Franco File Friday: Barbra Austin

If I were to attribute my somewhat sudden interest in the Paris food scene back when I started this blog to a number of well-established food writers, without question one of them would be Barbra Austin. The former co-editor of Paris By Mouth, the collaborative food and restaurant website, worked as a pastry chef in the States for many years before shifting gears and coming to Paris to write, give food-focused walking tours, and, well, eat. You may have seen Barbra's work for the WSJ, NYT Globespotters, Zagat and Girls' Guide to Paris but it was her namesake blog that first introduced me to her wry humor and keen food sense. It is thanks to Barbra that L'Orient d'Or became my go-to spot for Chinese food and for that, I will be forever grateful.  

Last year, the Paris chapter closed when she moved to Hong Kong. But since France has a way of leaving an indelible imprint, she suspects she'll be back. Until then, she has these memories. 

Describe what you love about France in three words. 
Boulangerie, Pâtisserie, Fromagerie (among other things).

Most overrated and underrated spots to eat in Paris? 
I don't really like those words, overrated and underrated. Rated by whom? The press? Blogs? Or the general dining public? Different people go to restaurants for different reasons. For some, a sunny terrace or pretty people or the simple fact of being in Paris are enough to make a meal. How else can we explain the popularity of the Costes portfolio, or just about every restaurant in the Marais, or the restaurant rankings on TripAdvisor? Other diners expect nothing short of gastronomic transcendence, especially if they've had difficulty getting the reservation, or if the place has been hyped by the media (old and new). I'm thinking of Frenchie, of course, which I happen to adore. Is it overrated? No, but it's definitely overrun.  

There are a few places where I don't necessarily agree with the prevailing opinion, but it's for reasons of style more than quality, per se. I'm not wild about the food at Le Chateaubriand, for example, but I still consider it a very good restaurant, one that any curious diner should try at least once. 

As for underrated, we're all looking for that hidden gem, aren't we? I'll let you know when I find it.

What you miss most about daily life in France? 
My friends, first, followed by the abundance of great bread. Oh, and the Velib system

A frustrating or amusing interaction with the French? 
Well, for starters there was that doctor who called me a prude because I was reluctant to completely undress when I went in for a sinus infection.

Language, of course, provides ample opportunity for embarrassment, misunderstanding, and humor in both directions, and I've made gaffes I'm too ashamed to describe here. I also once found myself explaining the word "gaydar" to a French friend. He got it, but he never did grasp the concept of going on a "date". That's for the best.
Everyone likes to complain about the arcane, inane bureaucracy, but I've realized it's not unique to France. We just don't notice it in our home countries. That's not to say it wasn't baffling at times. When I showed up to renew my carte de séjour, the préfecture was overloaded and asked if I would mind rescheduling. I agreed, and about 15 minutes later I was sitting with a caseworker who looked through my dossier and said "Yes, it looks like you have everything you need," adding, "I could just give it to you right now." "Vraiment?" I asked. "Non," she replied, laughing (laughing!), and I waited another 15 minutes while she printed out a recipissé extending my current permit and an official notice of my rescheduled appointment. Which, you know, totally makes sense.

Paris made me more polite, actually, because without a proper bonjour and excusez-moi, no one will do anything for you. But even your most ingratiating "please excuse me for bothering you" offers no guarantee of reasonable customer service. See for example the cheesemonger who said that yes, he could vacuum pack a hunk of Comté, but warned me it would cost an extra euro. I said that was fine, I wanted it, and he reacted as though I was asking him to personally milk the cow. Or the chocolate shop clerk who would only sell me a pre-packed assortment of bonbons because she was too busy to do a custom mix, even though I was the only person in the store. 

But for all these examples there are many more of kind, generous, helpful people in France. 


But those don't make for quite the same story! 
For more on Barbra's work, head to her website and follow her on Twitter: @BarbraAustin

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