Monday, May 02, 2005

Garlic and Sapphires

Maybe it’s her unruly hair. Maybe it’s her lusty appetite, both at the table and in the bed. Maybe it’s her writing. I can’t quite determine it, but I know that when I pick up a book by Ruth Reichl, I will have a multi-sensory feast.

Reichl, now the editor of Gourmet Magazine, is part of the food revolution that has swept America – you know, the one that insists American food is much more complex than burgers and fries. She’s documented her transformation from food Luddite to gourmet in three highly-entertaining memoirs.

I just finished Garlic and Sapphires, an account of Riechl’s six years as a restaurant critic for the New York Times. Reichl, who once owned the Swallow, a wonderful, simple café in the Berkeley Art Museum on Bancroft Avenue, left the Bay Area to review restaurants for the Los Angeles Times. When she was tapped to go to New York in 1993, she instantly became the most powerful critic in the country.

From the opening pages of the book, Reichl shows the impact of her new fame. She’s on a plane to New York to scope out the scene. She hasn’t even officially started her job, but is eager to understand what’s involved. Sitting in her plane seat, cramped, tired, and minding her own business, the woman sitting next to her says, “Aren’t you Ruth Reichl, the new restaurant critic for the New York Times? All the restaurants in town have your picture up in their kitchens and are offering awards if you are spotted.”

The conversation horrifies Riechl, and prompts her to adopt a series of disguises so she can dine anonymously in some of the city’s most celebrated restaurants. (And part of her book argues that Reichl became some of those disguises). Her most famous review compares her experience dining at Le Cirque as an older, rather bland woman and as her fabulous wavy haired self. When she appears as the New York Times restaurant critic, the service is fawning. When she appears anonymously, she’s seated in Siberia and treated haughtily.

Not all of the scenes that Reichl describes ring true. They are too perfect, too convenient, like the encounter in the airplane. At the end of the book, Reichl admits that she has compressed scenes and combined characters – a journalistic no-no.

Yet I really didn’t care. I am not in the restaurant world in New York. I just went along for the read so I could sit on Reichl’s shoulder as she tasted creamy fois gras, fresh cod wrapped in seaweed, lobster bisque soup, and many other delicacies. Yum, yum.

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