This isn’t the kind of book I’d usually read, let alone write about on this blog. Try This: Traveling the Globe Without Leaving the Table is by Danyelle Freeman, founder and editor of the site Restaurant Girl. It was a gift, and a thoughtful one–my boyfriend and I research restaurants obsessively and spend a good amount of our time and energy finding new spots to try, or new dishes to try at favorite spots, whether on vacation, in another borough or here in Queens. This quality is both why I liked the book and why I wish I could have liked it better.
Freeman breaks Try This down into a nice personal introduction, fourteen ethnically themed chapters, and a couple of interstitial sections of (totally expendable) restaurant-going advice. The reason I find it so hard to read non-literary books for fun (a “beach read”? never…) is that I truly don’t want to absorb lazy, repetitive, cliche or gimmicky writing. I can avoid seeing sentences like that, so I do. I was afraid that’s what I would find here, but aside from a scant handful of “life’s a feast, dig in” moments and the recurrence of a very particular image I didn’t love of “dragging triangles of pita bread through meze (or mezze),” I thought the writing was fine. It was just what was called for–chatty, good-humored without being funny, and descriptive yet not overly descriptive (no “mouthfeel,” “flavor profile,” “toothsome,” and all those other maligned food blogging words). She did a really good job, I thought, of not being condescending to the reader nor to the culture whose food she was writing about. I think she managed this because the book is so personal and conversational; she is talking about her past with these cuisines, where she first encountered them, what it was like when she ate them with her family as a child in New Jersey or on a date in New York or when she was sick in LA, where she likes to get what and why she likes it. She doesn’t go too broad–there are no Anthony Bourdain sweeping statements about a culture through the lens of the food, but none of the snark, either.
My very personal problem with this book is that I didn’t learn a lot from it. This is because, as I mentioned, I eat out for sport. Nearly the entire chapter on Thai food focuses on the Thai restaurant ten blocks from my house, which is comfort food for me at this point. It would be difficult to tell me anything about Thai food in Queens that I haven’t already weaseled out myself after six and a half years of obsessing about it. But I want to know more! I was hoping for some new tricks. Not here. And in the Vietnamese chapter, when she mentions her favorite banh mi being from a counter in the back of a Chinatown jewelry store? I’ve been there and I like the one around the corner better. When she talks about Nah Trang, well, I went there once and saw not one but two giant roaches on the wall beside my head, which prompted the waitress to say, not “Oh no! That never happens! Meal is one me!” but “I’m sorry you had to see that. Here’s your check.” I get that this is far from a universal critique of the book, but it disappointed me because I love Vietnamese food and have gone to Flushing, Sunset Park, a grocery store with a few soup pots on Jerome Ave in the Bronx and more to find any in New York half as good as what is in Seattle or DC. I thought maybe I’d get a clue here, but no. The one place she mentioned that I’d never heard of–Bun in Soho–isn’t there anymore, which confirms something that worried me about this book–it is so specifically about current restaurants–most in NYC–almost a how-to guide to them, that it will date itself really quickly.
Of course, I haven’t been to all of the restaurants Freeman mentions and I bet that a lot of people who didn’t grow up with parents who loved eating ethnic food and partners who’d rather go on a quest for chaat in Floral Park than watch a football game might be more the target audience for this book. Or even for something who hasn’t lived in New York for as long as I have– this book would actually be an amazing gift for a NYC transplant who wants to start getting to know the restaurants of a new city. It is narrative and fun as well as organized and friendly–a great alternative to sifting through blogs that already assume their readers’ level of familiarity.
The one spot I did learn about, and have started thinking about obsessively, is a Turkish baklava bakery in Flatbush. I’ve never heard of it and I haven’t even googled it yet because I am scared that something might have happened and it isn’t there anymore. Freeman writes about milk baklava–specifically a pistachio milk baklava that is custard-like and very rare in the States–and I basically can’t think of anything that sounds more amazing. I’ll dream of it a while longer and then hopefully I’ll go out and get it.