He’s in Paris. He’s in Perpignan. He’s in Havana. These are all the rumors I’ve heard about where Franck Pecol, the Franck, that Franck, may be, and that’s just in the last month. The one place he definitely isn’t is the bistro on Wukang Lu that he started in 2007, that stumbled a little when his entire portfolio of restaurants was shut down in Operation Farine, and that now lives on, the soul of the place decapitated but its body still pulsing with electrical and mechanical movement. It may be the only restaurant in China named after a fugitive.
Curious about the state of the bistro, I had dinner there the other night. When I made a reservation on the phone, they greeted me in French and called the place Franck. My ears perked up. They were not coy. When we showed up, the only thing with the F-word on it was a chalkboard – a Franck calling card — with the name Franck Bistro written in chalk. Was this a hedge, a temporary commitment to a name, easily wiped off if the inspectors or karma police showed up at a moment’s notice? (It is worth noting here that Franck the man made a lot of enemies in Shanghai during his years here, and there’s no shortage of bad karma due to him, if you believe some of his former business partners. Also worth noting, he built a lot of successful businesses.)
Inside, it was the same as it ever was. Candles flickered on tables, couples nestled together in the corners, and you could almost feel the wine list reaching its greedy hands deep into your pockets as you picked it up. So, classic Franck.
We sat. They brought over the chalkboard menus. The manager recognized one of my friends, a former regular, and they had a little moment. It seemed as if nothing had changed but the quantity of bald French men and the bread supplier.
But then the food came.
And it wasn’t the same Franck. The marinated octopus with potatoes was tasty but hastily arranged on the plate, a metaphor for everything that came to our table. We don’t need to talk about every dish. The beef tartare is enough. Once a superstar, with the zing of capers and raw onion, now it tasted primarily of ketchup and a mild chili sauce. The fries were still roughly cut scoops, golden and crunchy, and there was nothing wrong with the tartare. But it wasn’t Franck’s and it wouldn’t have come out of his kitchen. Neither would an overcooked blanquette de veau, a veal dish, a frankly boring piece of cod with tomatoes and radishes, or a thin slice of pate de campagne.
And yet an odd thing has happened. Franck was perhaps the first in Shanghai to really squeeze you for every last kuai you brought into the restaurant, but he always delivered quality. The food was as good as the bill hurt. These days, prices don’t seem to have risen at Franck-ian levels. The three of us paid just shy of 400rmb each for three entrees, three mains, and two desserts (not counting booze), and while we left feeling slightly dejected at the fact that Franck is no longer Franck, we were also happy to see that Franck’s bill is no longer Franck’s bill. A silver lining, if I must find one.
So, who is running the show? The word on the street is that it’s an ex-business partner, who was not on particularly good terms with Pecol at the end anyhow (it had gotten legal), and that the staff fought to keep it open. What would they say about Franck the person, I wondered, and so I asked. “He’s in Paris now,” our waitress told us.
“And he’s never coming back.”
Franck is at Ferguson Lane, 376 Wukang Lu at Tai'an Lu.