'Top Chef Masters': Anita Lo and Neil Patrick Harris are magic

Anitalo_topchefmasters_290 "Top Chef Masters" invades the Magic Castle to cook for Neil Patrick Harris and friends -- after enduring a particularly bone-headed quickfire.

Our chefs:

Douglas Rodriguez
Restaurants: Alma De Cuba, Philadelphia; Deseo, Scottsdale, Arizona; OLA Miami, Miami
He practices "tortilla-free Latin-American cooking" and coined the phrase "Nuevo Latino cuisine."

Anita Lo
Restaurant: Annisa, New York
She may have an edge since she spends a lot of time on the line, actually cooking. I would hope that ALL chefs spend a fair amount of time actually cooking, but perhaps I'm being naive.

John Besh
Restaurants: August, La Provence, L¸ke and Besh Steak, New Orleans
He's a "real cajun boy" and former marine who used his military training to cook mass quantities of red beans and rice and deliver it via boat after Hurricane Katrina.

Mark Peel
Restaurants: La Brea Bakery and Campanile, Los Angeles
James Oseland calls Campanile one of the best restaurants in LA. I immediately add that to the list for my visit next month. Mark wants to move the East Coast/West Coast feud from rap to cheffery. Can you imagine the posses?


Quickfire Challenge

I know this is a challenge they've done before, but it's ridiculous -- cook eggs with one hand behind your back. This seems less about creativity and more about gimmickry.

Mark informs us that his father was born with one arm, so he knows cooking can be done like this. I don't doubt that it can be done -- the question is, can YOU do it well. He wants to impress, so he decides to do a duck egg pasta with an egg and olive oil sauce. Holy crap,.

John goes to the other extreme -- he's just going to do a perfect soft-cooked egg. Too bad the "cooked" part doesn't take -- the oven he's using is wonky, or he set it wrong, and by the time he checks, he's almost out of time. He tried to cook one on a burner.

Anita and Douglas both do variations on scrambled eggs: Douglas makes an open-face corn cake with scrambled eggs and ham, while Anita presents soft scrambled eggs with shitake mushrooms and truffle oil in an eggshell cup placed in the mouth of a carafe. It's a gorgeous presentation -- all the more impressive since she used her chin to operate the tool that lopped off the top of the eggs. (John helped -- he held the egg while she sliced.)

John's single egg is only half cooked, and it's greasy and unimpressive besides. He gets half a star, and is grateful for that. The judges (and other chefs) are impressed that Mark made pasta one-handed, but the dish itself is bland -- he plated at the last possible second and forgot to add the olive oil. He gets 2 1/2 stars. The judges like Douglas' scrambled eggs, but they can't tell if he made the corn cake himself -- 3 stars. Anita's perfectly cooked eggs and gorgeous presentation earn her the maximum score -- 5 stars. The East Coast pulls ahead.

Elimination Challenge
The chefs have to create a dish that demonstrates one of the necessary ingredients of a good magic trick: mystery, surprise, spectacle and illusion. They'll be cooking for Neil Patrick Harris (eeeee!) and friends at The Magic Castle.

Mark gets mystery, and instead of flashing back to cafeteria mystery meat, he thinks en papillote. And that's why it's good that he's on this show and I'm not. En papillote means cooked in a parchment-paper package, so you don't know what you're getting until you open it. Clever, right? In this case, the mysterious food is red snapper, and the big mystery is whether it will be overcooked, since Mark is ready to serve before the time is up. Thankfully, it's not -- the diners rave. Of course, it helps that he serves shots of sake with the meal. Sake is the bacon of booze -- it makes EVERYTHING better!

John draws surprise, and decides to surprise people with a vastly different temperatures than they expect -- an ice-cold blini, for example -- and a horseradish crËme fraiche sorbet prepared tableside with liquid nitrogen. It's a nice theory, but in practice... eh. It doesn't really gel.

Anita has illusion, and she crafts a mock scallop out of braised daikon, which is stuffed with steak tartar. To add to the illusion of the seascape, she makes sand out of Rice Crispies ("If you listen closely you might hear it crackleî), and a shellfish broth to bring the smell of the sea. "It's like the sawing the lady in half trick gone wrong!" one of the magician diners says -- and he means that in a good way. It is rather shocking to see something that looks like a perfect grilled scallop. then cut into it to see bloody meat. The judges love it.

Douglas has spectacle, and he's pumped. He's going to set things on fire! But he can't get the 151 proof rum that he normally uses in this trick, so he slathers Sterno on the coconut-shell soup bowls. The flames don't take in some cases and won't die in others. Again, nice theory, but it didn't really work. The duck four ways - ceviche, empanada, breast and soup -- is pretty good, but not great.

The judges are unimpressed with John's nitrogen trick and his surprising temperature shifts -- blinis aren't supposed to give you brain freeze. He ends up with 12 stars total. Ouch. Douglas' fizzled spectacle means he ends up with 13 stars. Mark's surprise package gets great marks -- he ends up with 18 /2 stars. But once again, Anita's dish completely wows the crowd. She ends up with 22 1/2 stars and the title. East Coast triumphant!

Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends

  • Douglas is thrilled they'll be cooking for Neil Patrick Harris -- "We get to cook for Doogie Howser!" Oh, Douglas -- you lost at least one star from Neil right there, I bet. I can just see him screaming "Come on! How I Met Your Mother! Harold and Kumar! I just hosted the Tonys! And STILL I'm Doogie Howser to you!"
  • Mark gets competitive and starts eyeing Anita. "I briefly fantasize about oversalting everything Anita does..." he interviews. Ironically, one of Gail Simmons' complaints is that Anita's dish was underseasoned, so even THAT probably wouldn't have hurt her too much.
  • Mark bristles at the idea that you haven't really made it as a chef until you've opened a restaurant in New York. I bristle too -- because everyone knows the REAL culinary proving ground is Chicago.
  • Douglas' first culinary mentor was Julia Childs -- when his brothers wanted to watch cartoons in the morning, he wanted to watch Julia. That's adorable.
  • Mark does have a lot of the good lines -- the competition feels like an early James Bond film, he says: "The clock is ticking and the laser is creeping up the table toward your crotch."  Heh.
  • Anita, on arriving at the Magic Castle -- "It feels like Hogwarts!" I love her.
  • The interstitial bit shows the judges and Neil's guests enjoying a magic show, where a man pulls a rabbit out of his hair. He hands it to Kelly, who cuddles it. It immediately pees on her. Hah!

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