When we last saw our dear chefs, the grey team was high fiving themselves for a lunch service done well, while the orange team was still firing first courses for newly seated guests. This really set up the grey team to have the appropriate amount of time to prepare for dinner in terms of setting up stations, getting dishes started, and training the staff for service. Carl Dooley took the role of executive chef for dinner and Karen Akunowicz took general manager.
It's interesting that Karen and Marjorie Meek-Bradley are the only two female chefs left in a group of eight, and they are served as front of house. I don't think it means anything about their abilities or talents as chefs — in my mind they both should make it to the finals — but to me it points out that they were both willing to take on that role every other competitor dreads even if it meant a more serious risk of them going home. Or maybe they both have opened more restaurants in their careers. Either way, they both stepped up.
Tom Colicchio and guest judge for the challenge LA-based restaurateur Bill Chait come back after lunch has finally ended to chat with the teams for a moment. They note that lunch was kind of unexciting and overall it felt like the teams both played it safe with their dishes. For dinner, they needed to push harder and step it up.
Now that the orange team behind District LA restaurant has finally finished serving lunch, they need to get started on prepping for dinner. For this service, Amar Santana is taking the role of executive chef and Phillip Frankland Lee is bringing his man bun and chest tattoos to the front of the house. It's no surprise he's taking on this role now, he had said before the challenge even started that he wanted to be the GM. He has the opposite approach that I would take. I would just be like, "So, which role involves the least talking to other people?"
Because Phillip is running the dining room, he is leaving his prized strawberry and champagne salad dish in Kwame Onwuachi's very capable hands. In the last episode, his explanation of how to assemble the dish to him and Jeremy Ford lasted probably an unedited 35 minutes, which is an awful lot for a strawberry salad. He leaves his dressing and dish elements to Kwame, who thinks the dressing needs both salt and acid and is overall just too sweet and thick. Sweet and thick are great words when you're describing, like, a chocolate sauce or a stack of cash, but not exactly appetizing when it comes to a salad dressing. He knows that fighting Phillip on this dish is a losing battle, though, so he plates it as he is told.
Back on the grey team, the slight time advantage seems to have caught up with everyone. Marjorie took on a lot for dinner: bread service, a composed cheese plate, and a dessert. And with all of that to prep, when Karen gets in the weeds cutting up her trout, Marjorie gives the staff the first run-through for the sake of the team and in order to ensure efficient service. People always say don't play favorites, but I'm an only child, so I exclusively play favorites, and I'm rooting for Marjorie to win this whole thing.
Karen also took on a lot for the team. In addition to being general manager for dinner, she has two and a half dishes she's responsible for, including handmade tortellini. Thankfully, for the team, Carl has the frenetic energy of "a caffeinated squirrel" according to Isaac Toups, and is great at expediting dishes and calling out orders in the kitchen when things get harried.
First stop for the judges is Palate restaurant, which is run by the grey team. As soon as they are seated, Karen brings out a colander of Marjorie's parmesan and parsley garlic bread. It's warm, and crisp on the outside while being soft on the inside, and incredibly fragrant. Look, Marjorie knows bread, and it was smart of this team to utilize that and create a full dining experience. Going to a restaurant that doesn't serve bread is an absolute nightmare. I mean, then what are you supposed to fill up on before your food comes?
The first course is two dishes. One is from Carl and Karen, which is an oxtail consomme with tripe, tortellini, and mushrooms. It's a bold move to serve tripe (the lining to a cow's stomach for those not up on their organs), but Padma Lakshmi points out that while she doesn't usually enjoy it, the way it's cut very small really works here. The second dish is Carl's snapper crudo with cucumber, ginger, and grapes. It has heat and kick to it and satisfies all of the judges as a bright start to the meal. But also, it's another crudo. There's been one in almost every challenge and there's one on nearly every restaurant menu in the country. Tom calls it "the new pork belly." I wonder what will be "the new crudo." I hope it's chips.
For the entrees, Isaac prepared braised lamb shoulder with couscous, pickled fennel, anchovy, and orange. It's cooked well and has his trademark bold flavors that he finally rediscovered after a few meaty missteps in the last few challenges. The judges really enjoy the dish, though they aren't as into Karen's trout stuffed with coconut rice and heirloom tomatoes. It's unfortunately a huge portion of a bad dish. Poorly conceived and not well executed.
The final course is Marjorie's desserts. She prepared a composed cheese plate with Rogue Creamery blue cheese, dates, pecans, pickled plums, and coconut. Tom is a huge fan of the flavor combinations, and everyone enjoys the dish. Her buttermilk panna cotta in California berry soup with vanilla and macadamia nuts, however, doesn't please them as much. Marjorie added champagne to the soup, which she had never done before, and it doesn't pay off with the judges. They find the fizz unpleasant.
Overall, the experience at Palate is a positive one. The service was good, Karen did an excellent job managing the dining room and creating an enjoyable atmosphere, and the food, on the whole, was tasty.
Next door at District LA, the experience is drastically different.
When the judges arrive, a host greets them and offers them a cocktail while they wait for Phillip to take them to their table. Then, instead of walking over to the bar or back into the kitchen, he pulls a glass bottle and cups from underneath the host station in a move so ridiculous it makes Tom burst out laughing. I do understand it's ridiculous for the challenge, but I don't hate the idea of cocktails stowed in every piece of furniture I see. I probably wouldn't choose Phillip's Bangkok Dangerous that's a mix of fruit juice and sake, but I like the concept.
Once the judges sit down they realize the menu has no cohesive thread. A little Asian influence over here, a little Italian influence over there, it's just all over the place. Almost as soon as they pick up the menus, though, an amuse bouche comes out. Kwame prepared a beet cured hamachi with avocado mousse, ostera caviar and a celery lime emulsion. They hate it. The last few challenges there haven't been many truly bad dishes, but it looks like those tides have turned.
The first course includes Amar's avocado gazpacho with king crab salad, lemon pudding, and fried tortilla. It's a confusing dish, and he'd be better off just calling it avocado cream nachos because that's the vibe the judges all get from eating it.
This is also when Phillip's famed strawberry dish is finally served. He's been talking about this for two episodes now, going on and on about it's technical preparation and repeatedly saying how much diners at his two LA restaurants love it so much they ask for it when they arrive. The dish is "Strawberries and Champagne" and is — allegedly — a salad of strawberries, pickled cucumber, roasted beets, and arugula with a strawberry champagne gazpacho.
Tom actually scratches his head when he gets the dish. It certainly doesn't look like how it's described. It looks like a big plate of strawberries soaked in strawberry sauce. That's apparently how it tastes, too. It's more of a dessert than a salad. And the gazpacho, which is supposed to be some kind of dressing, is as thick and sweet as Kwame warned him about. Gail Simmons says, "It felt stupid, it felt like it had no purpose," which is exactly how I'd describe engagement photos. Anyway, huge miss.
Phillip's "salad" isn't the only miss he's giving the judges. As the GM of the restaurant, he's being very attentive, but pretty much won't shut up. He's running around the dining room talking about his tattoos and his two LA restaurants when what he should be doing is managing the nuances of service. One waiter tops of Tom's glass of red wine when he hasn't even taken a sip yet so it's comically full. Again, I disagree with the judges here on personal preference, but I respect that this is a bonkers move in a restaurant.
The next course is Jeremy's artichoke risotto with crispy shallots and Marin county olive oil. What should be a tasty dish falls flat because it's flavorless and gummy. Kwame's roasted Amish chicken thigh with cauliflower, San Marzano sauce and Marcona almonds is slightly better, but unexciting and one-note.
The last course is Amar's slow braised pork belly with bbq sauce consomme, heirloom tomatoes, and shaved snap peas, and Jeremy's dry-aged rib eye with celery root miso puree, miso butter, and summer squash. His meat is good enough, but definitely nothing special. And while Amar's pork belly is actually well cooked and seasoned, his consomme is arguably just a bowl of vinegar based on the judges' and other diners' reactions.
At Judges' Table, Padma explains it was neck and neck after lunch, but dinner proved a very obvious winner, Palate and the grey team. The overall experience and food for both meals at this restaurant was very good, and it was obvious that they worked together as a team for efficient service and tasty dishes. While Marjorie and Karen both killed it as GMs, and there were stellar dishes from everyone, Isaac wins the challenge for being an excellent executive chef for dinner service and putting out dishes that made the judges happy.
Judging who should go home from the orange team and District LA restaurant is a lot more challenging, as Tom notes, because whoever goes home really deserved it this time. It's a nicer way of saying that pretty much everyone fucked up here. The judges start discussing Jeremy's disastrous lunch service before remembering that dinner was the real train wreck. None of the dishes were good, the service was efficient but unpleasant, and they just didn't seem to work as a team at all.
In the end, for his bad job at front of the house and his worse dishes, Phillip is sent to pack his knives, man bun, ego, and whatever else he brought with him from across town, and go.