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.