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“Top Chef” Check-In

It will come as no surprise to TV-heads and -haters alike that the season-two premiere of Bravo’s Top Chef last night generated plenty of chatter in blogland. If you haven’t had time to waste scouring Technorati for mentions of the show, or if (horror of horrors) you missed it, here’s a look at what bloggers and commenters are saying (and some good catch-up links).

Let’s start at the most superficial level: hotness-focused gushing. Harold, the show’s winner from last season, who now has his own behind-the-scenes blog, comes back to guest-judge the first episode, and the opportunity for discussing his dishiness is not lost on these folks.

This leads directly into the predictions. The early favorite to win is adorable Ilan, a 24-year-old line cook at Mario Batali’s Casa Mono in NYC. In addition to cuteness points, he’s also garnering Harold comparisons in terms of his position at this point in the season. Then again, maybe handsome Sam is really the new Harold, as Television Without Pity predicts. On the villain side, we’re seeing the inevitable pronouncements that Marcel is the next Stephen. The comparison is somewhat apt, as both young men seem to share the same undisguised arrogance and ridiculous coiffure. But to watch Marcel—even more of a caricature than wine-snob Stephen was last season—it’s impossible not to think that the self-styled molecular gastronomist is courting precisely that comparison, or that he’s studied last season’s cast carefully in an attempt to maximize his dramatic appeal.

Bloggers also question whether the new host, Padma Lakshmi, really has the food-world chops to cut it in this job. But Tom Colicchio reassures us (in a slightly odd way) on his judge’s blog that she’s up to the task:

Padma brings an international perspective to the show and a great mix of East and West—she grew up in India and spent years in Italy. She has traveled the world as a cookbook author, actress and television host. She swears she can make a ten course low-fat Indian dinner (sign me up). And while most people know her as a supermodel, let me tell you … this is one model that eats.

Padma’s own blog paints a slightly less intrepid figure, as she discusses her fear of the frogs’ legs and liver in the first elimination challenge; ultimately she soldiered on, though. “I had to taste everything, and I did,” she writes. “It was my job.”

No one seems to have pointed out a couple of particularly interesting things about this cast: For one, the possible conflict of interest in the fact that Ilan is a former cook at Craft, judge Tom Colicchio’s NYC restaurant. And for another, the unusual background of Suyai, the first contestant to be eliminated (who was interviewed by our lovely editor Joyce in this great podcast package). In the show there’s only the briefest mention of the fact that she suffered from bulimia for many years and has used cooking and foodism as part of her road to recovery. I wish we’d heard more about her story, which sounds like it was at once more dramatic, more human, and more genuinely food-focused than a lot of the silly drama it looks like this season has in store. But of course, silly or not, I must watch.

Fishy Findings

I already break out in a cold sweat at the fish counter, so I didn’t exactly need Wednesday’s
New York Times article (registration required) about two recent studies that examine the pros and cons of eating seafood. The studies’ findings diverge so wildly that I’m even stupider about the issue than before I began reading.

The more controversial of the two studies, by the Harvard School of Public Health, found that seafood consumption reduces the risk of fatal heart problems by a whopping 36 percent and decreases the overall likelihood of death by 17 percent. Moreover, the Harvard researchers concluded that the benefits of eating omega-3-rich fish are so great that people should stop worrying about the risks posed by contaminants (like PCBs and dioxin) that routinely show up in our seafood supply:

Calling those risks ‘greatly exaggerated,’ Dr. Darius Mozaffarian, one of the two [Harvard] authors, said, ‘Seafood is likely the single most important food one can consume for good health.’

Wow. The second study, released on the same day by the Institute of Medicine, was less fish-happy: It concluded that seafood consumption “may” reduce the risk of heart disease, but that there wasn’t enough evidence to make any stronger claims. Previous research has indicated that omega-3 fatty acids from fish also “may” help control behavior problems and mood disorders in adults (though maybe not in kids—and don’t go stockpiling cod liver oil just yet, as there probably aren’t enough fish in the sea to sustain large-scale omega-3 demand).

Both the Harvard and IOM studies have come under fire for failing to address the huge sturgeon in the room: mercury contamination in fish. “Once again pregnant women are being told it’s O.K. to eat tuna,” Jane Houlihan, the research director of the Environmental Working Group, told Marian Burros, author of the New York Times article. “The reality is, 90 percent of women would exceed the government’s level for a safe dose of mercury if they ate six ounces of albacore tuna every week as the F.D.A., E.P.A and now I.O.M. recommend,” she said. For kids, mercury levels could be even worse under those guidelines, writes this blogger, who focuses on the link between mercury exposure and autism.

Feeling horrible yet? Why not just go have a tuna sandwich—eating fish has been found to ease depression!

Ctrl-Alt … Chicken?

Taking a break from the Rachael-Ray snarking and Top Chef speculation that occupy most of the folks who bother to post on Chowhound’s Food Media board, Kater seeks fellow fans of her husband’s favorite new cooking show, the low-budget, Web-only videocast Ctrl-Alt-Chicken. Writing of the show’s two stars, Alex Albrecht and Heather Stewart, Kater claims, rightly, “They make that How To Boil Water guy look like Julia Child!”

Alex and Heather (the smart kids in the office, where Heather greatly resembles a younger Nigella, except for the knowing-how-to-cook part) are kind of clueless. Wait, make that very clueless, but snappy with the non sequiturs and one-liners, and completely unfazed by their (frequent) culinary disasters. The show has even inspired an “unofficial” Brit fan site/blog.

But it’s not all bumbling around their tiny suburban-kitchen set; the program also includes visits to “the lab” (Alex and Heather again, wearing lab coats and filmed in old-horror-movie black and white), where Alex uses a Mel-Brooks-in-a-Muppet-movie German accent to speculate on the origins of whatever dish they’re planning to butcher, er, cook.

Writes Kater,

I can’t really think of anyone who might learn from them because ctrl-alt-chicken is more of a cautionary tale. Now I do think that a complete novice might be inspired by their intrepid approach to cooking, and it could get non cooks into the kitchen. But what they do there will probably be disastrous …

Something Smells Like Synergy

Those of us who have been feverishly following Project Runway to its bitter, Jeffrey-filled end can’t help but notice how Bravo is promoting the hell out of Top Chef’s upcoming season. In fact, in order not to risk losing all the eyeballs that Tim Gunn and his stitching bitches bring in, Bravo intends to air Top Chef second season premiere episode right after Project Runway’s third season finale.

That’s just good TV-sense, but in another stroke of delicious synergy, The Powers That Be (TPTB) at Bravo commissioned second-season designer, Nick Verreos, to design an apron for Top Chef. Nick told the Bravo blogs, “I wanted to design a unique apron that wasn’t your mother’s old apron, so no silly sayings like ‘Blame the Cook,’ or cheesy food graphics like a turkey or fruit. I wanted it to be the hip apron. The design is understated and chic.”

The apron says “CHOP!” in big, black letters over colorful, stylized chef’s knives. It’s not immediately clear if the cheftestants themselves will be wearing the aprons, but the Verreos aprons will be available for purchase from Bravo’s online store on October 18th, the same day as the Top Chef premiere.

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A La Turca

A La Turca serves Turkish food, perfectly prepared and truly distinct from all other Mediterranean styles of cooking. Particularly recommended is the Beyti kebap, skewers of spiced ground lamb and beef, but cold appetizers with fresh Turkish pita bread and any grilled meats are also great. Wash it down with some cold Turkish beer and feel the love. You know when you eat at a place and it’s so spectacularly, unbelievably good that you can’t stop laughing? It’s that kind of place. And it’s under $10 a plate. Often way under. “Please go and eat at A La Turca and then call me so we can cry on the phone together,” says zameloy.

A La Turca [Van Ness Corridor]
869 Geary St., San Francisco

Board Links
Turkish Delight in the Tenderloin

Real Water Bagels

New York by the Bay has real, water-boiled bagels–soft and chewy, with a proper shiny skin. They have a touch of sweetness, almost like a water challah–some might mark them down in authenticity for that. Compared side-by-side with bagels from House of Bagels and Marin Bagels, the New York by the Bay bagels win hands-down, says rworange. And the proprietor talks like a real New Yorker.

New York by the Bay Deli & Cafe [Marin County]
1005 Northgate Dr., San Rafael

Board Links
San Rafael–New York by the Bay Deli – real NY owners … real water bagels.

Road Trip: Filling Up on the New Jersey Turnpike

Along the New Jersey Turnpike, there’s no shortage of places to refuel. If you’re around Bordentown, Mastoris Diner (exit 7 or 7A) is a good one, especially for breakfast, says bgut1. Breads, cakes, and pastries are baked in-house. Try the cheese bread, which is really more like a Danish. Non-breakfast dishes are just OK, advises val ann c.

In East Windsor, Americana Diner (exit 8) serves a terrific breakfast, including standout omelettes that are finished off in the oven, says JessKidden. The flagship of a Jersey mini-chain, the Americana also makes its own bread and other baked goods. Scagnetti reports uncommonly good toast, part of a satisfying Sunday breakfast of hash, eggs over easy, and home fries.

Away from the Turnpike but close to its Newark Bay extension, the Flamingo (exit 14 to I-78) is a Jersey City landmark and a dependable spot for breakfast, including exceptional sausage and a sandwich with egg, cheese, and Taylor ham, says jerseyguy2000. Beyond breakfast, he recommends the BLT, tuna melt, Yankee bean soup, Greek-style chicken, and rice pudding.

Mastoris Diner [Burlington County]
144 US Hwy. 130, near Rte. 206 N, Bordentown, NJ

Americana Diner [Mercer County]
359 Rte. 130 N, near Stockton St., East Windsor, NJ

Flamingo Restaurant [Hudson County]
31 Montgomery St., at Greene, Jersey City, NJ

Board Links
Flamingo Diner comments
Breakfast along NJ Turnpike

Eating the Big Easy

Creole Chef has probably the best New Orleans food in Los Angeles right now, says Norm Man, who asserts he’d rather drive there from MDR than walk to the closer Uncle Darrow’s. Shrimp Yvonne, crawfish bisque and pretty much all the po’ boys blow the competition out of the water, says Dommy.

Harold & Belle’s is the next runner-up, but Uncle Darrow’s is pretty good too–they’ll give you samples if you can’t decide what to get. Go for gumbo and jambalaya, says gourmetla, and sign up for the email list to hear about crawfish boils.

Mardi Gras in Toluca Lake is no more, but for those who miss it, the same owners also have Michael’s Bar & Grill in Burbank (see also ChowNews #199), where they’re serving the same menu.

Creole Chef [South LA]
3715 Santa Rosalia Dr., Stocker, Los Angeles

Harold & Belle’s Restaurant [Crenshaw]
2920 W Jefferson Blvd, at 10th Ave between Arlington and Crenshaw, Los Angeles

Uncle Darrow’s [South LA]
5185 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles

Michael’s Bar & Grill [East San Fernando Valley]
2825 West Olive Ave., Burbank

Board Links
Best Cajun/Creole???