It took a transpacific flight, but finally last night, "The Next Iron Chef" deviated from its status as a "Top Chef" also-ran and finally started getting ... weird. Or maybe it was just the goofy opening montage of our four remaining cheftestants standing in the busy rain-slicked streets of Tokyo, crossing their arms in slo-mo and acting all alpha-dog dominant.
In any event, the show is finally getting down to its high-stakes, high-drama Japanese roots after an extended period of trumped-up, low-stakes challenges in Los Angeles. Our trio of alternately grumpy and spunky judges have come along for the ride, and eyebrow-cocking "Chairman" Marc Dacascos is no longer beamed in via satellite to bark oblique commands to the chefs -- now he can do so in person!
This week's mission was the pursuit of umami, the Japanese concept of a so-called fifth flavor -- something beyond savory -- that seems to be everywhere these days. The word was mentioned about a zillion times in the course of last night's episode, and -- surprise! -- it just happens to be the current marketing catchphrase of "TNIC" sponsor Kikkoman, whose umpteen varieties of soy sauce were littered around the challenge kitchen. The umami theme also allowed host Alton Brown a moment to do what he does best: Explain all the geeky details of how soy sauce is made.
That food chemistry lesson out of the way, it was up to our remaining pro chefs to get down to the flavor at hand, a challenge made all the more confusing in the Hattori Nutrition College kitchen, replete with weird can openers, stoves operating in celcius and ice cream makers that seemed to deep-freeze their wares to a glacier-like consistency. Asked to fill five spots of a bento box each with a different rice-based dish, the foursome didn't need to engage in the usual reality-show sabotage -- the people who arranged the kitchen seemed to do that for them.
For once, the pounding "TNIC" music and editing didn't seem overdone. As chef Amanda Freitag struggled with burnt condensed milk, tight spaces not made for a tall, "German white woman" and chicken that fell a few inches short of a cooking flame, Jehangir Mehta got all discombobulated figuring out which bento boxes were his. Meanwhile, running around this foreign kitchen made Jose Garces sweat worse than the pork belly he was braising for the judges.
We know that chef Mehta never met an ice cream machine he didn't like, but this didn't stop fellow frontrunner Seamus Mullen from strategically getting there first -- starting a frozen yuzu concoction before Mehta got the chance to realize his prized gadget was occupied. Although his dishes made it to the judges uncompromised, Mehta nonetheless got a cool reception, uncharacteristic for him. Even some of his more creative flourishes, like a sugared shiso leaf and berry dessert, seemed to fall short of expectations.
The chipper Freitag -- seen dancing and singing gibberish more than once during the cook-off -- whipped up an intriguing radicchio tempura and a tamari-marinated kobe beef dish that certainly seemed umami-worthy. But by the way judge Donatella Arpaia gnawed on her kobe for about five minutes, we knew something was amiss. That, combined with guest judge Dr. Hattori's comment that she should have stuck to dried shiitakes, sealed her fate and sent her back home.
With Mehta and Mullen mostly underwhelming the judges, it was Garces' turn to show his Iron Chef chops. The "TNIC" editors focused on the negative: He was criticized for having too-similar rice textures, and an "overly salty" seaweed comment from Jeffrey Steingarten nearly threw him off of his game. But that proved to be a massive fake-out, as his pork belly and congee ended up being the perfect fusion of "eastern and western umami," a vague bit of praise whose nuance, we assume, was lost in the awkward, overdubbed translation. Maybe it's enough that "TNIC" is back in its element -- now that they've found their umami, maybe coherency will follow suit.