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'The Man Who Ate The World'? Tasty

Jul 18, 2008

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Jay Rayner, a restaurant critic at the London-based Observer, confronts a heaping buffet of dilemmas in this bouncy international survey of the haute-cuisine scene. Rayner is a nebbish and a mensch, a nice Jewish boy whose mother doesn't want him eating blowfish. He worries charmingly about everything from gluttony and civic identity to the ethics of food journalism and — most crucially and extravagantly — his groaning expense account.

The book hits all the hot spots you'd expect, beginning in the American desert, where Rayner contemplates ending it all at an Alain Ducasse joint called Mix in Las Vegas: "I had hated [it] so much, I had considered suicide just to spite them."

In Moscow, he discovers a chaotic city at once nostalgically in thrall to Soviet-era comfort food and also helping itself to mounds of soothing sushi.

Rayner first does a restaurant crawl in New York, with the most insatiable of the high-end food bloggers ("the butterfly collectors, the ones who photograph their dinner") and then cruises Manhattan with guidebook mogul Tim Zagat, returning with a profile in glad-handing that's all the more delightfully vicious for its understatement.

In Paris, the artichoke soup at Guy Savoy leads him to decide that cooking is not an art, but a craft.

In Dubai — well, if you regularly read magazines, you will have read more than enough about that opulent emirate, and Rayner adds nothing new. Still, he is gracious enough to share that the best meat on a camel is 10 inches under the hump.

Geographically and thematically, the book is all over the place, built around digressions on the economics of decadence, the morality of luxury, the cult of "authenticity" and why British critics are wittier than their American cousins. Rayner sometimes brings his wife in as a foil — a levelheaded Alice to his Calvin Trillin-esque monomaniac. At one point he even writes her an open love letter; the billet-doux pertains to Kressi, a popular Swiss vinegar.

But if you forgive The Man Who Ate The World its certain looseness, its discourses on the globalization of gastronomy shape up as a rambling feast hosted by a tart raconteur.

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