Banh Xeo Tom: Crispy Rice Crêpe with Lobster; Ca Nuong: Grilled Sturgeon Marinated in Lemongrass and Chilies Served with Curry and Rice Noodles; Woked Whole Lobster
Occupation: Event Planner & Documentary Producer
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Le Colonial
Reviewed Le Colonial: Saturday, August 12, 2006
From the moment you step inside Le Colonial, (on the first-time, difficult-to-find, alley street, Cosmo Place in the Union Square/Tenderloin section of downtown), you know that the evening will be a special one.
First of all the building is fantastic. It is a Spanish style, gable-roofed, warm building with high, carved-wood ceilings, and rich wooden carvings on the walls, and magnificent terra cotta tile underfoot. You walk (or take an elevator) to the second floor, which is in a semi open air space with a modern glass roof. This section is for dining, or waiting for your other diners, or drinks on classic rattan upholstered patio furniture –- all very high end and most comfortable. Overhead heaters are in place for those chilly nights when you still wish to be outside. They have thought of everything.
The main dining room on the second floor is like a film set right out of Casablanca or Indochine. It drips dark mahogany with a lacquered tin ceiling with fans and decorative lampshades. The room is hushed and lighting is perfect. Most inviting.
The servers present the menu and are friendly and most knowledgeable about the Vietnamese menu items. We were presented with the Summer Menu 2006. The servers' uniforms –-black and loose fitting -- are sorely in need of an update or, better yet, a more fitted look. The black hospital-like style makes the servers look unkempt but uniform.
I went with my friend Lisa and we started with two appetizers. Banh Xeo Tom: a crispy rice crêpe with lobster, prawns, bean sprouts, and lettuce cups. Fantastic taste, but the presentation was in need of help, as the lettuce cups overpowered the crêpes and actually hid them. A larger plate and maybe having the crêpes sit in the lettuce would make it look more appealing. But the taste was superb.
Next we had, Thit Bo Noung: braised short rib glazed with honey and ginger and served with an organic watercress salad. Fantastic taste. The meat just fell off the bone. Great taste and presentation. A fine mix of ginger and honey on a bed of watercress. YUMM.
The dishes were brought and cleared at just the right speed with no hovering servers. The staff was well mannered and friendly.
Then the main courses arrived. Ca Nuong: grilled sturgeon, marinated in lemongrass, chilies, and curry and served over rice noodles. I rarely see sturgeon on menus in the Bay Area, so when I do see it, I have to order it. I love the taste and the texture of the fish. The presentation is grilled on skewers and served over rice noodles and those damn lettuce cups. They prompt you to make a fish taco. The taste was great, but with the flimsy lettuce cups (again) and the sauce, it just makes a mess. So, I recommend to just eat the fish on the bed of noodles and have a great time with the sturgeon. Yumm. The fish was grilled to perfection.
Mi Vit: roasted Peking duck breast with pomegranate glaze, served with green beans and pineapple. This dish was most disappointing. The presentation was excellent as it was served on a bed of green beans. (Thankfully there were no lettuce cups.) The description promised pomegranate glaze, but there was none to taste in the dish. The sliced duck was a bit fatty, and the cubed pineapple overpowered the other flavors on the duck. Each pineapple chunk fought for dominance and the tartness did not complement the taste of the duck at all. I would not order this dish again.
Without wine or dessert the bill for two was $100. Kind of pricey, but I would definitely go back there again on a special occasion. Most accommodating and knowledgeable staff.
Occupation: Executive Director of Senior Nutrition Program
Favorite Restaurant: Café Rouge
Reviewed Le Colonial: Tuesday, August 15, 2006
I don’t know where to start. I know: I’ll start with the good things
great décor, excellent duck. Now for the less than good things. The wait staff was not very cooperative regarding my request for a flashlight, because the lighting was so poor that me and my guest couldn’t read the menu. After several tries, the waiter produced a key light, which wasn’t adequate. I resorted to having my friends read me sections of the menu. The noise level was very high one because the tables were very close and also because guests, who were using the upstairs bar area before coming to dinner, were often talking with the same level that one talks at when they’re in a crowded bar lounge.
We started our meal with the Sampler Appetizer. I have never had a spring roll so dry, tough, and hard. The crab cake was not a crab cake, rather it was a soft and wet mound of crab with a binding that was not easy to identify. We thought that the food was prepared and reheated in a microwave, because our food was presented to us within minutes of our placing our order. This is really hard for me to write because I’m thinking maybe I just don’t get it: why are all these people in here for this terrible food? Where are the Vietnamese? If it’s that great of a meal why aren’t they here? We decided that this is a tourist destination stop, a place recommended by the front desk of nearby hotels. Is there a kickback to hotel staff? There was no feeling of neighborhood or community dining. To add insult to injury, our wait staff person announced, in a gentle way, "Thank you for coming" and stood at our table as a gesture of "you don’t have to go home, you just have to get out of here."
My entree for the evening was Cuu Nuong or grilled lamb chops with braised eggplant and mint-apple salad. This dish was covered with a wilted bed of greens the eggplant was overcooked, which made the taste indecipherable. My guest #1 ordered the Ca Nuong, grilled sturgeon. She thought that the fish was frozen and the spicy cucumber sauce ended up being a tomato sauce with not a hint of cucumbers. Guest #2 ordered the Mi Vit, roasted Peking duck, which she thought was great. It had a tender and delicious pomegranate glaze and succulent tender green beans. As a side dish we ordered the Bap Xao, grilled organic yellow corn with chili salt and lime. The corn was difficult to eat because it was cut into small ringlets, so your only alternative was to eat the corn with your fingers. The corn tasted like it had been boiled and coated in Old Bay Crab Boil.
Our dessert was another step into poor dining. We ordered two items from the dessert menu, beignets and mung bean cheesecake with vanilla ice cream and ginger sauce. I just can’t tell you how hard it is for me to write such a negative review, I keep asking myself, "What’s wrong with me?" However, when I think about who was in the room maybe that is the answer. Most of the guests appeared to be tourists, and that’s not to say a tourist doesn’t know good food, but maybe, just maybe, tourists are directed to this establishment. Notice I’m moving away from using the term or language of calling LE COLONIAL A RESTAURANT.
Occupation: Law Firm Communications Manager
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Bill's Place
Reviewed Le Colonial: Saturday, August 19, 2006
“Hidden Gem Leaves Lasting Impression”
To call Le Colonial a Vietnamese restaurant is really unfair. The unique Asian-French cuisine seems to draw its inspiration from, not only colonial Vietnam, but also China, Thailand, and other exotic Asian destinations.
The experience, however, does not even begin with the food, but rather when you enter the restaurant, which is hidden in an alley a few blocks from Union Square. Patrons climb a wide limestone staircase and then walk across an open-air, glass-canopied patio and then enter through two large doors.
We had arrived before our two guests, so the staff invited us up to the large, upstairs lounge. The lounge has a separate food menu and offers a number of tropical and Asian-inspired cocktails. Although the old Trader Vic’s space is starting to show its age with some well-worn furniture and chipped walls, the décor is dark and inviting. We sipped on our drinks in an overstuffed couch and enjoyed previewing a menu before our meal.
When our guests arrived, we sauntered back downstairs into the formal dining room and were greeted promptly by our server. The attentive wait staff at Le Colonial performed amazingly from start to finish, and the service was matched only by the quality and taste of the food. Because no one in our party had eaten at the restaurant, we quizzed the waiter for his favorites. Rather than making the simple suggestion of a tasting plate, he offered his favorites from all sections of the menu. He also helped guide us in the number of plates to order for our table size. Oftentimes, waiters will recommend too many dishes, but his recommendations were spot on.
The restaurant boasts an extensive wine list, and the waiter enlisted the help of the sommelier. After spending a few minutes discussing our tastes in wine, and clearly having a great sense of the chef’s menu, he recommended a Pinot Noir not even on the menu. The wine had just arrived, and he had sampled it a few days earlier. The bottle choice complemented our wide array of flavors throughout the night and left us talking about it -- and the recommendation --throughout the evening.
Le Colonial serves its food family-style, and to really capture the variety of influences and flavors this kitchen serves up, your party should number at least four guests, so you can sample a number of different dishes. On our recent visit, our party of four had three appetizers, four main dishes, three sides and four desserts -- although it was tough to get anyone to share their dessert!
The appetizer portion of the menu is split into two parts, rolls and appetizers. Our table thoroughly enjoyed the soft rice paper rolls filled with poached prawns, rice noodles, bean sprouts, mint and cilantro, served with a peanut dipping sauce, our waiter’s recommendation. While you can find rolls at most Vietnamese restaurants, this definitely stood out -- the cool rice paper roll, the large meaty, fresh-tasting prawns, the crunch of the veggies, and the strong mint and cilantro finishing off the taste. We agreed we could eat them without the peanut dipping sauce, but it certainly added another layer of taste and texture to this great starter.
We also enjoyed the minced Oregon County Farms beef tenderloin flavored with lemongrass and peanut, wrapped in a grape leaf and grilled, and served with scallion oil and toasted peanuts. The chef has taken a traditional Vietnamese dish –- Beef La Lot -- and taken it to a more sophisticated level with the finer choice of meat and use of the grape leaf. Again, the spices seemed jump through leaf and into your mouth. This dish also demonstrated the kitchen pays close attention to details. One of the dinner guests pointed out an amazing vinaigrette dressing over the garnish. While many eaters may bypass the small greens on the side and head straight for the beef, the kitchen took the time to accompany the dish with a tangy side.
It’s tough to find any faults with our meal or experience, but the one dish that disappointed were the seared pot stickers filled with scallops, ginger, and herbs, and served with a sesame-citrus sauce. Unlike our other appetizers, the flavors were more subdued, and we agreed the pot sticker wrappers could have been crispier and less soggy.
The main courses we sampled included a number of Asian inspirations. All arrived at the table at once and did not come in stages. The good news is that this allowed us to try a number of flavors at once. The bad news is the plates barely fit on the table and forced us to solve a puzzle every time we picked up a dish and passed it around.
The coconut curry with black tiger prawns, mangoes, eggplant, and Asian basil was a big winner. The kitchen took a Thai staple, and again, brought to a different level with its unique take. The meaty tiger prawns were cooked to perfection and sat in a yellow curry sauce that showed off a variety of flavors and left just enough of a burn in your mouth to remind you that you had just eaten curry. The sweetness of the mangoes were a tremendous balance to the spice, and rather than including boiled white potatoes, the dish used what tasted like sweet potatoes. I enjoyed this dish so much that I could not waste a drop of the curry after we had finished the bowl and poured the remaining contents over the sticky, jasmine rice.
The chef’s mastery of spice and flavors was at work again with the roasted Peking duck breast with a pomegranate glaze served with sautéed green beans, sliced pineapple, and five-spice duck confit. The chef transformed this traditional Chinese and San Francisco favorite into another unique tasting experience. The sweetness of the pineapple paired with the spices and pomegranate glaze worked extremely well. The green beans added nice color to this very pretty looking dish.
There was nothing pretty about the evening special: a two-pound grilled fresh Maine lobster. The kitchen had broken the lobster into large pieces, but generally left it whole. Though it required some work, the meat was sweet and tasted extremely fresh. Rather than trying to do anything to the dish, the kitchen smartly left the lobster alone. Given how great it tasted, we had no qualms working for this portion of the meal and making a bit of a mess.
Our final dish was cubes of beef tenderloin wok-tossed in garlic and soy sauce served with organic watercress tomatoes and crispy potatoes. The meat was juicy and extremely tender. The flavors were subdued with this dish, but they highlighted the great taste of the beef and complemented it well. The surprise was the potato chips. It was an unexpected accompaniment, but they were very good. Thinly cut and fried to a crispy golden brown, they were a nice touch and also added some texture to the dish.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the sides. You should not miss the wok-tossed blue lake green beans with a garlic-soy sauce. Quickly blanched, the beans retained their crispy crunch and were lightly tossed in the garlic soy sauce. If your mother still lectures you about eating veggies, this is the way to do it. The grilled organic yellow corn with chili, salt, and lime was a close second to the green beans. Cut into small pieces of the cob, the corn was extremely sweet, but carried a strong kick from the chili powder. The hints of salt and lime were a perfect complement to spice.
Although diners can share their desserts, our table seemed to zero in on what we wanted, and no one seemed in a hurry to share. The big hit seemed to be the petite beignets. Although one might have guessed from the name that the beignets would be on the small side, the dish consisted of three large beignets, each a different flavor: chocolate, glazed, and sugar. They were then topped with a fruit topping and whipped cream. The beignets were warm and puffy in the middle and everything you would want from a doughy dessert. The mango and berry crêpes were a nice, subtle, and sweet ending to the evening for one of our guests. The fried ice cream with bananas, chocolate sauce, and caramel was a little disappointing. While it tasted great, we had hoped the ice cream would not have completely melted inside the crispy wrapping. Instead, when we opened the fried phyllo dough, the melted ice cream ran all over the dish. It is difficult to fry ice cream and not melt it, but it can be done.
From the grand entrance into the restaurant, to the lounge, to the dining room, and to the food, Le Colonial is an elegant and sophisticated experience. A well-trained, attentive wait staff reinforces that image, as does the bill. Our tab, without our great wine choice, was more than $80 per person. If it's a special occasion -- or you just need an excuse to dine in a nice restaurant -- this would be a great choice. Whether it’s the space itself or the unique and complicated flavors of food, it’s easy to see why this is not your neighborhood Vietnamese restaurant.