Épicerie & Caviste 62 Le Bec
Add: 62 Xin Hua Road 新华路62号
Hours: closed Mon; Tue-Sun 10am-10pm (last order)
Price: [pastry] 15-18; [sandwich & quiche] 30-35; [jar] 40-250; [dessert] 28-38
Visited: September 2017
Will return: Yes
Paris. Few cities inspire such longing daydreams. Grand plane-tree-lined boulevards and narrow cobbled passageways. Grey mansard roofs and white wooden shutters. Parisians ambling out of boulangeries with baguettes poking out from under their arms; Parisians sitting at sidewalk cafes with their faces toward the street, looking as if they have all the time in the world.
The leisurely strolls along the Seine, wind rustling in leaves, sunlight dancing across water. The little je ne sais quoi that seems to permeate the very air.
These daydreams may be memories of visits past; or they can be the product of fantasy. More often than not, they are a combination of both.
Like many other great cities, Shanghai has its fair share of places that attempt to help us relive our memories and flesh out the fantasies. Whether it is a bakery, rotisserie, cafe, or bistro, there is no shortage of shops trying to imitate little facets of Paris that we love. But few have managed to capture the Parisian spirit quite so accurately as the newly opened Épicerie & Caviste 62 Le Bec on Xin Hua Road.
The name translates to “the grocery and cellar on No.62 by Mr. Le Bec.” It is a long name, and it still doesn’t cover half of what the shop actually is.
In the morning, Épicerie 62 is a cafe. Not the destination sort where coffee aficionados would flock in, their faces alight with eager anticipation, and converse with the barista at length about beans and roast – in fact, Épicerie 62 doesn’t actually have a barista. No, Épicerie 62 the cafe isn’t really about the coffee. It is the kind of neighborhood spot where you sit back with your café au lait and your croissant, and watch less fortunate souls hurry past on the other side of the window.
A tall side window throws a long patch of sunlight across the room in the morning, onto a backdrop of four round tables, eight rattan chairs, a red wall, and the odd fleur de lis-embossed floor tile. The Parisian impression is about as convincing as it gets.
But that likeness goes deeper than the facade. Every now and then, French expats and locals alike would pop in for a quick chat with Guillaume, the manager.
These people probably knew Guillaume from his days at Bistro 321 Le Bec just a block away, which has been delighting us with hearty, no-frills French cooking for years. So it is no surprise that when we saw a younger sibling materialize down the street, anticipation soared long before Épicerie 62 opened its doors.
Noon is marked by the usual suspects. The croque monsieur provides all the creamy indulgence it should, while the jambon sandwich is just slightly too generous with the mayonnaise. But both are eclipsed by the quiche, which is a lot more dynamic than you expect, stimulating and soothing the palette in turn with layers of creamy custard, zesty spinach, and rich, salty salmon.
An herb and lettuce salad was slightly overdressed on the day I had it, but the soupe du jour, a broccoli cream served in a tall paper cup, was moreish and soothing.
As the day wears on, Épicerie 62 transforms itself into a wine bar. The front room takes on a bistro vibe, filling up bit by bit, and people start to filter into the bar in the back.
Some 300 bottles are lined along one wall, a surprisingly extensive selection for the compact space. A smaller wine room further back stores some of the rarer and more expensive labels.
Light drinkers are not neglected. Wines offered by the glass are few but often interesting, and change every other week. One evening, I sipped on a lovely Viognier, reveling in its quietly flowery smoothness. Then I meditated upon the fact that the glass would set me back just RMB50, and decided to order another.
The one-page menu nearly rivals the list of house wines in conciseness, although Épicerie 62’s Parisian flashback mood is so convincing that it almost doesn’t matter whether the food tastes good. But it does. From the sibling of Bistro 321, we wouldn’t have expected anything else.
While much of Bistro 321’s cooking is informed by an Asian cadence, Épicerie 62’s dishes are more straightforward. Still, seasoned guests of Bistro 321 will no doubt notice some familiar faces, like the foie gras terrine and the pork and duck rillette, both stored in a mason jar and sealed with a blanket of fat.
The celery remoulade topped with chunks of crab leg is new to the menu, and a welcome addition. Packed into the plain-looking jar is a remarkable amount of nuance, a swirling concerto of subtle tanginess and creamy depth that raises a humble vegetable to something worth celebrating.
There are more substantial things to eat, like the hulking slab of pâté en croûte served on a wooden board. The mosaic of foie gras, head cheese and morels encased in a flaky, buttery pastry has indulgence written all over it.
Everything listed on the printed menu is cold, but the staff will tell you about a number of hot dishes from the word-of-mouth specials menu. Among them is a particularly memorable chicken that I first encountered on a rainy evening, fragrant with tarragon and competing for the spotlight with a bevy of mushrooms. Glistening from the depths of the bowl was a vin jaune sauce as profound as any I’ve tasted, the hearty, comforting warmth exactly what I needed against the autumn chill. (Next time, I will be trying the duck with cassis and red wine.)
Bistro 321 has always had some talented bakers. That talent is put to use at Épicerie 62, too. The bread baskets that precede every meal at Bistro 321 are sold at Épicerie 62. Order them, for they are some of the best bread I’ve had in town. The hearty rye is a fantastic way to fortify their daily soup into a lunch that can last you through the day. The miche au levain is good enough to nibble on with nothing but butter; it is even better as a vessel for that celery remoulade.
A colorful array of tarts and cakes are lined up in a display case like glistening jewels. Many of these are minor-key reprises of Bistro 321 favorites, lighter in both size and price than their counterparts down the street, but entirely undiminished in the joy they bring. A smooth, creamy dome of Mont-Blanc is made exceptional by a cognac jelly layered between cream and crust. The famed lemon meringue tart is as delightful as I remember it, while a raspberry tart, though a little heavy-handed on the crust, impresses with its marvelous pastry cream.
And with all this, we have yet to come to the “épicerie” part of the name. And Épicerie 62 is a grocery in the truest sense of the word. Lining every available surface in the shop are food (and non-food) items so diverse it almost makes your head spin, with practically everything you could think of (bread, jam, sablé Breton, tea, Balsamic vinegar, Chinese hot sauce…) and a few things that you wouldn’t (how about a ceramic knife?).
Épicerie 62 is the sort of place for which even time seems to stand still. It whisks us away to the kind of Parisian cafe that always seems to know just what it is doing without appearing to try, as effortlessly chic as the Parisians sitting inside. Even though it is barely two months old, it already has the air of a neighborhood establishment that has stood for decades, where it feels as if nothing changes but the day of the week, the constancy its own brand of excitement.
And that is what makes it special. Épicerie & Caviste 62 Le Bec is an experience that transcends three rooms and a dozen dishes. Its birth came with a history, a story that began long before its conception, and extends far beyond the boundaries of its red walls. It has built a narrative that weaves itself into our Paris daydreams, a way for us to feel Parisian at every moment of the day. That, more than anything else, is why I will be going back time and again.