On The Radar is a weekly SmartShanghai column where we profile new venues that you might like to know about. Here are the facts and our first impressions.
The week's newness: Shanghai's oldest French restaurant revamps itself; The Deli Boys saves the "F-Visa Ghetto"; and Beef & Liberty finally open their much anticipated Xiangyang Lu branch.
Quick Take: Under new management, Shanghai's oldest French restaurant spruces up its interiors and revamps it's menu. Le Bouchon, in search of les bons vieux jours.
What It Is: The new lease on life for Shanghai's very first French restaurant. Celebrating their 20-year anniversary just last week, Le Bouchon was the first French culinary refuge in this city, opening their doors back in the late '90s — back when people sought out "decent Western restaurants" period, let alone authentic French cuisine. One story goes that it was originally bankrolled by the French government as a means to spy on people — it was basically only diplomats that ate there, and with the wine flowing, it was a great place to learn state secrets. That's probably not true but it's amusing to believe. Le Bouchon spent the majority of its run as the fiefdom of two French restaurateurs, Shanghai-famous for their... let's just say "idiosyncrasies"... who ruled it with that iron fist only an Old China Hand can bring to bear on the situation. For a decade plus, they bestowed French Cuisine 101 on their community of die-hards: beef tartar, frog's legs, escargot, Cordon Bleu, foie gras, crème brûlée, and other emphatically French staples via a classic 1960s-style French grandma's brasserie mise-en-scène. (Read: "rustic" and slightly nutty-looking).
Le Bouchon: It was divisive. People either loved the community of it or had nasty run-ins with the owners. But they're gone now anyways. They hit their China wall a few years back and the place was bought by a Hong Kong restaurateur. Said restaurateur has partnered with another Shanghai-famous F&B alum, Charles Belin (his Shanghai resume is too long to list here but most recently he's one of the owners of Blackstone Magic Bar). Belin is bringing forth the good elements of Le Bouchon, which have since become obscured by.... just the passage of time, I guess.
So, that's the Cole's Notes backstory. Which you might need to be cognizant of so you'll know what you're getting into. Le Bouchon is still all about willful French escapism. The food is still 1960s-style French home cooking. The sights and sounds are still "French bistrot that time forgot". It's still got that bonkers Gaudí-ish exterior. None of that has changed. What's new is the menu has been redone, with the consulting services of the ex-chef of KEE Club, and Belin himself now holds court as the new (benevolent) ruler.
First Impressions: Maybe the food was always secondary at Le Bouchon and it was more about the community of French diplomats, journeymen, and winos that made it their regular. But then maybe the food got way too secondary and it fell off. The regulars moved on in their lives and Le Bouchon didn't offer anything that attracted new French escapists. Since the revamp, in our run-through of the menu, the food was warming and excellent. In a simple and classic sort of way. A welcome throw-back. Maybe even singular and unique for Shanghai because this genre is not exactly in fashion. Classic French food from grand-mère. But spruced up. The chicken in booze dish up top was probably the best thing I've eaten in months. Loved that lentils too. It's not cheap though... you're paying for the nostalgia. Breaking 300rmb per person if you go deep.
When we were there, Belin was holding court with an absinthe rep he's known his whole life and two older French lifers, all drinking big glasses of red wine. The community might be coming back. These days, they might even let you get away with eating in there even if you don't speak French.
Quick Take: Finally. A place to get a decent sandwich off Dingxi Lu.
What It Is: I might be dating myself here — do they even still issue F Visas? — but the "F Visa Ghetto" is that area over by C's, Smash, Dada Bar, Basement6, and the old Logo. Dingxi Lu, Fahuazhen Lu. It's called the F Visa Ghetto because that's where all the reprobate Shanghai DJs and "freelancers" used to live. That area: Not so great for neighborhood eats. There's plenty of alright Chinese restaurants over there but not so much if you just want a sandwich or something.
Enter The Deli Boys, which is a collaborative effort from a couple boutique food businesses: Kate & Kimi, Blue Sky Kitchen, Blade Beverages & Irene’s Yogurts. They're at Lane 710 Dingxi Lu, which is that laneway that connects Xinle Lu and Dingxi Lu, AKA the Dada - C's shortcut. About half way down that they're on the ground floor of an apartment building, slinging big classic deli sandwiches at alright prices.
At this point it's less of a deli and more of a straight-up sandwich shop. You're going for lunch or dinner. The menu: Classic Montreal Smoked Meat. Medium, 73rmb; large 88rmb, with options for lean, medium, and fatty meat. Brined, steamed, roasted on site. New York Reuben. 85rmb. Smoked on site. Athens Souvlaki in a Pita Wrap. 68rmb. Wagyu Portobello Cheese Burger. 78rmb. Home Made Lox on a Montreal Bagel. 68rmb. Among others. They also do big meat sharing plates. Rice, salads, potato sides, along with a few pasta options.
This is the smaller, 73rmb option, with "medium" meat.
First Impressions: Not going to overthink this one. These sandwiches are big, juicy, and satisfying. Classic gut bombs. Worth it to take the trip over especially to try. Montreal Smoked Meat sandwiches are pretty hard to come by in Shanghai. Thumbs up on this one. Deli Boys: Welcome, welcome. Fuckin' eh.
The poutine... eh, yeah, disappointing in the cheese curds department but the fries and gravy were nice.
Quick Take: The Beef & Liberty empire grows with a spacious ground floor space on Xiangyang Lu, around the way from Donghu Lu. A very fine and tempting burger option indeed in this very crowded F&B area.
UPDATE: Beef & Liberty's Xiangyang Lu location is officially open today (September 8).
What It Is: Beef & Liberty do hamburgers. Pretty much exclusively. You're going for the burgers. Their house style is beefsteak homage, with house-ground Tasmania beef, served on a custom baked white roll. Gourmet style. But very simple as well. The menu offers just 7 variations of meat between buns, with straightforward names: "Hamburger, Cheese, Bacon Cheese, Felafel, Black Pepper, The Notrious P.I.G. (the pulled pork), The Little Pecker (the chicken burger)". Priced between 80rmb to 98rmb.
They also do salads...
...and a few nice sharing starter courses...
... but yeah, it's about the burgers. Here's the straightforward "hamburger".
And here's one of the variants, "The Notorious P.I.G." I love it when you call me Big Poppa.
Rounding it out...
First Impressions: Not good, great hamburgers. Really top quality meat. Top quality ingredients. A-one meat to bread ratio. I like the simplicity of the style too. Burgers are better when there's not a bunch of craziness happening with the ingredients. Most of that stuff just ends up all over your face and down the front on your shirt anyways. Like this guy says.
So yeah. Stiff competition for Liquid Laundry and Bistro Burger immediately in the area and in the genre. It had only been open a day or two and restaurant was already almost at capacity.
Also they have a pinball machine. Hey, that's alright.
Watch out for this one: Beef & Liberty run an massively popular buy-one-get-one-free burger deal on Mondays from 3pm. That packs out their Shanghai Center branch. The same deal will be available at this one as well.