From the back cover:
Ruth Reichl knows that to be a good restaurant critic you have to be anonymous, but when she signs up to be the most important restaurant critic in the country, her picture is posted in every four-star, low-star, and no-star kitchen in town. What’s a critic in search of the truth to do?
And so begin Reichl’s “adventures in deception.” She dons a frumpy blonde wig and an off-season beige Armani suit, and on the advice of a friend—an acting coach with a Pygmalion complex—she starts to assemble her new character’s backstory. She takes to the assignment with astonishing ardor, and thus Molly Hollis, the retired high school teacher from Birmingham, Michigan, nouveau riche from her husband’s real estate speculation, is born. Molly is duly ignored, mishandled, and condescended to by the high-power staff at Le Cirque. The result: Reichl’s famous double review, first as she ate there as Molly and then as she was coddled and pampered on her visit there as Ruth, New York Times food critic.
As Reichl metes out her critical stars, she gives a remarkable account of how one’s outer appearance can influence one’s inner character, expectations, and appetites. She writes, “Every restaurant is a theater… even the modest restaurants offer the opportunity to become someone else, at least for a little while.”
Garlic and Sapphires was at its best when skewering the conceits of smug food snobs or championing the merits of overlooked ethnic cuisine. At its worst, however, it could be pretentious, the author claiming that after she took a bite of a dessert that she was “in a wild garden, with the wind blowing through my hair” or that a certain soup tasted “as if the chef were dreaming of the sea.”
Most of the time, though, the book was enjoyable, and I think I managed to absorb a little bit of knowledge about gourmet cuisine. Not that I’m really too keen to try most of the stuff mentioned—about 60% of it was seafood (clams in black bean sauce, anyone?) and most of the rest was stuff like squab or duck that really doesn’t appeal to me. In fact, at one point as she was describing an intricate Chinese dish involving shrimp, I was sitting in the drive-thru line of a local chicken finger place.
I liked that, after the story was told of a visit to a restaurant, the full text of Ruth’s review as it appeared in The New York Times was included. I had fun guessing, from the narration of her experience, how many stars a particular establishment would ultimately end up earning. Would I try any of them if I were ever in New York? The steak places, certainly, and Kurumazushi, the fabulous sushi place. The rest, not so much.