Guide favors small, French country restaurants

Richard Binns, the English author of a new guidebook, French Leave (Ticknor & Fields $6.95), shows no hesitation in stating his preferences, which lean away from France's big city establishments toward smaller restaurants in the countryside, off the beaten track.

Three-star citations by Michelin make no big impression here, and some of the most famous starred restaurants are described in this English best seller as being ''without soul.''

''It would do French cuisine a world of good if the giant of culinary criticism, the Michelin Guide, would take away a few stars from the three-star restaurants,'' Mr. Binns said in an interview during a visit to New York City.

''Some of them are living on their laurels,'' he said, ''and I've found it can make a big difference when these three-star chefs leave their restaurants for personal appearances and promotions around the world.''

Although this is a French guidebook, Mr. Binns includes a review of an exceptional Swiss restaurant, Giradet's, in Crissier.

Small, concise, and handy, the book lists dozens of places with good food that are not very well known, along with concise guidance on classical, nouvelle , and regional cuisine.

Although this guide is in English, which for many is an advantage over the Michelin guide, it is not intended to be a replacement for Michelin, Mr. Binns told me. He wants people to make their own choices and judgments.

The book started with Binns and his wife, Anne, because of their hobby of going to car rallies in Europe, which took them on out-of-the-way routes and back roads. But they have traveled the front roads, too, eating in famous and three-star restaurants as well as the lesser-known ones.

Constantly exploring, Binns says he doesn't mind taking the risk of getting lost, and he has come up against very few dead ends. It's worth it to see the real France, he said, and he wants other people to learn to do the same.

The couple published the first book themselves, working at home. It quickly became a best seller in England and is now available in the United States.

The Binnses are interested in helping people get value for their money; there are recommendations for all price levels. Locations are cross-referenced to Michelin yellow map and green guides.

There is an excellent, up-to-date menu translator and a glossary of food terms found on French menus.

France a la Carte, (Ticknor & Fields, $7.95) a companion book, contains hundreds of vacationing ideas and suggestions for sightseeing, motor routes, scenic walks, and picnic spots.

With a lively spirit of adventure, the author gives ideas for history and art buffs, trips to islands, grottoes, caves, and gorges, and even lovely roads that go nowhere.

Each section is limited to 50 lines of description with a map on the opposite page.

Both volumes contain an unusual amount of helpful information in a very small package. Another Binns guidebook in the making is called ''Hidden France.''

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