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Bewiched 

A top chef expands his brand, and we follow

Wednesday, Nov 29 2006
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When I first heard that Tom Colicchio was going to be a regular on a competitive cooking program called Top Chef, I cringed, a little. I think I had overdosed on cheesy foodie reality shows. The loopy pleasures of the original subtitled Japanese Iron Chef had been subsumed by an avalanche of ill-conceived slop such as Celebrity Cooking Showdown, which did nothing for the already tarnished reputation of Wolfgang Puck, already grinning witlessly on cans of salty soup in the local market, and scraped the bottom of the celebrity roster with such stellar names as Tony Gonzalez and Ashley Parker Angel, and The Next Food Network Star, several of whose hapless buffoons didn't seem to know how to hold a knife, much less wield one.

I had adored Colicchio's cooking at Gramercy Tavern, Craft, and 'wichcraft in New York City. His reputation was for food that was delicious, and rigorously so. What, I thought, did he have to gain from presiding over a combination Real World/Survivor/Iron Chef show?

As it happens, Top Chef is produced by the same team that does the marvelous Project Runway, and succeeds for some of the same reasons: The contestants have serious talent, and the challenges thrown at them are both witty and daunting. Colicchio, his bald bullet head as intimidating as Erich Von Stroheim's, is the equivalent of Runway's Tim Gunn, though more virile, not as supportive, and without any "Carry on!" or "Make it work!" catchphrases. Amazingly, when the first wide-eyed pretty-young-wife-to-older-famous-guy hostess, Katie Joel, didn't quite work out (flat affect), they managed to find another wide-eyed "pywtofg" for the second season: Padma Lakshmi (Mrs. S. Rushdie), whose exotic looks belie her Valley Girl intonation, legitimately acquired, as she was raised in Southern California.

The first season was set in San Francisco, and picturesquely so, although most of the cooking was done in kitchen studios hastily set up in Emeryville, a fact not revealed on the show. As it turned out, Colicchio (no longer associated with Gramercy Tavern) was planning to open his third 'wichcraft here, after branches in New York and Las Vegas — "our fast casual sandwich part of our brand," he allowed, positioning himself as a brand, a trifle chillingly. Mrs. Joel introduced a sandwich competition, also alarmingly, as "the theme for this round is business." Especially since the winning sandwich was to be featured on the menu when 'wichcraft opened in S.F.

I'd forgotten just which sandwich it was when I stopped by for lunch the first time, and neither the menu nor the counter people were any help. When I asked which was the Top Chef sandwich, I might as well have been speaking in Urdu, for all the recognition my words got. I did have clearer memories of standing in line at the original sliver of a shop in New York, waiting for the carefully crafted (pun intended) marinated white anchovies with soft-cooked egg, roasted onion, and frisée on country bread, an amazingly lush, unexpected, and well-balanced mouthful. (I don't remember the salsa verde included with this sandwich on the menu here, but it was several years ago!) I'm impressed by S.F.'s lavish, airy, industrial space, into which you could fit a dozen or more of the original N.Y.C. spot.

Here you line up, order, and pay, and are given a numbered tag, so a busser can bring a tray to your table. (I find it awkward to order dessert before I actually know if I want it, but 'wichcraft's witty faux-Hostess cupcakes and cream'wich cookies will survive well if you pack them up for later.) Failing to suss out the Top Chef winner, I order by hunger: a concoction of fried egg, bacon, Gorgonzola, and frisée on a ciabatta roll from the breakfast sandwich rubric, and slow-roasted pork with red cabbage, jalapeños, and mustard, also on ciabatta, from the warm sandwiches.

Both are very good indeed: I was afraid the blue cheese would overpower its neighbors, but it's just a pungent schmear, aiding and abetting the still-soft-yolked egg, the abundance of smoky, fatty thick-cut bacon, the crunchy, fibrous frisée. Yum! This is a combination I want to eat again and again. I also like the spicy, crunchy additions to the falling-apart pork, and a simple but effective fruit salad I tried of chopped mango and grapefruit sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.

Is it witchcraft that makes me hunger to try this season's Top Chef sandwich winner, too? This time the competition, on an episode entitled "Food for the People," is to create a dish to appeal to T.G.I. Friday's customers: a "childhood favorite" with "grown-up appeal." It seems as I watch the show that the judges are most taken with a complicated marinated summer fruit salad in a spicy mint chimichurri vinaigrette, but bow to the realities of the marketplace and go with a tricked-up grilled cheese sandwich served with a roasted bell pepper soup. (Oddly the contestant who actually cooked at a T.G.I.F. — "for about a month and a half" — completely fails to impress with a messy and overcooked cheese- steak sandwich.) Can a mass-market restaurant turn out a winner?

I have a vivid memory of walking past the red-and-white awnings of a T.G.I.F. in the fairly recent past, so I am surprised when I use the Web site locator and find that there is no T.G.I.F. in S.F.; the nearest is in San Bruno. But I decide to take my 5-year-old nephew Ben out for lunch after a school function in the East Bay. Closest to us (not close at all!) is the T.G.I.F. in the maxi-mall in Union City, a real Fast Food Nation: We pass Chili's, IHOP, and In-N-Out as we circle the parking lot.

Ben is happier with his kid's meal of barbecued ribs, "baby" carrots with ranch dip, and a chocolate shake than I am with my sloppily made, soggy grilled cheese, aka Tuscan Portobello Melt, dripping moisture from its roasted onions and tomatoes, alongside an odd-handled cup of sludgy lukewarm sweet soup. If I hadn't already known what I was going to order, I would have been stunned into submission by the enormous laminated menu, in which numberless dishes are described at amazing length with numbing prose. Unbelievable prose, because this is the worst meal I've (partially) eaten in some time.

And not cheap, either: The sandwich is $7.99, making the (between $5 and $9.75) prices at 'wichcraft, with demonstrably superior ingredients — resulting in something you actually want to eat — seem reasonable indeed. Even so, my second lunch there is not as successful as the first: I order the BBQ flank steak, identified as "developed by our Fresh Air Fund interns," with proceeds donated to that charity. Its three ingredients — chewy, overcooked flank steak, roasted shiitake mushrooms, and grilled onions — all look and taste uniformly brown. And my friend's dainty grilled Gruyère and caramelized onion on thin rye has to be sent back to really melt the cheese. And they're out of the house-made olive oil potato chips.

Walking away, my mind unlocks and I remember which 'wichcraft sandwich was the Top Chef winner: mortadella with mushrooms. A glance at the to-go menu I'm carrying reveals that it's lost its televised dandelion greens, and that the grapes served alongside are now pickled and slipped into the sandwich. But the original black olive mayo survives. Next time! And suddenly another memory swims into view: the pesky one of walking on a sidewalk past a cheerful urban T.G.I.F.

It was in Kiev.

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Meredith Brody

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