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Don’t eat out on Mondays — and other tips

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Last year, everyone was reading and talking about "Kitchen Confidential, Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly" (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000). The author, Anthony Bourdain, told the tale of his life as a New York City chef — the firings, the hirings and the hollandaise.

With all the R-rated comments and sordid stories about sex and drugs, you might have thought you were reading about the life of a mobster or a rock star.

But Bourdain also generously sprinkled the book with tips for home cooks and restaurant patrons.

For instance, shallots, good stock, garlic and real butter are ingredients that will give your dishes a restaurant-quality taste, he said. Even chefs who talk about the virtues of olive oil are likely using butter, and his restaurant goes through 20 pounds of shallots a day.

In its December 2000 issue, Reader's Digest published some of Bourdain's advice to restaurantgoers, ways to find out how to get a tasty and safe-to-eat meal without having to wade through some of the seamy scandals in his book.

Here's some of his advice:

— Don't order fish on Monday; it's probably what's left over from the weekend. So, it's been "kicking around in the restaurant's reach-in refrigerators, already cut, commingling with the chicken and the salmon and the lamb chops for four days." Tuesday, says Bourdain, is a better day to eat out. It's not rushed and the food is more likely to be fresh.

— Don't eat mussels in restaurants, unless you're absolutely sure they handle them carefully. "I have had, even at a very good Paris brasserie, the misfortune to eat a single bad mussel, one treacherous little guy hidden among an otherwise impeccable group. It sent me crawling to the bathroom, clutching my stomach and suffering projectile vomiting."

— Beware of Sunday brunch, which can be "a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights, or for the scraps generated in the normal course of business." These are usually disguised with a sauce or dressing, he said.

— Don't order anything with hollandaise, a sauce of egg yolks and clarified butter that must be held at a lukewarm temperature so the emulsion doesn't break. The temperature makes a great breeding ground for bacteria. "Equally disturbing is the possibility that the butter used in the hollandaise is melted table butter, heated, clarified and strained to get out all the bread crumbs. . . . Hollandaise is a veritable petri dish of biohazards. (And how long has that Canadian bacon been festering in the walk-in, anyway?)" Yuck.

— Bread baskets are often recycled from someone else's table, but Bourdain doesn't mind eating it. "This doesn't bother me and shouldn't surprise you," he writes. "OK, maybe, once in a while, some tourist who's just returned from a walking tour of the wetlands of West Africa sneezes in the general direction of the bread basket. . . . But you might just as well avoid air travel or subways, equally dodgy environments for airborne transmission of disease. Eat the bread."

— Look for cleanliness. "I won't eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms," Bourdain writes. "If the restaurant can't be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, just imagine what their refrigeration and work spaces look like."

— If you like well-done meat, you might get the worst steaks. "So what happens when the chef finds a tough, slightly skanky end-cut of sirloin that's been pushed repeatedly to the back of the pile? Serve it to the rube who prefers to eat his meat or fish incinerated into a flavorless, leather hunk of carbon, who won't be able to tell if what he's eating is food or flotsam."

— Order dishes with a high turnover rate. For instance, if you go to a steak place, order steak. It's more likely to be fresh.

— Be kind to your waiter. "He could save your life — or at least your night — with a raised eyebrow or a sigh. On the other hand, maybe the chef has ordered him, under pain of death, to move that codfish before it begins to reek. Observe the body language, and take note."

Yes, eating out is a safety risk , but it's also a great pleasure that's worth the risk.


E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com