Food espionage: Adventures with a clandestine restaurant critic

April 24, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise

By Ruth Reichl. Penguin Press. 328 pages. $24.95.

It was 1993. Many of us who didn't live in New York still remember Ruth Reichl's first review for the New York Times. Her critique of Le Cirque, an important restaurant that had gotten four stars from her predecessor, was unexpected and clever; and you knew in your bones it was dead on.

First the new critic described how she was ignored and mistreated when she was in disguise eating with another woman, then how she was fawned over after several visits when management finally recognized her.

"The King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready," the owner gushed as he showed her and her companion to a comfortable table for four. He proceeded to shower them with champagne, truffles, foie gras and six different desserts.

The review served notice that Reichl wasn't cast from the same mold as the urbane Francophiles who had come before. For the next six years, she proceeded to outrage restaurant owners (and many readers) by not giving New York's palaces of haute cuisine the respect they thought they deserved. She awarded coveted stars to hole-in-the-wall ethnic places. And she wrote in a first-person, idiosyncratic style that delighted some and annoyed others.

Garlic and Sapphires, her account of her years as the Times critic, will probably have the same effect on readers -- although it's hard not to be won over in the end by her humor, her joyful enthusiasm about food, and her account of working as the country's most prestigious restaurant critic.

The book is structured around the disguises Reichl wore when she realized most of New York's important restaurants had her photo stuck up in their kitchens. She did more than don a wig; she took on a whole new fantasy life. As the blond interior designer Chloe, for instance, she starts talking to a stranger in a bar and ends up taking him, unknowing, on a review visit to Lespinasse. He fancies himself a connoisseur. To stay in character, Reichl / Chloe has to pretend she knows very little about food.

"I looked down at the sprig of chervil and said, 'The colors are gorgeous, and the parsley looks so pretty on the orange fish.'

" 'Chervil,' he corrected me. 'Take a taste. See -- it has a faint anise flavor.'

" 'You know so much!' I said, and felt his knee creep over to touch mine.

"I took a bite and immediately forgot his knee. I forgot everything but what was going on in my mouth, the fish doing a little tango with crunchy strips of artichoke."

Sometimes Garlic and Sapphires is laugh-out-loud funny. The disguises themselves are its dark undercurrent, mirroring how the job is changing Reichl for the worse. Throughout the narrative, she alternates her reviews with recipes for comfort food, until we realize her essential dilemma: To remain the most powerful restaurant critic in America -- and a culinary snob -- or to go back to being the woman she was before she took the job -- someone who loved food and believed there was no right or wrong in matters of taste.

Elizabeth Large is The Sun's restaurant critic.

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