Top Chef Masters Season Two is officially underway, and it started on exactly the right note, with Spiaggia's Tony Mantuano as victor! Well, one-half victor, anyway, with L.A.'s Susan Feniger making up the other half of the winning team. We knew there was a good reason for Mantuano's viewing party tonight at his Mag Mile restaurant, other than to, uh, watch him on a big screen.
The show started off, as usual, with a bang: the old junk food quickfire challenge, using foods procured at a gas station.
Mantuano was in a group of six that also included L.A.'s Govind Armstrong, Ana Sortun of Cambridge, Mass., Jimmy Bradley of New York and Seattle's Jerry Traunfeld. The chefs were paired up, which meant two of them would advance.
Sortun and Traunfeld seemed to be the early leaders, producing a sophisticated-looking crispy rice cake with 'clamesco' sauce (thanks, Clamato juice). Mantuano and Feniger went sweet -- and safe -- with maple bread pudding and caramelized bananas. And Armstrong and Bradley just went scary, with a shockingly orange Flamin' Hot Cheetos mac 'n' cheese and grilled Slim Jims.
Lucky for Mantuano and Feniger, the judges -- the post-punk band the Bravery -- also had a sweet tooth, and gave their dish the top score. Which brings us to this revelation: Mantuano is way hip! Upon learning that the Bravery were the judges, the 56-year-old chef revealed to the cameras that the band is on his iPod.
On to the elimination challenge: cook a romantic dish for 30 couples on their first date. Mantuano smiles and says, "If I can make the President and First Lady happy on their date night, I can make first-time daters happy." Aha! He invoked Obama, as we'd also predicted.
But he was right. While Govind just got grumpier and grumpier, both Mantuano and Feniger seemed to float, all million-watt smiles as they won the judges over with black pepper shrimp and scallops and taleggio pasta with mushrooms and truffles. "An intense experience," said judge and British food critic Jay Rayner.