thursday's book

Feeding Frenzy by Stuart Stevens (Abacus, pounds 9.99)

Subtitled "A Race Across Europe in Search of the Perfect Meal", this sounds like one of those notions for a book which bubbles up over lunch sometime after the second bottle. Accomplished American travel writer (praised by Martin Amis, no less) takes Grand Tour of three-star restaurants in Europe platonically accompanied by stunning ex-model called Rat and golden retriever called Henry. Conveniently, Rat's lawyer boyfriend, still in New York, is picking up the hefty tabs from Tante Claire, Comme Chez Soi, Paul Bocuse, etc.

Nice work if you can get it - the only drawback being that the American gourmet/wordsmith truffling out fancy nosh in Europe is not exactly the freshest idea on the block. In the course of his gastro-pilgrimage, Stevens quotes such incomparable predecessors as Waverly Root, AJ Liebling, Patricia Wells and Burton Anderson.

He overcomes this problem by making food a recurring theme rather than an all-pervading obsession. At first, Stevens tries too hard to be amusing. A joke about a faulty Ford Mustang is run into the ground, ending with a slapstick incident where precious champagne is used to cool the engine. Across the Channel, he resorts to the hokey old gag about naming famous Belgians.

And yet Stevens stealthily grows on you. I feel a deep kinship with the author when the main courses are presented at the Riverside Inn at Bray: "I was seized with a desperate desire to eat both plates at once, first a few bites of the sea bass, then the lamb. So I did. Rat slapped my hand." At the legendary Taillevent in Paris, he's at it again. After sampling Rat's Boudin de Homard, Stevens feels the urge for a second mouthful. "You touch this plate once more and I will bury my stiletto heel in your ankle." How often have I heard those words, or some variant, from a female dining companion?

At the mid-point in his "29 days of gastronomic overkill", Stevens precisely captures the dreary over-the-topness of de luxe dining: "Romeyer reminded me of the aging movie queen of Sunset Boulevard, gaudy pretense and show gone to seed. Comme Chez Soi was inoffensive but terribly predictable, a long-running Broadway show that desperately needed new life." However, he gamely chomps on: "The scary reality is that I found it perfectly normal to spend three or four hours eating." Intelligent, amiable and well-read, Stevens has created a delicious souffle of a book - definitely not for those on a diet.

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