Customer Reviews: Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
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on April 10, 2005
Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires, an account of her years as restaurant critic of the New York Times, is simultaneously hilarious, refresing and poignant, altogether a five-star read in the light memoir category.

The hilarity comes from Reichl's penchant for donning elaborate disguises, the better to assure anonymity in assessing New York's most prominent eateries. These incognita excursions allow Reichl to skewer the pretensions and omissions of such well-known restaurants as Le Cirque and Tavern on the Green.

Garlic and Sapphires sets a refreshing tone due to Reichl's insistence on recognizing excellent dining in all of its venues, from humble ethnic restaurants to New York's most elegant establishments. Reichl's penchant for ferreting out little-known gems earns her the opprobrium of Bryan Miller, her predecessor as the Times's restaurant critic, and his supporters, all of whom charge Reichl with "letting down standards". But the many New Yorkers who experience life without expense account or trust fund appreciate her excursions to the wrong side of the tracks to identify dining delights.

Most important, Garlic and Sapphires provides a poignant look at what it is like to be too old, too unfashionable, or too poor to fully take part in the glories of the Big Apple. Reichl's disguises frequently place her in one or more these overlooked groups, and she provides a sensitive picture of what it is like to be marginalized-- not only by headwaiters at four-star dining establishments, but by society. One hopes that Reichl's tenure as Times restaurant critic made top restaurants more likely to treat all of their patrons with dignity and respect.

Garlic and Sapphires led me to develop the following advice for restaurant patrons:
--As Reichl notes, restaurant preferences are subjective. Go to the places you enjoy, rather than the places fashion dictates.
--Restaurants are there to serve you. If you are unhappy about food or service, speak up-- preferably to a manager, if your waiter or waitress hasn't dealt with the problem. Above all, don't be intimidated. If you need instruction on what fork to use or what wine to order, you should be able to ask without embarrassment.
--You are especially entitled to fine service and cooking in a top restaurant-- don't let the establishment off the hook. If you have arrived on time for your reservation (or called ahead to notify the restaurant if you are delayed) and behaved courteously, any lapses in food or service reflect a deficiency in the restaurant, not a deficiency in you.
--At least in the U.S., tips are discretionary. If you're not happy, reduce the tip accordingly. Feel free to advise your friends of the restaurant's shortcomings. And fortunately, you're not a critic who must return to give the establishment a fair chance. If you're not happy, you need never darken its doorstep again.

One final piece of advice-- if you enjoy books about the food world, read Garlic and Sapphires.
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on April 7, 2005
This is my first Ruth Reichl book, so I really didn't know what to expect, but was intrigued by the title. I just bought this today and am almost done. It feels like the best kind of book, a novel that just grabs hold and pulls you right into another world. I'm right there, as she dons her disguises, dresses up as her mother, right down to the attitude, as she sends dishes back, or gives herself up to the sheer pleasure of the food without over-analyzing it. What comes across more than anything, is the pure passion for the food and her job,and the sincerity and respect for the reader as she sets out to share her experience and to rate each restaurant.

She also has a way with description. I can almost taste these dishes, and am now starving...

If you like food, and the restaurant world, you will have an absolute ball with this book.
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on April 26, 2005
It's one thing to hold the coveted job of restaurant critic for the New York Times but it's an entirely different matter when that person can deliver such a wonderfully breezy book about her experiences. Ruth Reichl has done just that in a style that is as warm, informative and delicious as the best restaurants she has reviewed.

In "Garlic and Sapphires" the author invites you into her world so intimately that you feel you are sharing each and every meal with her. It would probably have been enough if Ruth had simply given us a compilation of her entire collected reviews because she writes so well in that vein, but the joy of this particular offering includes a cast of characters who are not from central casting. While she manages to keep herself in the limelight, as she should, she surrounds herself with willing (and sometimes unwilling) cohorts in her attempts to review restaurants through her many disguises and personalities. Her usually understanding husband, Michael, her precocious son Nicky, her friend and sometimes mentor Carol, and her close buddy Claudia all add to her support as the author becomes Miriam, Chloe, Brenda, Betty and Emily. A male critic could never have gotten away with what Ruth pulls off! It is a surprise to both the author and the reader that her dinner guests often become angry with her because she plays the roles of her assumed identities with such panache that they almost beg her to return to her own self.

In one of the most alluring chapters, Ruth relates how she meets a total stranger, Dan Green, who ends up dining with her at Lespinasse. Keeping her secret, she spends an evening with him wondering what he will think of the review when he reads it. In another hilarious chapter she endures an evening with the "food warrior" at Windows of the World. Who wouldn't have wanted to be at the next table for that encounter?

Through it all, Ruth Reichl keeps an eye on herself. She is her own best and worst critic, often worrying about the

legitimacy of her characters. In the end she simply reverts back to Ruth. As the book nears its close, Ruth speaks of her friend Carol's final illness and her own (ultimate) decision to leave the Times, a poignant reflection by the author. At this moment, knowing the book is about to be finished, I am reminded of that other moment when you've just finished an extraordinary meal and reluctantly acknowledge it's time to go. I highly recommend "Garlic and Sapphires".
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`Garlic and Sapphires' is the third volume of memoirs by Ruth Reichl. After `Tender at the Bone' which deals with her childhood and teens and `Comfort Me with Apples' which deals with her early journalistic career in San Francisco, this latest volume deals with her five years as the lead restaurant critic for the New York Times.

This volume proves that Ms. Reichl is truly the best culinary memoirist today, and easily the best since M.F.K. Fisher. And, as one who has read more than a few of Ms. Fisher's memoirs, I would easily choose Ms. Reichl's humor and great stories of the modern scene over Ms. Fisher's slightly musty, albeit exquisitely crafted tales of cities and towns in France.

The primary point of this volume is to tell the stories behind Ms. Reichl's various disguises and personas she took on in order to dine at Daniel's and Lespanisse and Le Cirque without being identified as the restaurant critic for the Times. The book starts off with the amazing story of Reichl's flight from Los Angles to New York seated, by coincidence, along side a waitress of a major Manhattan restaurant. It turns out that posted in all restaurant kitchens in New York City was already a photograph of Ruth Reichl with a reward to any staff member who identifies Ms. Reichl in their restaurant.

In spite of all the other things on which Ruth could dwell, she stays remarkably on message. There is only the slightest of references to the great New York Times culinary writer, Craig Claiborne, who was still alive while Reichl was at the Times. And, there was only a slightly more specific reference to R. W. Appel and Amanda Hesser. The only two writing talents cited to any extent are Marion Burros, a friendly colleague who mostly worked out of the Washington bureau and adversary Bryan Miller who left the critic's post and objected to Reichl's overturning a lot of his restaurant opinions. What Miller forgot was that the power of the restaurant critic's column was not based on the writer, but on the newspaper which published the column.

The most important character in this story after Reichl may be `THE NEW YORK TIMES', commonly thought to be the best and most powerful newspaper in the world. This fact makes it almost unthinkable that Reichl would question whether or not she really wanted to work for the Times when she was literally offered the job on a silver platter. There may have been some foundation to her doubts when she saw the Times offices for the first time. In contrast to the light, airy, Los Angles Times offices, the New York offices were crowded and filled with lots of old desks and unmatched chairs. After a full day's interviews plus total willingness from her husband to relocate to New York, Reichl took the job and immediately changed the tone of the paper's reviews.

Reichl's personal philosophy was that reviews were nothing more than informed opinion and taste. This may seem utterly subjective, but actually, it is not far from what you would see in a scholarly work on the nature of aesthetic judgment. One is much better off trusting the opinion of a literary critic who has read 10,000 novels, both good and bad, than of your dentist who may have read 10, all from the same author. The thing that endeared her to her Times editors and publishers was the idea that her columns were written to sell newspapers, not to promote restaurants.

For someone who does not read reviews of major Manhattan restaurants, I was a bit surprised at the incredible difference between the quality of food and service given to a pair of `beautiful people' versus the quality of food and service given to a drab looking old woman. And, if the diner is known to be the critic from the Times, food and service quality goes off the charts. This was the reason for the many disguises. And, it is obvious that more than one was needed, as it was all too easy for an astute restaurateur to connect a person with the byline on a review which can change their gross by tens of thousands of dollars a week. The truly remarkable thing about many of the disguises is how the personality embodied by the wig and clothes became part of Reichl's persona in dealing with people who were not in on the ruse. By far the funniest was the incident when Reichl took on her mother's persona, using her mother's clothes and jewelry. The story is doubly amusing if you have read `Tender at the Bone' where Reichl describes her primary chore was to keep her mother from poisoning any guests by serving spoiled food.

It should be no surprise that Reichl's job had a serious downside. In addition to all the nasty mail from offended restaurateurs and their advocates and the political backbiting at the newspaper, there were the really unpleasant situations where Reichl offered `a dinner with the New York Times restaurant critic' as a prize to be auctioned off for charity. Ruth recounts one especially distasteful episode where the situation went so far as to turn her well-trained chameleon personality into someone who was distasteful to her husband. This job is no picnic. From this encounter comes the name of the book from a line in T. S. Eliot's `Four Quartets', `garlic and pearls in the mud' which echoed the fact that the evening had nothing to do with Reichl's love of cooks, food, or writing.

The book includes the Times reviews Reichl wrote as a result of the meals described in the book. These are fun and interesting, but are really just sidebars to the real action in the main text. My only regret is that Reichl did not find it useful to include photographs of her disguises.

Very highly recommended reading for foodies and non-foodies alike.
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on July 30, 2009
After reading Tender at the Bone, I was looking forward to more of Ruth Reichl. Garlic and Sapphires was not only a disappointment, it was as if a completely different person had written it. It is ironic that in a book about disguises, Reichl herself was unrecognizable. Far from the funny, sensitive, and sincere person she was in her first book, Reichl had transformed herself into a self-absorbed snob loaded with enough hypocrisy to sink a ship.

This book covers Reichl's stint as the New York Times chief restaurant critic. Although she accepts the position, she has reservations about the elitist implications of the job, and vows to write for the masses--those million readers who can't afford to spend $100 for a meal at a four-star French restaurant. Part of her mission is to expose the poor treatment many of these restaurants heap on the "common man." But in order to accomplish this lofty goal, Reichl must eat in disguise. For if she is recognized as New York's premier restaurant critic, she'll be treated like royalty. (Although this obviously has no bearing on the quality of the food, it has a great deal of bearing on the quality of the experience. Personally, I eat for the food.)

The idea is cute, and for the first few chapters it was fun. But Reichl shows her true colors right from the start when she heaps disdain on a bearded ignoramus (wearing Birkenstocks...unforgivable!) for having the audacity to dip his sushi rice-side down, thereby "ruining" the "clear transparent flavor," the "taut crispness," and the clam that was "almost baroque in its sensuality." (I have yet to meet a sensual or almost baroque clam, but I'll take Reichl's word for it.) Reichl then reminisces about her trip to Japan, in which she is first exposed to the proper way to eat Japanese food. (I'm pretty sure the guy in Birkenstocks could not afford to go to Japan for eating lessons.) In her other encounters with diners at top-notch restaurants Reichl indulges in so much blatant one-up-manship that you simply can't sympathize with her concern for the "simple folk" no matter how much she tries to dress like them. The verbal food fights with the poor guy she picks up in a bar as the vampish Chloe (what's up with THAT??), and with the self-avowed "food warrior" were downright churlish. After proclaiming that there is no right way to eat food, Reichl clearly demonstrates that it's her way or the highway. Even Reichl's portrayals of other diners, who are merely innocent bystanders, are dreadfully stereotyped, sometimes to the point of cruelty. (She assumes that a "loud, brassy blonde," who is disturbing her expensive meal, is a prostitute. Apparently, sitting next to the "masses" isn't nearly as much fun as pretending to write for them.)

Even Reichl's disguises lacked credibility. Reichl's claims that she had an instant personality transformation with each new disguise are simply unbelievable. She BECOMES the 'little people,' taking on their imagined attributes, their voices, their very lives. She comes up with histories for each of the women she invents, and, with just a wig and some makeup, is so amazingly convincing that she can even fool her husband! Either Reichl is schizophrenic, or she takes method acting entirely too seriously. She certainly takes herself too seriously.

If the book had been well written I could have forgiven the snobbery, but, with the exception of one chapter, "The Missionary of the Delicious," in which Reichl was somehow able to get a grip on herself, purple prose abounded. (As her editor I would have crossed out half of her adjectives.) The inclusion of reprints of her published reviews was redundant, and the recipes were mediocre. (There was no clue in these recipes that Reichl was an expert in the kitchen. But, hey, she was writing for the "huddled masses yearning to eat free." What do we know? We can't even dip sushi right.)

If Reichl hadn't been so intent on wallowing in her ego, this book might have had possibilities. She loves food, and she has dined in some truly fabulous restaurants. The fact that most of us can't afford them is irrelevant. She had a duty to go to these marvelous places, enjoy herself to the max, and then take the rest of us with her.
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on April 9, 2005
Author Ruth Reichl has written a very funny and poignant book on her life as a restaurant critic in New York. The book starts at the restaurant "Le Cirque" then proceeds on to her adventures at restaurants such as Honmura An, Lespinasse, Sparks (for meat and potatoes), to her experiences in Flushing, New York in which she is scouting out for Chineese food and ends up at the KB Garden Restaurant.

In the book Ruth Reichl disguises herself with wigs and various clothing for the roles she plays when reviewing the restaurants. We meet "Chloe", "Miriam","Brenda" and last but not least (my favorite) "Betty" in which she puts on a gray wig and goes to Tavern on the Green" in Central Park New York.

To my greatest surprise, when reading the book, is to find out that Sea Bass is actually known as Patagonian Toothfish!!

As Ruth Reichl says in her book "the fish didn't sell very well under it's own name. So they changed it."

Brava Ruth Reichl for a great read. I enjoyed every minute of this book - I couldn't put it down.
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on April 21, 2005
In contrast to the cover's stated premise, the heart of Ruth Reichl's newest book, "Garlic and Sapphires", turns out to be not so much about her covert efforts to produce a fair restaurant review. And that's a good thing...

Instead, what she's produced is somewhat of a narrative on the transformations that occurred in her life while she the was chief restaurant critic of The New York Times. Don't get me wrong, there are a number of very funny stories and insightful looks into the life of a restaurant critic, but after reading over a few of them, I'm glad that she didn't devote the book to just this theme.

To me, it got tiring after a while to read about her efforts to obtain the perfect wig or coat or look to enable her to step into another life beyond her own. Interspersed between the logistical procedures to obtain these covert reviews are lovingly told desciptions of the diverse foods of New York, served by ultra-uppity 3 star French joints to the painstakingly precise sushi bar.

Also very worthy of mention are Reichl's recollections of time spent at the NY Times, as to the people she met, hated, feared, and loved. The latter primarily focused on a woman named (at least in the book) Carol, to whom Ruth pays particular attention, and conveys sincere emotion as regards their friendship.

In surprising depth, Reichl conveys how, through her secret identities, she was able to learn about herself and her motivations / intentions when reviewing restaurants. Was it just about the food itself or about the "lifestyle" that comes with loving food?

As such, ultimately, the thrust of the book is very much about food -- how it can in itself be excellent, mediocre, wonderous, or deflating and how the treatment of the waitstaff or the quality of one's companions can dictate the tenor of the dining experience.

An oftentimes hilarious, and surprisingly sincere book. Highly recommended.
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Other reviewers have given you the basic premise of Ruth Reichel's memoir about her years as a New York Times restaurant reviewer. I certainly agree with the opinions that this is a very funny, readable and personal story. Many of us -- at least many of us food enthusiasts -- wonder what it would be like to dine out nearly every evening, to constantly judge the merits of a restaurant (how do you keep notes?), to stay anonymous. Heck, I've always wondered how one gets a credit card with a Not-You name on it, a question that Reichl answers in the first few chapters.

Those questions alone -- and Reichl's great prose -- make the book entertaining right there. In fact, I snuck out of work early and read the book straight through in a single day. (Shh, don't tell anyone.)

However, Garlic and Sapphires exceeds simple enjoyment. Reichl is occasionally philosophical about what she is doing, by donning wigs and dressing up as other people -- ostensibly in her efforts to be anonymous. She became an actor, really, not Ruth-in-a-wig. Without beating you (or herself) over the head with it, Reichl examines how much of our self-image is wrapped up in our physical presentation.

For example, at one point, Shirley -- the woman who sells the wigs -- comments about her customers, most of whom are women with cancer undergoing chemotherapy. "Shirley was beaming. 'I wish,' she said fervently, 'that you were here to talk to all my customers. These poor women come in wth no hair on their heads, and they have such a great opportunity to remake themselves. It's their chance to try on new personalities. But what do they want? To look as much like their old selves as possible.'" Reichl's friend Carol counters with the opposing view. In only a few paragraphs, you've seen all sides of an "identity" issue -- in the middle of an anecdote about choosing a carrot red wig.

And the food. Did I mention the food? I learned more about fois gras than I ever knew.

This book manages to be funny, thoughtful, and educational all at once, and you can read it over a weekend. Thoroughly enjoyable: I recommend it.
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on October 12, 2005
Reichl's book, like her famous double review of Le Cirque, raises the probing question of whether the "best" restaurants truly have earned their titles by treating all of their customers as four stars restaurant should, or whether, instead, the four star treatment is reserved for "special" patrons. With that question she delves into issues related to food, class, and economics from her unique and powerful perspective as the NY Times restaurant reviewer. The reader cheers her reviews of Le Cirque, Tavern on the Green and The Box Tree, in which she took powerful restaurants to task for their failure to treat ALL patrons (rather than just the most well-known or privileged) with the respect and graciousness for which they have paid. My husband and I now have the luxury of being able to eat at such restaurants from time-to-time (though certainly not regularly), and we usually happily get what we paid for. But we *have* had occasional negative experiences like Reichl describes, and have seen others have them as well. As Reichl recognizes, many people "save up" to eat at these establishments, or visit them for very "special occasions," only to be treated poorly. Restaurants who do not give the "four star treatment" to *every* guest (rather than the select few) are NOT, by definition, "four star" and do not deserve to be treated as though they are.

Taking this point one step further, Reichl also uses her reviews to make New Yorkers understand that truly good cuisine need not be expensive, and need not be French. Her positive reviews of ethnic cuisine are educational and delightful. In short, Reichl might be seen as the democratizer of the NY Times restaurant reviews.

However, at various points in the narrative Reichl seems to suffer from snobbery of her own (which she largely fails to recognize). Her behavior at dinner with the man who paid for a meal with her at a charity auction-- showing up his food knowledge, expressing extreme frustration that he wanted to eat at a nice restaurant-- and her nasty comments about the young couple next to her at another restaurant, for example, exhibited a sense of superiority that seems to run beneath the surface of her narrative. She acknowledges her poor behavior on these occasions through the words of her friends or her husband, but it would have been nice to see a bit more recognition of her limitations in her own words or discussion about her growth from these experiences.

In addition, the deep "transformations" that Reichl claims overtook her when she was in disguise seem contrived. While I understand the need for the disguises, I (again) do not understand her need to "become" these characters and while "in character" treat others poorly, such as by leaving a cab driver no tip or making rude comments about others.

While I found the book enjoyable, Reichl generally likeable, and the restaurant reviews fascinating, Reichl offended me by including her negative views on, and review of, Windows on the World. Writing in 2005, Reichl unquestionably knows that Windows on the World perished in the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, together with approximately 80 members of its dedicated staff who were on duty that morning, including its executive pastry chef and countless workers who undoubtedly took pride in their work at what was a pillar of New York. They are the images we see in news coverage waving towels out the windows of the top floor, begging for rescue. We have seen some of their family members speak on television about the delight some of them took from working at such a renowned establishment. Her inclusion of Windows seemed totally unnecessary except to tell her story about dinner with the "obnoxious" charity guest she could not stand. Did she really need to kick these people, or the memories of these people, while they were down? How hard would it have been to edit out?

The book is very entertaining, and I applaud Reichl for democratizing the Times' restaurant reviews. I just wish she had been a little more thoughtful about what details she chose to include, and how she chose to frame them.
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on June 25, 2006
No one will argue with Ruth Reichl's ability to discuss food as well or better than any foodie of our generation, and her New York Times reviews were generally very interesting, sometimes maddening but seldom boring. Her newest book of remembrance, this one focusing on her days and nights as the most powerful restaurant critic in America (more due to her position at the Times than to her own persona, as she often points out), certainly has its moments, and her recounting of the responses of her young son and her late colleague, Carol Shaw, to her many disguises and opinions is often affecting and entertaining. But this, her third book of foodie memoirs, does not hold the way her two earlier ones did; she seems a bit too full of herself too much of the time, and her constant stories of restaurant visits are often followed by the complete Times review, where everything she has just told us is repeated nearly verbatim. I also didn't need the blow-by-blow of each new disguise; it seemed padding to make the book long enough. This turns a rather slim volume (also featuring some fine recipes) into a much longer journey than it needs to be. And too often the recountings of events just don't ring true. While this was the case with her earlier books as well, it seems a bit too self-indulgent this time around. Perhaps the third time is not the charm?
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