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Le Colonial

High Design Conquers the High Art of Haute Cuisine

In the 1980's, when Nouvelle Cuisine was on the rise, trendy restaurants were quite staunchly more about ambiance than about food - great for the bar patron, not so hot for the diner. One would assume that by now, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area (the heart of the movement toward fresh, local resources and super-cerebral cuisine), fine-dining restaurants would have adopted uniformly the doctrine that the food should be as sublime as the surroundings. However, as long as designers, financiers, and restauranteurs are in cahoots, there will exist imbalances in their respective treatments of atmosphere, service, and culinary art.

There is no debating that Le Colonial is a beautiful space. The atmosphere is swank-conservative; the interior consists of creamy walls, dark wood moldings, potted greenery, and high ceilings. The outdoor veranda is a long, heat-lamped row of dark wicker tables, chairs, plants, and low lights. Sunshine pours through the glass roof on a clear day, rain sheds off when it's wet out. The old black and white photographs of Vietnamese folks are chintzy, but they add visual legitimacy to the decor. The owners and designers of Le Colonial certainly have achieved both the look and the feel of the exclusivity of private dining clubs of days past.

Le Colonial feels stuffy, but that is part of the fun of going out to a fancy restaurant. It is a superb place for cocktails on any occasion. Dessert, absolutely. For a business meeting, probably a good choice if your colleagues are not perfectionist gourmands. The fancy ingredients and inventive combinations will impress the layman, and the easily shared plates will fill the belly. If you have the money to spend, Le Colonial is a lovely restaurant in which to enjoy Vietnamese cuisine. However, if you have been saving up for weeks to take your sweetheart out for a fancy dinner, go elsewhere.

The cuisine is not so haute. Overall, the preparation of our Monday night meal was mediocre. Perhaps the chef takes a day off on Mondays. The seafood offerings, especially the fishy-tasting oysters, were obviously not as fresh as they might have been on a Tuesday (many San Francisco restaurants are on a Tuesday delivery schedule). The oysters, although they lacked the briny pearlescence of fresh, raw shellfish, were presented with one of the most glorious accompaniments ever to grace a shell: chile, lime, and mint granita: cold, shaved ice flavored with perfectly citrus/minty-spicy goodness. If the oysters had been fresh, well, then we'd have been in heaven.

Now you would think that Roasted Monkfish Loin served with Chanterelle Mushrooms, Sugar Snap Peas, and Bacon with a tasty, lightly gingery jus might just be the best thing you ever put in your mouth. I was certainly looking forward to it. Unfortunately, back in the kitchen a mess of flabby 1/2-inch square slices of bacon had released their grease with relish as the monkfish lay cooking, and by the time the dish reached our table, its title had secretly changed to Bacon Strips with Fish and Vegetables in Bacon Sauce. The chanterelles were a treat, however, having the ability to soak up buttery, bacony goodness with ease. Nonetheless, the monkfish was slightly overcooked and the entire dish was permeated with an overpowering smoky flavor.

The Giant Black Tiger Prawns in Tamarind Sauce were big, fleshy, and yummy as shrimp should be, although the sauce resembled the pedestrian sweet and sour variety so often handed off by delivery guys. I wanted the sauce to be amazing - I tried to love it, I tried to imagine that it was the most subtle sauce-job I'd ever tasted - but truth be told, it was fancified but not effectively sublime.

We had heard from many sources that the fried banana slices in tapioca sauce are the rage. It was worth making room for dessert; the bananas were terrific! Five perfectly fried pieces of warm banana sprinkled with sesame seeds served in a small pool of tasty tapioca. The taste and texture can be likened to a sweeter version of the Chinese bakery dim-sum treat, the red bean sesame ball. The fried bananas are worth the trip.

By all means, swing by Le Colonial for an after-dinner drink. Have dessert, cognac, and cigars on the veranda. Go after a long day at the office and treat yourself to frozen drinks and appetizers. Order the oysters for sure but make sure to ask if they are fresh. Don't take my harsh words about the cuisine to heart unless you're strapped for cash or have super-high standards. It's definitely worth eating there just for the design of the place. Especially for the walk to the restroom - it's totally worth the trip.

Update Review from Fall 2002

Executive Chef Kellie Nguyen-Rabanit moves into position at Le Colonial from within, where she's been utilizing her Vietnamese heritage and formal culinary training to turn out consistently popular cuisine at this swanky Theater District throwback to the French colonial era in Vietnam. Love the outdoor patio and the cinematic interior design, even though it's a cookie-cutter of the Le Colonials in LA and NYC. Over cool cocktails and well-chosen wines, we recently enjoyed excellent service (only a shellfish fork missing here and there - nothing to freak out about) and frankly, pretty fabulous food. Of course, raw oysters with a minted ginger granita are a long-time favorite, and happily still on the menu. While her sizable cold salad of shaved banana blossoms, prawns, peanuts and ginger ($12) may satisfy more than stun, Rabanit's butter-tender lamb chops with toasted peanuts, scallion oil and peppered lime sauce ($33) had us lolling about in a meat-induced ecstasy that's all too rare. We've said in the past that Kokkari has the best lamb chops in town, but these may win. Suggestion for you. Create a mighty rumble: hit both joints in one night, ordering only lamb chops at each. See how it goes down. Our prediction: the winner will be you.