complained, it didn’t jiggle like a “courtesan’s inner thigh.” More jiggle, I say!

On the upper end were the three current favorites for the "Top Chef: Las Vegas" win – Kevin and Michael and Bryan Voltaggio. Kevin’s cured salmon with veggie slaw was, as always, a crowd pleaser, while Bryan’s dish was described as “balanced” and “elegant.” Stealing the show, however, was Michael’s reinvented boneless chicken wing with frozen blue cheese reference to New York-New York. Toby called his cooking “effeminate,” which, ya know, when I see chicken wings is exactly what I think, too. Michael said something about his personality showing up on the plate.

Perhaps, Robin’s most relatable moment of her entire run was her teary-eyed goodbye. The clearly passionate chef gave her leave with handshakes (for the judges), hugs (for her competitors) and thankful words (for the cameras). After awaiting her demise for weeks, I can’t say I’m sad to see her go, but I do very much wish her well.

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