Walking into an upscale New York City restaurant as the most powerful food expert representing the most powerful newspaper in the country will definitely get you great service. It won't, however, get you Average Customer's typical experience. Recognizing this, one evening Ruth Reichl, food critic for the New York Times decided to dine incognito. She donned a wig, theater makeup, and a complete clothing and personality makeover. What she discovered was shocking.

"Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise" could have been a one-dimensional compilation of restaurant reviews. It also could have been a dreary narcissistic recount of self-discovery veiled thinly by restaurant reviews. Reichl instead created a blend of humor and humility, added a dash of sentimentality, and gently folded in an obvious love for the written word.

Not just costumes, Reichl's characters were fully developed with backgrounds, desires and personalities. When dining as "Miriam," "Chloe" or especially "Betty," Reichl had to wait to be seated despite having reservations, was often given tables hidden back by the kitchen, and the actual serving sizes of food were smaller. She was sometimes openly treated rudely and afterward felt a sadness as well as outrage that based on a New York Times review, someone could blow a great deal of money for a special, once-in-a-blue-moon dining experience, only to be devastatingly disappointed.

Reichl searingly describes how she is treated


when the maitre' d recognizes her. Overhearing one couple complain that their reservation time elapsed 30 minutes previously and seeing them shrug with despair and helplessness, Reichl describes the Man With the Power thusly, "Sirio Maccioni was coming through, beaming broadly. He was a majestic figure, gray-haired but still so handsome ... and the crowd parted before him like the Red Sea. He was heading straight for me. Grasping my hand, he led me jubilantly forward. As the crowd made way for us, I felt like Cinderella with brand-new shoes. ÔBut we've been waiting half an hour,' I heard Gerald's wife whimper. ÔIt's not fair.' Utterly ignoring her, Mr. Maccioni turned to me and said regally, ÔThe King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready.'"

As a reader, there are times when you want to shout, "Just tell him to F-off!" ("F" standing for "food" of course) Or, "Wow, you folks need to get over your collective selves." But somehow Reichl provides little victories like telling the young couple at the next table that not only will she pay for the sub-par meal (that was served with sub-sub-par attitude), but she would personally make a reservation for them at a restaurant where they would be treated to excellent food as well as good service. And the reader rejoices when, at the risk of losing her job, she gives the worst possible star rating to a very high-end restaurant.

Recommendation: Never would have thought a vegetarian, non-foodie, not-a-memoir-fan reader would find redeeming value in "Garlic and Sapphires," but I did. It was well-written, funny, insightful, and offered a great vanilla cake recipe!

* * *

Contact Kel Kanady at books_at_bulletin@yahoo.com.