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

By Ruth Reichel

Penguin Press, 320 pages, $24.95

It's hard to believe for a moment that anyone would hesitate to take the job of restaurant critic at the New York Times. Ruth Reichl didn't merely hesitate -- she even tried to sabotage her interview by telling its esteemed editors their restaurant coverage was haughty and elite.

So it's with deep skepticism that one begins "Garlic and Sapphires," Reichl's lush and spirited account of her time as critic at the most important newspaper in America.

The sensuous, feisty, sharp, wild-haired Reichl has written another evocative memoir, pairing her admirable knowledge of food with her keen understanding that eating is the best part of waking up, leaving the house and spending an evening with family and friends.

When Reichl got the call from New York in 1993, she was food editor and critic for the Los Angeles Times. After the New York Times she became editor in chief of Gourmet magazine. Sigh.

On a flight from Los Angeles to New York before she became the most feared and desired woman in Manhattan, a fellow passenger recognizes Reichl, swipes a roll from her tray table and tells her how her picture is now in every kitchen in every restaurant in five boroughs. Reichl is stunned, and not a little bit naive. (Apparently things were a bit lower-key in L.A.) This prologue is portentous, the passenger sagely advising our narrator with the omniscience of a well-used literary gimmick. But Reichl says it's all true.

The woman's words ring in her ears and even appear on restaurant menus before Reichl's eyes. (No, not really. But Reichl's writing is so fantastic anything seems possible when she and food are involved.) She knows she has a challenge, however, and even before she starts her new job, she contacts her late mother's dearest friend, an eccentric theatrical coach named Claudia. (Such people! Such adventures! Her breezy style and near rapturous descriptions temper any envy of Reichl's charmed life.)

Claudia helps Reichl develop the first in a series of disguises -- more like fully realized personas. With a wig, some serious makeup and a well-tailored yet out of season Armani suit, Reichl becomes Molly Hollis, a nouveau riche Michigan hausfrau. So delighted with their creation, Reichl decides to strike hard and aim high -- they're going to Le Cirque.

It was a disaster. She and Claudia are led to a spot in the back. A wine list is snatched from her hands and given to diners at a better table. The waiter neglects to mention a special tasting menu. They're ignored and insulted in every way possible.

She decides the next time she goes back (her practice was to visit a restaurant five times before filing a review) she's going to see the other Le Cirque. So she takes her nephew and makes a reservation she knows will be recognized.

The difference is astonishing. The bar is packed with people waiting, but owner Sirio Maccioni shows Reichl to a table himself.

"Mr. Maccioni turned to me and said regally, 'The King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready.' I nudged Johnny. 'Keep repeating those words to yourself,' I whispered as we followed Mr. Maccioni. 'I have to get them exactly right.' "

This delicious fodder was turned into her famous double review of the celebrity boite -- first detailing Molly's experience, then the dinner she enjoyed as herself, with an "averaged" rating of three stars.

The review outraged just about everyone -- the highbrow because Le Cirque's fourth star was taken away. The lowbrows called to say: "You are a pretentious idiot. . . . Who cares about all the foie gras and truffles that you get to eat? What about the rest of us!"

When the name Molly Hollis became known, Reichl would take on a new disguise complete with a new back story. She was unlikable Emily, flamboyant Brenda. She even became her mother for a series of restaurant outings that were among the most lively.

As her mother, Miriam, Reichl torments the service staff at 21, sending virtually everything back, lecturing a waiter about how a martini should be mixed and insisting that a tableside Caesar salad be remade.

Reichl found that not only was she treated differently in her various characters, she acted differently. The way she walked, talked, ordered and even signed a credit card slip changed with each incarnation.

It shouldn't have been much of a surprise. The canny, astute critic knows that attitudes and expectations affect the way food tastes as much as salt and pepper. And the act of dining out is as dramatic as what goes on in a theater on Broadway.

In the early '90s, before New York became the food capital it is today, Reichl's democratic approach to restaurants was refreshing. She was eager to review long-neglected Japanese, Korean and Thai restaurants, irritating old-school editors and her predecessor in the job, the pompous Bryan Miller. There isn't a hint of pretention in Reichl's reviews (some of which are reprinted throughout the book, along with a handful of recipes) or her approach to dining.

Even when she's condescended to, Reichl manages to find something to savor in every meal. Her infectious passion for consuming and sharing what's on the table makes "Garlic and Sapphires" as satisfying as her previous, beautifully written culinary memoirs, "Tender at the Bone" and "Comfort Me with Apples."