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TOP CHEF: SEASON 5 10 p.m. EST Wednesday Bravo


REASON TO WATCH: A well-balanced combination of ego and frenzy, drizzled with balsamic reduction.


WHAT’S ON THE MENU: After gigs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, “Top Chef” has finally hit the big time. Not that any of those four distinguished cities are dabblers in the restaurant world, but New York is the acknowledged gastronomic center of the country, if not the world. After all, Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons all live here.


For the uninitiated, the three aforementioned personages make up three-quarters of “Top Chef’s” “judges’ table.” The fourth judge, British new guy Toby Young, is AWOL tonight. Instead, New York restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten rounds out the table.


New York itself has a starring role. The “cheftestants” meet one another in New York Harbor, on the ferry to Governor’s Island, for their first challenge. Thereafter, they fan out across the city to patronize various ethnic markets. When they go home for the night, it is to a palatial apartment in Williamsburg.


AND WHAT OF THE CHEFTESTANTS? The cast strikes me as a talented and entertaining bunch. New Hyde Park, N.Y.‘s Danny Gagnon ably fills the role of the tough-talking, possibly hotheaded young Turk. He has a more effete side, though: It’s Gagnon who creates the episode’s only foam.


The strongest competitor may well be Stefan, born in Finland, trained in Germany and Switzerland and a veteran of kitchens in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Quietly aggressive, possibly cruel, he is the Daniel Craig of the competition or, with his shaven head, at least the Michael Chiklis.


He and Florence-born Fabio form a European alliance. Fabio claims he’d never been to New York, but he is clearly familiar with the cross-cultural fusion that characterizes American cooking in 2008. Bravo’s Web site reveals that he is chef-owner of Cafe Firenze, “one of the most recognized restaurants in Ventura County,” and that “Fabio also works as William Shatner’s private chef.”


BOTTOM LINE: By dint of smart casting, imaginative challenges and A-list guests, “Top Chef” retains its three stars for culinary entertainment.

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