Bravo's hit reality cooking show, Top Chef, which debuted in 2006, changed the way we look at chefs and the people who prepare high-end dishes. Its judges have included culinary luminaries like Anthony Bourdain and Food & Wine magazine editor Dana Cowin. And it has thrust more chefs before a national audience than any other platform. The show's contestants compete with hopes of not only preparing the best dishes and winning the competition but also eventually opening a restaurant with jam-packed reservation books and big money.
Gastronomic capitals like New York City and San Francisco have spawned or attracted the highest proportion of Top Chef's nearly 200 competitors, but Miami is close behind. A dozen locals have made it onto the air, and some have done exceedingly well. But success in front of the camera doesn't always lead to a viable restaurant.
The experience of two locals exhibits the show's inverse relationship to reality. Hung Huynh triumphed during the show's third season with delicate Asian food but then failed at Catch Miami, which amounted to little more than a clubby scene stacked with beautiful people. It closed this summer. Season-five heartthrob Jeff McInnis failed on the show but succeeded in grand fashion at the Asian-tilted, small-plates midtown spot Gigi before moving on to his even more popular place, Yardbird, in South Beach. In 2013 he decamped for the big leagues of New York City to open the now-popular Root & Bone in Alphabet City.
"They do look for the best of the best," says Howie Kleinberg, a sharp-tongued season-three contestant who opened North Miami's Bulldog Barbecue in 2009. "But they need people who are going to open their mouths and say something interesting."
Two recent contestants -- Carla Pellegrino, who was booted on the fourth episode in 2012, and Bret Pelaggi, who was expelled on the third episode in 2013 -- have opened vastly different places exemplifying the wild range of projects that chefs undertake after the cameras shut off.
Pellegrino's 4-month-old Touché Rooftop Lounge & Restaurant is the crown jewel of the 24-hour cabaret, nightclub, and live music venue Elleven in downtown Miami. It's a big-money spot with a luxurious, 48-seat dining room and views of Space, the after-hours dance haven across the street. Brazilian-born, Italian-raised Pellegrino earned her bona fides in Las Vegas, where in 2006 she opened an outpost of Rao's, New York City's century-old Italian-American eatery.
Red sauce dominates the bill of fare at Touché, but dishes lack the refinement you'd expect from a place where the main dishes go for as much as $38. Take, for example, the $18 spaghetti pomodoro. The pasta was woefully undercooked, underseasoned, and closer to raw than al dente. A tangy, sweet San Marzano tomato sauce was missing salt and couldn't save the brittle noodles. The Parmesan cheese was the bland, dry variety you find in a supermarket aisle.
A deceivingly simple veal parmigiana was also scuttled during execution. The generous cutlet was rubbery and covered in mozzarella that tasted like the mass-produced variety. The breading was greasy and flaccid. The fact that the ingredients and preparation aren't particularly creative pales compared to the realization that for the $29 price tag, you could buy two superior renditions elsewhere.
Oh, there is sushi here too, because nothing complements tomato sauce better than raw fish. Pellegrino explains she prefers Japanese when she eats out because it's a lighter, more refined cuisine, but it's out of place here. Moreover, the rice doesn't have enough of the sweet-tart seasoning that lights up the seafood. An exception is the Marilyn Monroe roll, which boasts a crunchy, tempura-fried shrimp that provides a nice textural contrast to soft scallop bits and spicy mayo.
The most reliable plate is the meatballs -- two five-ounce globes of veal, beef, and pork that are intensely savory and light, even though Pellegrino doesn't use the age-old secret of incorporating milk-soaked bread. They're slathered in a sweet, slow-cooked marinara that you can sop with some of their $8 foccacia, if you choose to spring for it.
There's hope here, though. The place is relatively new, and the design is elegant. The club downstairs has drawn plenty of celebrities, and Pellegrino clearly has the skills to run a successful restaurant. But if Touché is to succeed, it must concentrate on getting the basics right.
Pelaggi's place, Uvaggio Wine Bar, is a marked contrast. Tucked into a narrow, unmarked space on wedding-salon-stuffed Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, the 14-seat restaurant serves unforgettable meals that rotate so often you could return every week. The broad-shouldered chef says his brief appearance on the show came out of desperation. "I moved down here and didn't know anybody or have any connections," he says.
After he was dumped, he returned to a handful of offers at hotels but settled at Simon Stojanovic's now-shuttered Tikl on Brickell Avenue before taking over Uvaggio's pocket-size kitchen. There aren't even burners here, just a pair of magnetic induction cooktops. But he doesn't flinch. "This was an opportunity to be creative and cook my own food," he says.
The night I ate there, one of the best dishes included luscious pieces of rabbit cooked sous vide and doused in a red wine reduction that overshadowed any lingering hint of gaminess. The hare's light flavor was the perfect foil for sofrito-infused black rice studded with tender, slightly spicy disks of chorizo. Crisp fried artichoke hearts weren't at all greasy. Sprinkled with a bit of lemon juice, the dish was unique and memorable.
Also impressive were a dozen translucent slivers of locally caught wahoo sliced with nigiri-like precision and topped with a refreshing mix of finely diced cucumbers, apricots plumped in red wine, and pickled ginger. Spots of a tart lychee-passionfruit purée helped accentuate the fish's natural sweetness, and a sprinkle of smoked sea salt delivered a hint of earthiness.
A golden gazpacho was equally refreshing. It blended corn and yellow tomatoes with a corn broth, sherry vinegar, and a hint of cumin that added an aromatic wisp and prevented the dish from becoming too sweet. A dash of nutty annato oil further tamped down the sugar. Some chopped avocado and a ring of crème fraîche lent just the right amount of richness.
It's striking that two contestants whose tenure on the show was so similar have ended up with restaurants of such different quality.
Perhaps we'll really get a sense of the show's tether to reality when Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio, of Gramercy Tavern and Craft fame, opens his farm-to-table Mediterranean concept in South Beach. Colicchio's record gives the show its air of credibility, and his new place will be joined by Fabio Viviani's Siena Tavern on the corner of Fifth Street and Washington Avenue. There are also rumors that Nina Compton, former Scarpetta chef de cuisine and the most recent season's runnerup, has a place in the works.
It's easy to get caught up in the hype and fun to compare these restaurants to the chefs you have seen on television. But the restaurants ought to be measured the same way you would size up any neighborhood spot or fine-dining establishment with a hardworking, anonymous chef in back: If the food is delicious and the service spot on, it's a winner. If not, on to the next one.
Touché Rooftop Lounge & Restaurant
Classic meatballs $12
Marilyn Monroe $19
Veal parmigiana $29
Spaghetti pomodoro $18
Uvaggio Wine Bar
Golden gazpacho $10
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Rabbit sous vide $18
Wahoo crudo $16