Restaurant Review - Read 'em and Eat

Cookbooks make great gifts for the holidays

Like it or not, consumerism is a huge part of most people's holiday rituals. We must buy gifts, even for those people in our lives who genuinely lack for nothing. But cookbooks exist in that most giftable of realms, which is to say that people desire them, but for the most part, don't want to spend their own money on them. This year's releases include a slew of great cookbooks worth giving, for the Southerner on your list, the sweet tooth, the sushi-lover, the gourmand or the proud Atlantan.

Last year, we saw a slew of Southern cookbooks released during the holiday season, and this year the trend continues: Southern food is hot, y'all. And possibly the hottest book of all is Matt and Ted Lee's The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook (W.W. Norton & Company, $35). If any book is likely to woo the rest of the country with the charms of Southern food, this is it. Born in New York City and transplanted as teens to Charleston, S.C., the Lee brothers first made a name for themselves by selling Southern products to Dixieland ex-pats in the North. Now they have compiled a collection of recipes that treat Southern food with the same respect given to other great cuisines. That means quality ingredients and pure flavors. Recipes range from crab dip that calls for fresh tarragon to chicken-fried steak with Vidalia cream gravy, which comes out tasting gourmet but hauntingly nostalgic.

I have a few New York Times cookbooks on my shelves, some of which I use constantly and others I've never touched. The newest addition, The New York Times Dessert Cookbook (St. Martin's Press, $29.95), edited by Florence Fabricant, promises to be one that I come to depend on. From old-fashioned layer cakes (along with an essay about the plight of the layer cake by Melissa Clark) to complex ethnic desserts and challenging show-stoppers, the book is pleasingly comprehensive. But what it does best is give us smart and simple versions of classics, such as the vanilla cheesecake made with an almond crust (courtesy of The Tasting Room in New York City) that brought the enthusiasm for that played-out dessert back into my life. For any cook on your list with a sweet tooth, this is a sure winner.

Two luminaries of the restaurant world have notable books out this season; Thomas Keller, perhaps the most celebrated of American chefs, has packaged his two previously released cookbooks in a beautiful slipcover, giving us The Complete Keller: The French Laundry Cookbook & Bouchon (Artisan, $100). This is a great gift for a food professional, and is certainly impressive, but the recipes are too advanced for most home cooks. More accessible is the latest cookbook by New York chef Daniel Boulud, Braise: A Journey Through International Cuisine (Ecco, $32.50). Boulud takes us on an international tour of braising, and offers some beautifully inventive takes on the technique.

Any lover of sushi, no matter how unlikely he or she is to actually attempt raw fish at home, will appreciate Hiroko Shimbo's new book The Sushi Experience (Knopf, $40). The book offers a complete guide to making sushi, from kitchen equipment needed to details on how to choose and slice fish. But perhaps even more interesting are her detailed explanations of everything related to sushi, from restaurant etiquette to a history to a breakdown of every type of fish imaginable, along with photos. The book is a great resource for people looking to educate themselves on the finer points of this Japanese cuisine.

Melissa Libby, who runs a PR firm here in Atlanta, gives us Atlanta Cooks at Home (CityBooks Publishing, $34.95), a follow-up to her 2001 book, Atlanta Cooks. The book collects recipes from Ms. Libby's restaurant clients, reportedly offering up dishes they might cook at home rather than in their restaurants, and includes entries from chefs such as Aria's Gerry Klaskala and Watershed's Scott Peacock. Each chef gets a short chapter and provides a few recipes, themed with such titles as "Dinner Party to Impress" or "Southern Evening Soiree." I love the idea, but it's one of those books that makes the reader feel like an incapable home cook. Flipping through the pages, it's hard to find a recipe that an untrained cook might be able to whip up with ease. Pedigreed and hard-to-find ingredients, such as whole French rabbit, pepper each page, as do highly specialized cooking tools. There are some great-looking recipes here, such as the whole roasted sea bass with artichokes barigoule provided by Joshua Perkins of the Globe, but that recipe, which calls for us to cook and trim whole baby artichokes while cleaning a whole fish, is on the simpler end of the book's spectrum. Nevertheless, it's a beautiful book that showcases the city's culinary talents, and would make a great gift for an Atlanta restaurant enthusiast.

Lastly, a shout-out to the new paperback version of Seasoned in the South (Algonquin, $14.95) by Bill Smith, chef of North Carolina's Crook's Corner. In the spirit of fair disclosure I should mention that I worked for a short time at Crook's and know Bill Smith, but I would love this book if it had been written by a stranger. Its emphasis on the seasons, along with simple, easy-to-prepare dishes, such as green Tabasco roast chicken, make it a delicious ode to unpretentious modern Southern food. A new introduction by novelist Lee Smith is also a highlight.

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