Memorable Meals

Memorable Meals

Gail talks hangin' with Stifler's mom and why she'll remember Michael's paella for a long time.

For once, I shared Michael Midgley's sentiments: it was very cool to hang with Stifler's Mom!

Jennifer Coolidge is a fabulous comic actress who has starred in many of my favorite films. Besides that legendary role in American Pie, her credits include Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind and Best in Show, not to mention Legally Blonde and of course the hysterical agent on "Joey." Let me tell you, she also knows how to throw a party!

It was a pleasure spending time with her on this episode, and even more so knowing she enjoyed her Elimination Challenge lunch.

A little side note: the deep red-and-orange beaded necklace she is wearing at our party, she borrowed from none other than moi, when she realized she had forgotten her own jewelry at home. Social is its hottest restaurant at the moment ... and everyone knows how fickle Hollywood can be. The space is vast, modern and unexpected with multiple private dining rooms and lounges, a poolroom and Barbarella looping on several flat screens throughout. The food is bold and playful and Michelle Bernstein, their Consulting Executive Chef, happens to be one of my all-time favorite people! Just last spring I had the opportunity to visit her namesake restaurant Michy's while celebrating my birthday in Miami.

I had such a terrific birthday meal, full of bright colors and deep flavors, every detail as warm and welcoming as Chef Michelle is herself -- without fuss or pretension. I clearly recall my soft shell crab and watermelon appetizer, the chef's special that day, as well as the seared scallops with oxtail stew I chose for my main course. I have come to believe that this is what people love most about eating -- that it can transport and inspire you, creating a lasting impression for years to come. It is why I chose to do what I do for a living, and informs the judgments I make on the show: will I look back six days or six months later and be able to describe this dish in detail, almost tasting it again in the process? Was it original in concept but still natural in execution? Did it make me feel good? Do I dream of returning to eat it again? I was very excited at the start of this week's Elimination Challenge. After all, it was the first challenge that was not restrictive in scope. Since we were filming during mid-summer in Southern California, I was confident the ingredients would be fabulous; there were enormous quantities of fruits, vegetables and protein in Social's kitchen. The chefs had a substantial amount of time to complete their work and with a little luck we would get our first real taste of what these chefs could do.

The first three courses definitely impressed me. Marcel and Frank did a very good job of combining color and flavor in their Duo of Salmon and Beets. Their salmon mousse and tartare were well seasoned; the beet greens and beets added a visual component to the dish that we all appreciated. The only factor that held them back from finishing at the top of our challenge was the dish's relative lack of texture. The soft beets, the mousse, the tartare with avocado all felt the same in your mouth (one chip for garnish does not count here as a major factor in contrast). I could not help feeling as if we were eating baby food -- even if it was superb baby food. Cliff and Sam's course was simple, clean and I could isolate each flavor as well cooked and well conceived. Their presentation was spotless and gave diners a chance to compare and contrast two very different elements on one plate -- the scallop with grits played beautifully against the foie gras with fig gastrique and mushroom crostini. My only issue with it was that I wanted more!

Then we tried Ilan and Michael's Baked Seafood Paella with mushrooms and fried soft shell crab. This is the sort of food we had been waiting for since Day One. It was earthy and soulful. It literally melted in your mouth. Soft shell crab has a very short season each year, from May to August, and arrives at most restaurants still alive. Like lobster, you want to eat it very fresh, preferably moments after it has been killed, and you can eat almost every part of it. Those prepared by Ilan and Michael were plump and juicy, still tasting of the sea. The paella was crusty with layered flavors of mushroom, seafood, and strong saffron. It was our obvious winner. I will remember this dish for a very long time.

One common thread through out the evening was how many of the chef teams attempted to incorporate multiple small dishes on one plate. Our first course was a duo, our second course was divided into two separate sections, and our fifth and sixth courses were both "trios" of distinct parts. Their efforts to try and impress us were hindered by an excess of components on each plate; especially as most of the time they had no relation to one another. If you cannot ensure one thing is cooked and presented perfectly, why do more? The final effect confused the diners and detracted focus from the dish as a whole. I am not even going to go through the bottom three dishes in detail; I think we did enough of that at Judges Table. All three were seriously problematic. I was disheartened to see Josie and Marisa go. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt they are both capable of cooking food far better than what they served us. Their dish was a poor choice from start to finish. Compared to so many others we ate at the lunch it did not stand a chance. On the other hand, I may remember their Pepto-Bismol colored juice for years to come. Sadly, just not for the reasons I should.

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