Some in the food world were surprised when French chef Nicolas le Bec closed his eponymous two-Michelin-star Lyon restaurant and came to his wife’s home country of China. However, the renowned chef is quoted in at least one 2011 interview saying that he was ready to make an international move, whether ‘Brazil, China, [or] Singapore’.
He chose Shanghai, and renovated a lovely Xinhua Lu villa for a project which launched with Bistro 321 le Bec and will expand later with a second, more formal restaurant in the same building.
The bistro’s menu covers relatively affordable French classics which incorporate some of the global influences le Bec was known for in Lyon. The dining room, overhung by a vaulted ceiling, is furnished with dark wood tables and chairs, and a central buffet table showcases a few desserts. The space has rustic charm, but with all the hard surfaces – including the brick ceiling and exposed brick walls – laughter and cutlery sounds reverberate around the room and bounce off diners’ eardrums. This effect is lessened in the cosier upstairs space, but here you’ll have to contend with slightly awkward barrel tables and bar stool seating instead.
The lengthy menu with French, English and Chinese descriptions lists a range of traditional and modernised offerings from land and sea. It’s a bistro, so le Bec has stuck to filling, homey classics rather than fine dining dishes – many of the meat- and sauce-heavy options seem more suited to winter rather than the Shanghai summer, especially given the chalet-like surroundings. Highlights from the menu include pâté en croute bourgeouis (90RMB), a multi-textured ‘pork and chicken meat pie’ with a buttery flaky pastry crust, and a lingering five spice finish that teases like smoke on the palate, and pork rillettes (90RMB), served in a chilled jar with a layer of fat on top, fragrant with star anise and oregano: it’s a wonderful spread for the excellent sourdough bread.
Other starters are less successful, such as a cream-filled burrata with roasted eggplant and zucchini (130RMB) which looks pretty in its glass jar but tastes unremarkable, and a salad of lettuce hearts with anchovy (55RMB), whose briny fillets and edible flowers fail to rescue the stingy, bland portion.
Disappointment continues with some of the main courses, with shortcomings including the lamb shank (160RMB). The meat, purportedly slow-cooked for seven hours, is encased in a hard, bitter breadcrumb shell. Hacking into the meat with a sharp knife reveals a bland and sinewy interior. The shank shares space with a puddle of cinnamon-curry sauce whose spices fail to permeate the meat’s coating. Similarly, a selection of rotating desserts fails to impress, including a lemon tart that sits atop a dull, hardened crust (70RMB).
Service, at least on one of our four visits, was startlingly arrogant. At a meal with four diners, staff were adamantly defensive when two people complained of a strange smelling and tasting ‘XL’ pork rib (180RMB). ‘There’s nothing wrong with the meat,’ one of them told us, coldly. ‘The meat we use here, and all our products, are the best quality. Maybe it’s just something you never tasted before. We’ll take it off the bill but there’s nothing wrong with it.’ After the entrees were removed, our table was soundly ignored for 20 minutes, offered not even a menu.
This experience is perhaps an anomaly. Other visits to the restaurant found service can be decent – as long as you don’t complain about anything – and the packed dining room is evidence that there are many devotees of Nicolas le Bec’s first Shanghai restaurant even in the opening months.
Just be warned that at le Bec, the staff are always right.
By Crystyl Mo