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[Revisited]: Le Bouchon
By Jun 24, 2009 Dining

Le Bouchon should wrestle The Grape. It'd be a fading expat restaurant deathmatch. Only the winner would be allowed to remain in business. Personally, I'd be pulling for Le Bouchon (est. 1998), even if The Grape (est. 1912) was started by Sun Yat-Sen. (Take that, Sasha's.) Here's why: it's charming. And I feel vaguely threatened by the owner of Le Bouchon. Sitting in his restaurant's crammed together chairs, legs locked underneath the table, feeling like an easy target, he seems large and imposing. He's effusive and sarcastic and he makes jokes about you not being allowed to eat if you can't speak French. It's where the joint's initimidating rep probably comes from, spread by people with niggling, defensive senses of humor. Guy has a personality. Shanghai is a little bit scared of that. He's just kidding. He's been wanting your money since 1998. Just look at that friendly, friendly smile he gives you when you leave.

The Grape? Apathy and fluorescent lights.

Le Bouchon is done up like a Gallic joker's house, with a tiled Gaudi facade and an interior design that incorporates a tree shooting through the dining room, accordions on the walls, a massive blackboard, and assorted knick-knacks scattered everywhere else. The ceiling is draped in fabric, adding to the inside-a-circus-tent vibe. The owner -- let's call him Vincent -- holds court like a ringleader, squeezing between tables to take an order, crack a joke, and then make a beef tartare, which he does in the dining room, on full display. The careful shakes of ketchup, tabasco, and Worcestershire are a small sideshow to the rest of the evening.

That's the best part, though: the charm of Vincent and his homey, endearing atmosphere. I don't know if when they started this circus, Vincent and partner Thierry were at the top of the French food game and they've recently slipped, or if it's always been this way. How many French restaurants were there in 1998? Two? Three? Finding frog's legs NOT covered in chilies, or a duck breast that wasn't part of a whole, roasted duck, or foie gras must've been tough. Who was going to look closely enough to see that, at 140rmb, the foie gras torchon is overpriced, especially so when it's both oxidized and served with processed white bread? That the puff pastry used for both a boring apple tart and as the shell in a stingy scallop dish with four tiny scallops -- four -- is heavy and chewy and missing what makes puff pastry good: the puff. My problem isn't with the throwback menu filled with old-hat dishes stuck in 1972. Done well, duck confit never goes out of style. And I'll grant Le Bouchon a delicious rendition of Provencal frog's legs, whose sauce of garlic, peppers, and tomato I sopped up with the stale house bread, and their beef tartare with fries -- also good -- but not much more. I don't want to make a list.

My problem is that Le Bouchon's kitchen is stuck in 1998, when food like this was a rarity and prices weren't as important. That must've been a glorious time. Now, it's just a very average kitchen selling small portions of cheap, local ingredients dressed up in brasserie clothes at inflated prices. It's a tough charge, but so is the portion-ette of frog's legs, at 120rmb. There's plenty of places in a kitchen where local ingredients do just fine, or better, than their imported counterparts. No one is smuggling frogs or eggs from Europe in a suitcase. Hell, 95% of the foie gras used in Shanghai today is from China. But it's not always the case, and Le Bouchon is taking advantage. It makes them look greedy, even if it's obvious that Vincent is in it for more than the money. He's so comfortable in his space, dishing up the beef tartare and choreographing the service staff, and he's clearly loving it. It's infectious, that. But when a thoroughly mediocre dinner for four, with a bottle of inexpensive wine, runs 1,500rmb, it's time to look up, man. The Grape is charging right at you.

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  • Unverified User

    le bouchon is a complete shit
    the owner an absolute rascist and china hater - he hates gays such as certain nationalities - a guy who just hates his surrounding - big chauvinist - - thats evident he has 100 of hockers to go -...

    well i would not spend time there - especially becos the food is a rip off !

  • djsexypaul

    i love the place, best resturant in Shanghai, great food,good service and THATS why he has been serving Shanghai for 11 years now. Thats longer than most of the french wannabe resturants altogether.
    Great place to eat and have a drink and if DjSexyPaul likes the place then its got to be fucking good
    Nuff said
    Respect to Vincent and Theirry

  • werder

    Been there only 2 times and that was long ago but the Tatar beats every other place in town I ever had one. Then again I am only here since May 2000, still some places to check out but Vincent is one character !!! I just like the guy !

  • Unverified User

    everything(!!) was covered with layers of garlic .... I love the real nice french cuisine, spent long time in france. This one reminds me of a cheap village restaurant far away in the country side that did not notice the progress in french cuisine of the last 30 years. Maybe tatar is the only dish that has not a 1cm cover of garlic? yes the guy is more then \"present\", and you really get a first impression of being in his living room ... but personally I more focus on the food then the staff - and that was disappointing.

  • JeromeL

    I just have to say \"LONG LIFE TO LE BOUCHON\". For me Le bouchon is an institution. Nor only a Great Food (Tartare of course, Frog Legs, Carpaccio of Foie Gras, The Beef Filet and so on) BUT also great atmosphere. Please name me a place where you can find the combination of both?? The only place for me in Shanghai where you can go there on your own for a little drink at 19.00 and finish at the bar at 2.00am after a great dinner, nice Bottle of Graves with a fantastic time. Of course Le Bouchon is not a \"cheap\" place and they never said it was but you have quality and quantity for your money. Vincent and Thierry made what Le Bouchon is today, a great restaurant and a fun place to go and to bring guests. I never had a person that I brought (and I can tell you that I brought a lot of people) who didn\'t like Le Bouchon. That\'s all I wanted to say....
    So people if you don\'t like Le Bouchon and the owners....just go to Mac Donald or Pizza Hut where i can guarantee that you will have a cheap meal with the worst atmosphere.
    ROCK ON LE BOUCHON and I will be a regular as long as you are here. Ciao. Mr Rock

  • dimwhittington

    most this review could be used to describe pretty much any restaurant targeting ex pats in shanghai.

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