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 Jen’s mom taught her how to cook, Kevin’s 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 we’d 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 Padma’s babydaddy is. OK, not really — they’ll 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 Bryan’s prep table. Suddenly there’s a lot of talk of sibling rivalry (in case you didn’t 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 it’s 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 farmer’s market. At this point we’re wondering who’s 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, it’s 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 wasn’t tender enough but claims he wanted to make it “toothsome” so it didn’t mush together with the pumpkin polenta it was served on. Tom clearly doesn’t buy it, but the judges aren’t about to send Ginger Santa home. Did we mention there’s a Facebook page dedicated to his beard?

As for Michael’s dish, Colicchio whips out the ultimate cooking cliché 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 could’ve used salt and pepper, and the fig glaze on his braised short rib could’ve 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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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."