John Thorne's Review of My First Book
of My First Book
July 2004
Review by John Thorne

"The Eclectic Gourmet Guide to Greater New York City:
The Undiscovered World of Hyperdelicious Offbeat Eating in All Five Boroughs"

By Jim Leff
Menasha Ridge Press

To get all the cards out on the table from the start: Jim Leff is a pal; Matt and I get a mention in this book's acknowledgment section; and the back cover bears a blurb from me -- one of very few I've written in twenty years of food writing. If this still doesn't make clear how much I admire Jim's work, let me just add that when I die I want to come back as one of his taste buds. (And I say this knowing he's a jazz trombonist by trade and, between meals, those taste buds put up with a lot of abuse.)

However, while those nodules are everywhere evident in The Eclectic Gourmet Guide to Greater New York City, neither they nor our friendship motivated this review. What did is my admiration for the way Jim has applied a cardiac defibrillator to a moribund genre -- the restaurant guide -- and zapped it back to life.

The very title of the book is a gauntlet tossed at the feet of New Yorkers who, after decades of underground eating guides, noshing guides, Mimi Sheraton/Seymour Britchky guides, pride themselves on being the most knowledgeable eaters on the planet.

How do I know that few readers, no matter how city-wise, will have heard of these places? Well, the answer to this question leads us to what is most original about the book. Consider the implications of the following:

The Hall Street Kosher Cafe consists of a long trailer parked in an abandoned lot across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It's very Mississippi; when you enter and approach the steam tables, you might expect to encounter ribs and collard greens. But one glance at the staff -- jolly, friendly fellows with curly sideburns, long beards, and yarmulkes -- will tell you that ribs are most assuredly not on the menu.

In the manner of tourists on a holiday, most restaurant goers want their route to a good time as uncluttered with obstacles as possible. In that light a destination like the Brooklyn Navy Yard -- long decommissioned and now the city's largest industrial park -- is unlikely to be in the running, especially to a "long trailer parked in an abandoned lot" there.

For Jim, however, a location like this is pure catnip. He brings to restaurant reviewing the dyed-in-the wool traveler's belief that it is just such obstacles that make the trip worthwhile. That, as he puts it, "insularity protects authenticity." His low-key term for such a gastronomic adventurer is "chowhound" -- someone who's much less interested in a restaurant's appearance or reputation than in what might be called the grandmotherly soul of its cooking.

Such places, where the cooking is directed to a clearly -- if ecumenically -- defined family of eaters, are usually found at the top or the bottom of the social ladder. So, if you want to eat well and can't afford Daniel Boulud, go find an Egyptian grandma who has gone public with her talent. And the good news is that for every great chef around, there are a dozen such grandmas -- or at least cooks who learned their tricks at her side.

The reason, then, that there is only one French restaurant listed in this book as opposed to thirteen Chinese ones isn't reverse snobbery -- it's that there's just no French equivalent to the places where real Chinese food is prepared by native cooks for native eaters...and where customers like you and me are unexpected (although not necessarily unwanted) interlopers.

Of course, merely finding a place at one or the other end of the ladder doesn't guarantee a good meal. At the top end you have to hack your way through all the decor, the hype, the if-I'm-spending-all-this-money-I-must-be-having-a-good-time imperative; at the bottom end you often confront your own raw ignorance regarding the items on the menu and the gravitational pull of condescension disguised as empathy.

One of the best things about Jim's book is his depth of knowledge about such food. And he is as much forgiving of good intentions as was the Grand Inquisitor. His praise of the cooks he admires -- Charles Gambriel of Charles' Southern Kitchen, say, or Domenico De Marco of DiFara Pizzeria -- is as much a sob of relief at being able to set aside his usual black robes. (Notice that -- politically incorrect though it is -- not a single African restaurant has made the cut here; and, believe me, it isn't because Jim hasn't been to any.)

Obviously, it's one thing to produce a guide to Cambodia or Peru that tells travelers how to "go native" and quite another that teaches New Yorkers how to "go foreign" in their own city. There's something surreal about the very idea, and certain passages in the book could be lifted straight from when Jim details how to get from the front door of the Indonesian consulate to the staff dining room.

You walk down the stately steps into the building's basement. Open the massive iron door, buzz to be admitted through another set of doors, pass a receptionist (tell her you're there for lunch), go through still another door, and head straight toward what appears to be a large closet. In the center of this closet is a single long table covered with a cheap plastic cloth at which dignified Indonesian men in suits are eating from paper plates. To the right, in a small alcove, a good-humored Indonesian woman is juggling dozens of pots and pans on her huge antique stove. The smell is positively hypnotizing. Tell her you want to try everything, and go have a seat at the table...and await bliss.

No mistake, chowhounding is a serious business. The less intrepid voyager, lured into the building by Jim's evocative prose, might well mutter, "'Offbeat,' huh? -- how about 'off your nut?'" when confronting that same massive iron door...or when tempted by the promise of Manhattan's best smothered pork chops -- "amazingly juicy" -- to head down a Harlem alley to the back door of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church... or when brought by the mouthwatering description of chicken shioyaki -- "miniscule strips of free-range chicken, each topped with a wisp of skin lovingly broiled to [a] salty crispness" -- to the door of another classic Leff venue, Hole In One.

This last is a midtown Manhattan Japanese whisky club where, for a change, prices are exorbitant ("many bottles are extremely rare -- some from distilleries long ago closed... prices run up to a thousand dollars per shot"). But getting in requires the usual nervy panache ("the entrance is marked only by a discreet brass sign in Japanese...shout 'Hole in One!' or 'Whiskey!' into the intercom"); the ambiance is guaranteed to make you feel out of place (there are no English menus; everyone else is Japanese).

Why are you there? Because the best Japanese chefs in this country are snapped up by such exclusive clubs, and this is one of very few willing to admit anyone like you or me. For a chowhound, this may be tantamount to a Q.E.D., but for a softie like me, The Eclectic Gourmet Guide can read at times like the eater's supplement to Fielding's Guide to the World's Most Dangerous Places.

However, a direct comparison between the two books would be invidious: chowhounds aren't looking for trouble and they hardly ever encounter it. Jim is careful to point out that eating places are usually oases of calm, no matter the neighborhood: great food, like great music, puts everybody in a good mood. And the only ordeal facing a visitor heading to most of the places in this book is a very long subway ride.

What Jim does -- and brilliantly -- is to redefine eating out from a passive, put-good-things-in-your-mouth, touristic experience into an active, risk-taking, intellectually and, yes, even morally demanding adventure. To get the most out of such excursions, you have to keep your wits, social skills, and inherent courtesy on constant call. As Jim perceptively remarks,

[an initial] frosty reception probably stems not from hostility but from the reluctance of overworked waiters to endure those linguistic and cultural struggles from which their restaurant otherwise stands as refuge.

In many instances, the people you are dealing with are fellow travelers -- as much strangers to your world as you are to theirs.

This is exciting stuff. And, frankly, how many guidebooks have you read where you burst out laughing mid-review or compulsively read segment after segment to your bedmate...leaving you both ravenously, helplessly hungry? That this is the least of this guide's accomplishments is its highest recommendation: very few books of any sort offer their readers so much to chew.