Sunday, July 11, 2010

Would you be having the specials, today?

For an amateur foodie such as myself, I look forward to reading about restaurants, seventeen-course meals, foie gras, leather-bound wine lists, and Valrhona chocolates. Phoebe Damrosch's memoir, entitled Service Included, about her days as captain of the service crew of Per Se, therefore, was a natural reading choice. I've always been curious about this restaurant; Per Se has been touted as one of the world's best restaurants, earning 4 stars in the New York Times restaurant reviews and 3 stars in the Michelin guide.

Just look at the interior of Per Se. The muted colors and the elegantly simple designs are actually conscious decisions. Thomas Keller, the renowned chef who owns Per Se, wanted an eating establishment where diners focus on the food and not the ambience. There's even none of those annoying pipe-in music. (Somehow, I can't imagine myself eating my light-as-a-feather omelet with truffles while Barry Manilow sings "Mandy" in the background.)

And who wouldn't crave those salmon cornets, which Per Se is most famous for. The cornets are scoops of salmon tartare with chives resting on each cone. The cones are then filled with a red onion crème fraîche. Truly bite-sized pieces of heaven in savory, light pastry.

Anyway, enough about the food and on to the book review. (Notice how I get carried away when I write about food?) Service Included is one wonderfully written memoir. We all know that being part of the service crew isn't at all glamorous. Damrosch goes beyond listing all those brutal truths about being a waiter in a restaurant as well known as Per Se.

In Service Included, Damrosch recounts her training from being a backserver to the only female captain in this restaurant. For those of you not in the know, like myself before I read this book, backservers are people who refill your water glasses, clear plates after every course, and replenish your bread basket. Captains are those who you talk to about the menu and the wine list. Apparently, being a captain is a big deal, as Damrosch recounts in her book. Ultimately, the experience of diners rests heavily on the attention of the captain, other than the food of course.

It's probably Damrosch's background (she has an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence) that makes the descriptions of working in a restaurant so vivid. Damrosch's attention to detail is so remarkable that you can't help but imagine yourself in Per Se and being served those delectable chef tasting menu that can last for more than 3 hours.

There are several funny moments in the book. At one time, the famed New York Times restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, drops by the restaurant and strikes a very lighthearted discussion with Damrosch about scrambled eggs. The discussion is particularly enlightening, as you would read how Per Se takes everything seriously, even in its scrambled eggs.
"You look perplexed, I (Damrosch) observed.

"I am. What makes these scrambled egs any different from my scrambled eggs? Why would a restaurant of this caliber serve a whole course revolving around eggs?"

I thought about this for a moment. He was right, really. I had never thought to question the custard course. Some of the more virtuosic egg preparations seemed more appropriate: the white truffle-infused custard served in an eggshell or the pickled hen egg with truffle filling made to look like a deviled egg and paired with a tiny truffle "Pop Tart." But a soft-boiled, scrambled, or coddled egg was simply an egg, no matter how much truffle coulis you added. [page 130]
Mouth-watering, isn't it? For the meantime, I had to content myself with our usual scrambled eggs at home, which has only two ingredients -- egg and salt.

Damrosch writes very interesting information about the restaurant business itself. I never knew that restaurant critics visit a new restaurant three or four times before they write their reviews. Waiters are given seminars on where their ingredients come from, how each dish is prepared, and what wine goes best with each dish. Service Included shows you that, in the end, running a restaurant is analogous to maintaining an art gallery, with the dishes as the artwork to be sold.

And the rules, oh my God, the rules. Damrosch lists very funny points that you should consider every time you eat out:
  • Don't try to bribe the host. If there's no table, there's no table.
  • Do not pick up your glass when a waiter or sommelier is about to pour something for you. It makes you seem greedy and oblivious.
  • Your food is delivered to your table based on where you were sitting when we took your order. When you switch seats, it screws us all up.
  • Please don't ask us for cigarettes.
Damrosch has decided to leave the restaurant industry and concentrate more on being a writer. I can't wait as to what kind of book she comes up with next. For now, let's just be content to see the menu at Per Se.

Read this book if:
  1. You've been a waiter at one point in your life.
  2. You like eating out.
  3. You're unfazed when you read a menu in a foreign language.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Those warrior cats

Okay, dear reader, so here's the first blog entry after my long hiatus from blogging. And I decided to write a review about cats. Yes, those feline creatures who refuse to be given baths and nail trimmings. I've never been a cat person, and I guess I never will be. I love dogs too much. I love how fiercely loyal they are. I love that they like to cuddle up next to you. With cats, you just don't know where you stand. I can never imagine getting a cat for a pet. It's just too... creepy. When you look at their eyes, somehow I can feel that they can see my soul.

So I decided to pick up the first book of Erin Hunter's young adult series Warriors. The first installment is titled Into the Wild. The author is a known cat lover, so if I want to know more about these mysterious mammals, I might as well sample her works even though they are fiction. Besides, how can I say no to this book when the first image that came up when I googled cats was this, which I took as something ominous:

Into the Wild is about Rusty, a pet cat who decides to leave the comforts of living with people (who are known in the novel as Twolegs) in favor of being with the cats in the wild. The premise may sound simple, but Hunter provides another dimension to these cats -- how they interact with other cats in the great outdoors. You see, in the world of the Warriors series, a wild cat belongs to one of the four clans. ThunderClan, ShadowClan, RiverClan, and WindClan. Each clan presides over a territory where they can freely hunt their prey.

So Rusty is taken in by the ThunderClan and takes the name Firepaw as a warrior apprentice. Now this is where things get iffy/predictable for me. Of course, I expected Firepaw to prove himself as a worthy member of the Clan despite being an outsider. Also, I was counting the pages as to when he will have the leader of the Clan as his mentor. And yes, all these happened as I expected.

Yes, there are stereotypes in this novel. Firepaw is an outsider who makes a name for himself even while an apprentice. The clans are headed by cats who are imposing, very stately, and tres wise. The clan rulers have deputies who seem to be dubious characters. We've read, heard, and seen these all before. Top of my head, I can think of Star Wars.

Nevertheless, Into the Wild is a fun read. Hunter has written a very engaging YA novel, something that appeals to people who love these furry creatures. While there are no distinct fantastic/magical elements in this book, one can consider Into the Wild a fantasy novel. (Hello, talking cats?!) These cats are magical in themselves. The way they interact with their fellow clan members is fascinating. Who knew that cats can be political? Hehe.

Into the Wild is a good way to start this series. It's not spectacular, but it works. Hunter has even included a teaser storyline for the next book. And I love how the author developed her characters. These aren't your cute cats you see napping under the sun; Hunter's cats are true predators -- they kill not just mice and other small prey, but other enemy cats as well.

Read this book if:
  1. You love cats.
  2. You feel you've never really belonged in a club.
  3. You love YA chapter books.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

It's alive!

I'm baaaaack! Forgive me, dear reader, as I've been busy with lots of things. And I've just realized something -- the less I blog, the more books I get to read. Hehe. Oh well, I guess you can't have the best of both worlds.

I can't say that I didn't miss blogging. I miss reading your comments, dear reader. I miss sitting down for two hours and painstakingly composing my thoughts on a book. I miss the whole interactive aspect of blogging -- the wonderful community of readers, bibliophiles, and fellow book bloggers.

So again, my apologies for the lack of posts for the past few weeks. KyusiReader is now back to its usual ranting, praising, and tackling everything that has to do with our love for reading.