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New Eats: Rachel's

The man behind Franck Bistrot, Farine, and Franckito is now trying his hand at hamburgers. A look inside his newest restaurant on Wukang Lu
2014-09-29 18:34:38

Two years ago, when restaurateur Franck Pecol was celebrating the fifth anniversary of his eponymous bistro, I asked him what his next move would be. His eyes lit up. In his characteristic sotto voce strain, he said "Tacos!" and then "Hamburgers!" Nearly a year later, the "tacos" part of the plan finally happened. The "hamburgers" part, however, took a bit longer. For well over a year all we saw was a storefront on Wukang Lu, shrouded with a larger-than-life illustration of a burger. No name. But last week, Pecol finally removed the shroud and unveiled "Rachel's."

The tagline is "Simplicity on a bun." It's a prominent motif in nearly aspect of the restaurant. He commissioned Neri & Hu to design the dining room. These are they guys behind Mercato, Waterhouse, Capo, and Commune Social.

Rachel's is probably the first Shanghai venue they've designed in years that doesn't riff off themes of post-industrial decay. You won't see exposed re-bar or doorways punched out of brick walls. Instead, the place takes cues from a post-war style Brooklyn diner without indulging too much in kitschy nostalgia. Think: brush-finished stainless steel and grey-scale tile patterns. The seating is exclusively swivel-stools, fixed either to the floor or the table. Tables are all high-tops, with niches cut out. That's where your old-school sheet metal service tray fits snugly. Nearly all of the windows fold up accordion style, giving the place a quasi al fresco vibe when the weather is nice.

The menu is small and reflects that obsessive eye for detail that Pecol has become known for with his previous ventures. He's not concerned so much with seeing how many different ingredients he can stuff into a bun. Instead, he's focusing on the fundamentals, perfecting particular elements of the sandwich. To that end, you've got a choice between a hamburger or a cheeseburger. That's it. There are more choices on the way, like a "deluxe" option, a fried chicken burger, and maybe even a codfish sandwich, he tells me. But for now, it's just two burgers, and an astounding amount of thought and time went into them.

For the buns alone, Pecol spent three months experimenting with recipes in his bakery. The end result is a pillowy brioche bread made from three different kinds of imported organic flour. This really is the foundation of the sandwich. It's porous and resilient. It soaks up any excess drippings and sauce, and the sandwich stays intact until the last bite. Buns are also baked twice daily (before lunch and then before dinner), less than a block away.

Pecol's coy about the beef. He tells me it's imported from Australia, that it's a blend of three different cuts, and that he adds an unspecified portion of Wagyu. He won't even divulge the lean-to-fat ratio.

Then there are the other accoutrements, like the spicy pickles made in house or a slice of imported sharp cheddar that's been aged for two years.

Accompaniments include your standard fries. They're cut fresh daily. They come to your table in the typical fast-food cardboard basket, tastefully monogrammed with the Rachel's "R." He's doing a few salads, too. Usually, the side salad with a burger is just a hasty afterthought in the kitchen. "It's like you're being punished for wanting a salad!" he tells me. He bucks this trend with some more creative options, like iceberg lettuce with classic Caesar dressing, topped with balsamic marinated shallots and crumbled potato chips. He does a couple of cole slaws too...

Ironically, he offers more desserts than burgers. There are four flavors of homemade ice cream—vanilla, chocolate, red berry and salted caramel—served in little mason jars.

You can get all of the above in milkshake form, of course. He also does a cheesecake made with creme fraiche, which gives the dessert a lighter texture. If that's not substantial enough for you, he does a dense doorstop of a chocolate brownie.

Of course, the burning question with anything that Franck Pecol does is price. I've said it before. I'll say it again. Franck Pecol simply doesn't do cheap. 70rmb gets you a burger, 90 a cheeseburger. What are you gonna do? He works with premium ingredients and makes no apologies for it. In a city where so many restaurants suffer a severe pride deficit, Pecol's insistence on using the best possible ingredients (sometimes at the expense of immediate profit) is a deeply appreciated gesture.

Nevertheless, we're still talking burgers here. And don't get me wrong, they're fine specimens, if not a tad small (maybe that's just my supersized American upbringing talking, though). Order a cheeseburger for 90 here, throw in a basket of a la carte fries for 25, a milkshake for 55 and you're already at 170rmb. Have dinner for two, and your bill has probably already exceeded 300rmb. Yeah. Pricey. I've got a feeling a lot of people will have a hard time swallowing that. People take their burgers pretty seriously. This one will probably be a polarizing force among them.

Somehow, though, I don't think Franck Pecol loses much sleep over such matters. He keeps doing what he does and usually comes out on top in the end.

For a listing of Rachel's click here.