If he weren't already a successful chef (at Manhattan brasserie Les Halles), novelist, and author of the best-selling Kitchen Confidential, a scandalous behind-the-swinging-doors look into America's finest restaurants, Anthony Bourdain might have been food criticism's answer to the late Pauline Kael: a brash, fearless, unerringly shrewd observer with forceful opinions and a scintillating prose style. Like Kael on film, Bourdain is driven by passion, which pushes his culinary pursuits to soaring heights and grueling chasms. But he reserves his greatest disdain for mediocrity: the lazy, pre-packaged, brand-name uniformity that passes for dinner at most fancy restaurants. Globetrotting to celebrated and unlikely spots across Europe, Asia, and back in North America, Bourdain encounters nothing but extremes in A Cook's Tour, and he wouldn't have it any other way. An inspired and delectable odyssey of world cuisine, graced by a rich appreciation for cultural tradition and a master chef's attunement to craft, the book has an adventurous spirit that's insatiable, infectious, and more than a little crazy. In his ostensible search for "the perfect meal," Bourdain considers not just the food, but the context that gives it extra flavor, whether it's a simple pastry that transports him back to his boyhood summers in France, the boisterous song over fresh pig and bacalao (salted codfish) in provincial Portugal, or a spectacular 23-course meal with one delicate surprise after another. More inclined to lowdown, unpretentious pleasures than fussy, overwrought artiness (another connection he shares with Kael), Bourdain follows his curiosity, which leads him into far-flung, dangerous patches of Morocco, Cambodia, and the Mekong Delta. Sometimes, he's just happy to escape with his life and a few gripping stories. A man of his temperament would probably be better off traveling alone or with an equally tough-willed companion, but A Cook's Tour was bankrolled by the Food Network, which is currently shaping its footage into a 22-episode series. The network's executives insisted that two small digital-video cameras would not be an encumbrance, but Bourdain frequently rages about his devil's bargain with a network that hauls catchphrase showmen like Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay in front of a "wildly barking seal-like studio audience." Responding in kind, his producers delight in seeing his stomach turn: Knowing his contempt for vegetarianscharacterized as privileged, arrogant suburbanites, "curiously oblivious to the fact that much of the world goes to bed hungry every night"they arrange for a vegan potluck in Berkeley. Bourdain's willingness to endure such abuses should make for great television, as should his daredevil consumption of Japan's poisonous Fugu blowfish and his rounds with an AK-47 at a Gun Club serving local fare in Phnom Penh. But at its heart, A Cook's Tour follows one long, mouthwatering spread to the ends of the earth, savoring the camaraderie and fun that often goes along with a great meal. Equally skilled behind a stove and a typewriter, Bourdain serves up vivid descriptions that are the next best thing to stabbing a bite off his plate.