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July 31, 2006

The Tru Crew vs. Mario Batali

As predicted, fennel turned out to be a fantastic ingredient. We'll save the spoilers for after the jump, but first, a couple of general observations.

Screw the frozen peas and hamburger... this is the kind of ingredient we should be seeing on Iron Chef. Fennel is bold, distinctive, flexible and multifaceted, and I think this was plainly evidenced by what looked like not only one of the tastiest menus we've seen on ICA, but also one of the most interesting. Admittedly, I'm not exactly coming from a place of objectivity. I've been an unabashed champion of the vegetable for a long time, and it's at or near the top of my personal wish list for Iron Chef Chicago. But I can't think of a time when I've been more envious of the panel.

Second, where have I been? Watermelon radish? Where the heck did that come from? I make it a personal mission to say informed about these things. Clearly, I'm slipping. A subsequent web search has revealed that it's evidently a mild heirloom Chinese radish that, aside from its color, is fairly typical. But man, is that color stunning.

But onto the food!

It was interesting, and it looked mighty tasty, but as I feared, it wasn't much of a fight. I admire Tramonto and Gand for electing to take on one of the true superchefs, and I think they could ordinarily go toe to orange-clad toe with Mario, but they were doomed the moment fennel was announced as the ingredient. Of course, we all know by now that the secret ingredient isn't really much of a secret, and I wonder if they picked Batali before or after they knew what the ingredient was going to be. So it was either a bold choice or a really bold choice, and either way I salute them.

The Tru Crew's menu was looking mighty fine, which I think only served to drive home just how amazing Batali's was. They showed off a little by pushing seven dishes, and in some ways I think that hurt them. While the menu looked great, it seemed to lack focus a bit. In particular, as talented as Gand is, I think she was a liability in this scenario. It seemed to me that she treated the fennel too gingerly. I think fennel works great in a sweet context, but I think you have to fully embrace it, and I don't think she did. All of that said, the risotto, halibut and venison looked like a murderers' row... but, man, did they run into a brick wall.

Holy cats, has this show ever seen such a strong menu from start to finish? Before service, Mario made some corny comment about being "practically born with fennel coursing through [his] blood," but it's hard to fault the guy for such a lame statement when he's totally right. This menu could only be the product of a mind that is one with fennel. If I'm going to make a habit of this, I need to work up a better way to get some screen captures... taking photographs of my television is clearly not the best way to display these dishes... but here are the resulting images anyway.

First up, a fennel salad. Okay. A shaved fennel salad with arugula and Parmigiano Reggiano is tasty but tame. The addition of artichoke that's been poached with fennel, lemon, mint and wine is a nice touch. But add a fennel toast with sweet-sour fennel marmalade and a fennel pollen fried quail egg? Brilliant enough on its own, but he then goes way over the top by pairing it with fennel and sambuca bellini. Where do you go from there? Raw tuna, evidently, with steamed fennel, blood oranges, onion pickles and a toasted fennel oil. Then he goes intense, bringing a dish that pushed caramelized fennel and fennel pollen. Moroccan spiced squab breast dressed with caramelized fennel, saffron, olives, cilantro and chiles, sitting atop a sauce of piquillo peppers with more caramelized fennel and pollen blended therein. So after that kind of intensity, he pulls back a little bit with a less flamboyant comfort dish, busting out pork loin that's brined, seared and roasted with a fennel pollen crust. It's sauced with a puree of fennel and onions atop which the pork was roasted, and which has been mellowed slightly with some milk. And then to hammer home the theme in a completely non-gratuitous manner, he serves it atop a simply roasted whole fennel bulb. Then, to round the menu up, he goes full circle back to raw fennel, this time in a sweet context that has dessert sensibilities without being fennel ice cream. He dresses the fennel with Greek yogurt, orange zest and honey that's been infused with fennel seeds and a little chile for heat. Then, they're accompanied by a candied and toasted fennel crisp and a fennel cookie. I love desserts that challenge the notion that the last course has to either A) have chocolate or B) be ultrasweet, and I'm especially fond of ones that push the sweet/savory boundary, and this is it in spades.

I'm a fan of this particular set of hometown chefs, but there's no two ways about it. They got spanked. Batali has his detractors, but I challenge any of them to watch this battle and tell me this isn't a brilliant chef at the top of his game. ICA has had some real clunkers recently, but this wasn't one of them. It wasn't much of a fight, but Batali's menu was a thing of beauty. If you're at all into ICA, this is a good one to catch.


Hey, I love your blog! I have to agree with you. Batali won this, hands down.

I believe that the producers choose who battles whom, even though it seems as if the challenger gets to choose. I may be mistaken, but, I think they did this on IC Japan as well.

And, the pics came out surprisingly well for being pics of your TV screen!

Blog on!

Well, I wonder. In the context of the show, sometimes the chairman lets the challenger choose, and sometimes it's a preset matchup. Of course, it could be that it's always preset, but then I wonder why they would bother with the show of letting the challenger pick, but only sometimes. But who knows? :-)

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