Top Chef: Straight Outta Napa

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Waiting for the reckoning train to Napa. Photo: Virginia Sherwood/Bravo

As the final four contestants are sittin in the railroad station with a ticket for their destination, we find out that Jens mom taught her how to cook, Kevins beard has a Facebook page, Bryan owns the biggest umbrella ever (two of them, actually), and Padma has bangs, and is pregnant. Also, Napa Valley is really sunny and gorgeous and wed love to be there right now.

Michael Chiarello tells everyone that the winner of the Quickfire (which involves cooking with grapes on the Napa Valley Wine Train) will get to find out who Padmas babydaddy is. OK, not really theyll get a Prius. Kind of shabby considering Colicchio recently crossed the country in a Porsche, but whatever. First thing that happens on the train, Michael snags Bryans prep table. Suddenly theres a lot of talk of sibling rivalry (in case you didnt realize it during the first 25 challenges, these guys are brothers), and we begin to suspect that maybe one of them is going home. But in fact Michael wins his first Quickfire with a roasted hen served with Brussels sprouts caramelized with bacon and a concord-grape reduction. grape leaf stuffed with "couscous," vinegar glazed grape and scallop kebab.

Next its off to the Rutherford Hills Winery where the cheftestants are to cater a crush party for 150 people. They have five hours to make two dishes (one vegetarian, one featuring a protein) using only ingredients from a local farmers market. At this point were wondering whos going to do figs on a plate, but Michael, being Michael, goes for the wow factor of an egg that creates a custard when you cut into it. Again, its complexity versus simplicity: While Michael goes through the trouble of making a pear look like a turnip and making a turnip look like a pear, Kevin simply braises some grass-fed beef, though he knows he might not have time to do it properly. Indeed the judges find the brisket tough and stringy Kevin knows it wasnt tender enough but claims he wanted to make it toothsome so it didnt mush together with the pumpkin polenta it was served on. Tom clearly doesnt buy it, but the judges arent about to send Ginger Santa home. Did we mention theres a Facebook page dedicated to his beard?

As for Michaels dish, Colicchio whips out the ultimate cooking clich and says the sum of all of its parts were much better than the individual components, but Gail thinks there was too much turnip soup on the plate. They also have qualms about his vegetable dish, which consists of slightly poached eggs with a vegetable pistou of zucchini, squash, eggplant, and tomatoes cooked down in tomato coulis with some fennel. They think the slightly undercooked egg overwhelms the veggies, which were cut too small.

The maitake mushroom fondue that Bryan puts over his goat-cheese ravioli couldve used salt and pepper, and the fig glaze on his braised short rib couldve been more figgy, but nevertheless he wins the challenge. Since Michael and Bryan might as well be Chang and Eng as far as the judges are concerned, Michael is obviously going to be spared, too. Which leaves Jen. She had hoped to grill a duck in a coal oven, but the coals burned out so she was forced to confit the breast in its own fat instead and pair it with duck legs braised in duck stock. The judges love the resulting duckiness (in fact, some dude at the tasting said it was out of the park), but Gail doesnt think she used enough foie gras vinaigrette, which was the best part of the dish. Her vegetarian dish (chevre mousse with honey mushrooms, braised radishes, and basil) is also too salty. But not as salty as the tears everyone is holding back when Padma has to tell Jen to take the next Napa Valley Wine Train home.

Next week, someone hacks off a fish head, Donatella Arpaia doesnt like the fact that something is gimmicky (so much for wow factor), and anxiety starts to set in. Yesss.

Related: Grub Street Philly calls Jen Carroll on her pronunciation of the word "ceviche."