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Austin, Je T’aime

Austin with a French Accent
Written by Paula Disbrowe. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

Bonjour Austin! Justine’s Brasserie is natural stopon a Francophile’s tour of Austin. (Photos by Will van Overbeek)

It all started with a trip gone awry. My mom scheduled a much-anticipated French getaway to Paris with an old friend, and then, late in the game, her friend pulled out. But the romantic, Kir Royale and back-alley bistro dreams had already taken hold—staying home in suburbia was not an acceptable alternative. She needed a plan B fast, and luckily, I knew just what to do.

Several years ago, I spent time cooking at an arts foundation in the south of France. During my stay, I took the high-speed train to Paris and met my mom for her first trip there. We sipped vin rouge on the steps of the Sacré Coeur basilica, ate our weight in cheese, and meandered through museums and manicured gardens. I was confident that I could rustle up the key ingredients to that certain je ne sais quoi in my hometown of Austin.

French bistros are becoming increasingly popular in Austin and other cities across Texas. But if you can’t make it out—or if you just want to try your hand at something new at home—here are some France-inspired recipes from Cooking with Texas Highways, which was published by University of Texas Press in 2005.

Full disclosure: It helps to be married to an extraordinarily talented baker—my husband, David Norman, is the head baker at Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden and makes, by many accounts (obviously mine is biased), the best croissants and baguettes around. So it was a given that each morning had to include one (or two) of his amazing pain au chocolat—rich, flaky layers of pastry encasing silky, bittersweet chocolate. It’s hard to imagine a more compatible partner for strong café crème.

One of my favorite things about Paris is the long walks and the opportunity to absorb the pulse of the city through its sights and smells—the entertaining parade of people, fashion, and pooches. In Austin, one of the best places to get such a fix is the gravel trail around Lady Bird Lake. So on most mornings, my mother and I followed our pastries with a stroll at the lake. The trail—well worn by spandex-clad runners, strollers, and mountain bikes (not to mention lots of dogs)—is the best place I know to witness Austin’s quirky, diverse, and vibrant culture.

The pétanque court at  Justine’s Brasserie offers  patrons a chance to try  their hand at tossing boules.Another highlight of our time in Paris was sipping Sancerre wine and snacking on croques madames, ham-and-cheese sandwiches topped with béchamel sauce, baked, and garnished with an egg (sans egg, it’s called a croque monsieur). I knew we could get a fix for both at Arro, which serves country-style French food in a casually hip setting. Think French onion soup, roasted fish with petite ratatouille, and a killer bread and cheese program. Arro’s all-French wine list and selection of seasonal desserts round out an experience that’s the next best thing to a bistro table alongside the Seine.

Picnics are among our favorite French memories—al fresco meals eaten on park benches alongside museums and manicured gardens. I knew just where to recreate the scene—the historic French Legation Museum, set in an 1841 house built for a French diplomat. The museum’s lovely, stone-framed park offers two-and-a-half acres of grass, native hardwoods, and manicured gardens to the public (open 1-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday). You can also get a history lesson: Trained docents lead 45-minute tours of the historic house throughout the day. The French Legation is a bastion of the Alliance Française d’Austin, which hosts rousing games of pétanque (a form of boules where players toss metal balls alongside a small wooden ball called a cochonnet) with a potluck buffet the second and fourth Sunday of every month. I packed simple ham sandwiches and a bar of fancy chocolate, and we enjoyed a lazy afternoon under a live oak.

In true French style, we needed a bit of pampering before our final night on the town. A French pedicure at Away, the spa at the W Austin Hotel, did the trick. The hip, lavender-scented setting, array of candy-colored polishes, and bottomless glasses of champagne, sipped while our feet were kneaded and calves were scrubbed, prepared us for the most convincing French scene in town—dinner at Justine’s Brasserie. The pitch-perfect bistro pours flawless French 75’s (a mix of gin, lemon juice, and champagne) and serves old-school classics like escargot in parsley butter sauce and steak frites. You’ll even find beret-clad artists playing boules in the courtyard.

For good measure, we threw in an April in Paris screening at home, and canelé lessons (a hands-on demo of how to make the custardy pastries scented with beeswax) from her baker son-in-law. We may have missed seeing a few iconic landmarks (the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower at dusk, for instance), but I’m certain we convinced my mother that Austin has its own irresistible joie de vivre.

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