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by Jessica Moll & r & & r & Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reidhl & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & uth Reichl's newest book opens with two dares. Confronting her tray of limp airplane food, Reichl is startled by the voice at her side challenging her to eat it. Her new gig as New York Times restaurant critic hasn't even started yet, but Reichl's already famous. The woman sitting next to her, who eventually polishes off Reichl's untouched meat, roll and even the ice cream bar, recites Reichl's biographical data with an uncanny fairy-godmotherly accuracy. Like every other New York City restaurant worker, this mysterious stranger has been on the lookout for the new critic, and she can't believe her luck.


The second dare is one that every story makes: I dare you to believe me. Maybe I'm a skeptic; more likely I'm too na & iuml;ve. But I couldn't quite believe there was a $500 price on Reichl's head when she arrived in New York to start scouting restaurants.


Apparently, neither could Reichl. But as she's drawn in, little by little and against her will, to the cutthroat politics at the New York Times, it becomes clear that to find out how a restaurant really treats its customers, she'll have to go undercover. So she creates an elaborate series of disguises, each with a fake name and credit card, a different wig and an invented life story.


My favorite of Reichl's disguises is a champagne blonde she calls Chloe, who's invited to dinner by a self-described "collector of restaurants." Dressed as Chloe, Reichl has to play dumb when Dan confuses the black drops of squid ink on his plate for balsamic vinegar, all the while taking mental notes for her review.


Part of the fun is watching Reichl turn these experiences into articles -- her Times review is included in each chapter. Also included are recipes for some of her favorite dishes, all of which seem surprisingly manageable from comfort foods like scalloped potatoes and matzo brei to rich goug & egrave;res, risotto primavera and roast leg of lamb.


By the time Reichl dons her first disguise -- a retired schoolteacher named Molly -- I'm happy to cast off my disbelief and step out with her. Since I'm never going to savor foie gras with white peaches or spend a couple hundred bucks on a sushi lunch for one, Reichl's descriptions are the next best thing. Or maybe even better -- in the case of fattened goose liver, I think I'd rather read about it. And now that Garlic and Sapphires is out in paperback, even buying it is affordable.

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