Truth and consequences

“Eating Crow”
Jay Rayner (Simon & Schuster)

If you think a high-profile restaurant critic should know how to cook, know how to eat, know how to articulate with some wit what makes a dish good and a restaurant worth trying, you’ll be sorry when you read “Eating Crow.” Nothing makes all those points more clearly than this sharply written, quite funny and immensely entertaining novel by a reviewer from the highest caste in the profession: British. And knowing such a character exists makes the absence here more obvious.

“Eating Crow’s” plot unravels even as it’s being knitted, but the basic idea is solid enough: A restaurant review is so nasty the chef kills himself and the reviewer starts apologizing and can’t stop until he’s gone professional. Every chapter has great descriptions of food, great insights on the people drawn to it and great lines just tossed off — on the signals napkin-folding gives off about cooking, on women who think they can cook, on newspapers and the fat guys who eat and ascend at them. Unlike so many critics these days, Rayner seems to have a life beyond the table but would never see food as beneath him.

His fake reviews are rather weak, but then there’s probably no way they could compete with the real prose. Referring to the doomed chef, he writes: “But what really broke me up about Hestridge was that he couldn’t cook. By his choice of profession he ensured that animals died in vain. He destroyed fish. His sauces were too thick or too thin or just tasteless. His starters were too heavy, his desserts flimsy and insubstantial.”

Rayner is also that rarity, a food writer who can describe the act of cooking without making the reader want to look away in embarrassment (or, worse yet, boredom). He has fresh ways of hitting ethnic cliches, as when he refers to a kebab place in one of London’s outer suburbs “where the meat festered rather than cooked.” And he has a sure hand in mixing real and imagined dishes, especially those wacked out with chocolate.

Maybe Rayner’s greatest revelation is the most obvious: “A good review was a drudge, a desperate struggle for diverting hyperbole. A reliable column needs a strong narrative, and nice experiences in good restaurants don’t make for good stories. . . Terrible places, and the suffering they cause their customers, make for good stories, and so I had begun to seek them out.” Or, to put it the way another character does: “You’re so funny when you hate.”