Wednesday night, this site's editor in chief and I finally caught up with Jim Leff, who decided to stop by (well, near) our place of business for a little chat at Coliseum Books. Good thing it wasn't the other way around, because the much-admired food sleuth does his business seemingly in every corner of the tri-state area.
What a treat to talk turkey (well, not exactly) with Mr. Leff, whose populist spirit for a better way of eating infused the room with endless possibilities for elevating the way we eat. Mr. Leff, who wears a hound mask to protect his identity, may well be the city's most offbeat food critic, a moniker he would likely shunand who could blame him. The mental muscle behind Chowhound.com, he is more than just another guy with a palate and a pen. Mr. Leff is a careful observer of the many nuances involved in cooking, and treats it more like an art form than the science fiction to which it is customarily relegated. He looks beyond atmosphere and other Zagat niceties in favor of restaurateurs who pour their souls into their frying pans, whether they cook in star-bestowed kitchens of distinction or turn out seemingly impossible delights in out-of the way greasy spoon diners. In this world, nothing trumps eating well.
Just as Mr. Leff is no talking head, Chowhound is more than just a website. It is a movement for those determined to change the paradigm through which most restaurants are measured. It is a support group for those who can differentiate fresh from aged mozzarella, and an egalitarian network to promote the former. "Chowhound is an antidote," Mr. Leff said.
Mr. Leff was at the Midtown bookstore to plug The Chowhound’s Guide To The New York Tristate Area. (He didn't actually write the book, save the foreword, but helped to edit it based on countless postings to the eponymous website.) Admiration for Mr. Leff aside, one has to wonder if New York really needs another book chock-full of restaurant tips; any bookstore in town has several dozen of them on the shelves. But one perusal of the book will change your mind. What New York doesn't need are the dozens of other books on the market. The Chowhound's Guide offers a great starting point for anyone, regardless of cuisine preference or locale. Its main section is oddly alphabetized by pretty much anything: ethnic cuisine, neighborhood, landmark, even specific dishes; the back is indexed by restaurant names and neighborhoods.
Mr. Leff's way of thinking has long been an inspiration. More than the great food he has pointed us towardchief among them is Di Fara Pizza, found in his indispensable first book, The Eclectic Gourmet Guide to Greater New YorkMr. Leff has taught us that great food exists everywhere, and that one need not spend a fortune to eat well. Each of us is capable of discovering the next Di Fara or David's Brisket House or Charles Southern Chicken.
Since the book isn't really his per se, Mr. Leff read but one segment from it. Listed under X for "eXtremely Important," it sounded more like a sermon in which our spiritual leader preached his shiny outlook, at one point, even making us raise our hands in the air to pledge an oath: "It's extremely important that we never settle for anything undelicious when there are so many geniuses, holdouts, and proud crafsmen investing hearts and souls in cooking edible treasure that can sate our deepest hankerings. Just venture a bit farther and care a bit more, and all occasions can be special ... and the good guys will win."