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Le Colonial

Same Grand Veranda, Slightly Better Food

These days, serving upscale Vietnamese cuisine is by no means a pioneer move. But when Le Colonial opened its San Francisco branch in 1998, the concept was still fairly new. $10 cocktails with fresh ingredients were considered art nouveau, and dot-com bank accounts didn't flinch at the downtown prices. A (somewhat cheesy) nightclub element has since been added to the program, but what's remained steady is the appeal of Le Colonial's breezy veranda, its elegant interior, and its approachable, easily shared menu.

The consistency of the menu undoubtedly stems from the fact that Executive Chef Joe Villanueva has been part of the kitchen team since 2001, when he was brought on as a part-time food runner while training at CCA. A childhood fan of Saturday morning cooking shows on KQED, he was apparently his grandma's right hand man come lumpia-rolling time, and his tutelage under Chef Kelly Nguyen-Rabanit and later, Chef Mike Yakura, seems to have been successful. The food, I'm happy to report, is good.

It's not blow-your-mind good, but my table of five at a recent dinner (including a particularly avid Vietnamese food snob or two) were truly impressed by the breadth and depth of flavors in everything from punched-up standards like vegetarian Cha Gio spring rolls (tarted up nicely with taro, shiitake, jicama and ponzu, $11) to surprising sides like Com Nep La Chuoi, a delectably savory steamed sticky rice dish with fried shrimp, mung beans, shallot frites and shiitakes in a coconut curry sauce ($9).

While a hamachi crudo with a cilantro and green chili vinaigrette ($15) was fine -- if a bit trendy and boring -- a banana blossom salad with cabbage, pear, poached chicken, pistachios, rau ram and lime nuoc cham (that's fish sauce to you, pilgrim, $12) was bracing and addictive.

The same could be said for the tasting platter for five ($14 per person, or $70), which was an inspired bit of expansion on the tiki bar pupu platter theme. Chockablock with crispy, crunchy crab and chicken and beef delights not on the regular menu, the platter brought a great happiness to our table. (The continuous flow of cocktails, thanks to the fairly good service, most assuredly did not hurt.)

Not wishing to miss anything, we quickly mauled a plate of fresh shrimp spring rolls with peanut sauce ($11, nothing new) as well as a plate of seared ahi tuna summer rolls tinged with basil and dipped in ponzu ($14 and markedly more exciting). By the time we got to the Bo Luc Lac, a dish of wok-seared cubes of filet mignon with cress and Yukon golds (at $34, the equivalent of shaking beef) our taste buds were revved up enough to find them tasty, though not outstanding.

The platter idea served us well at dessert too ($22, flourless chocolate cake being a natural winner), causing one of our crew to note that it was the first time in forever that she hadn't felt ripped off on a pricey platter situation, and to feel that way twice in one night was something remarkable indeed. Raising my rather delicious mojito, I nodded in agreement. No, dropping a Franklin apiece on dinner wasn't necessarily a "deal" -- not by a long shot.

But the service was good, we were able to have cocktails and starters on the heated outdoor veranda then move inside to a cushy banquette for dinner, and the food was solid. Notably, this was on a weeknight when the restaurant was only 2/3 to 3/4 full, so I wouldn't necessarily expect such smooth sailing on a weekend, especially with the clubbing crowd out in full force. However, given Le Colonial's plum location in a Theater District alleyway -- and its irresistible veranda -- this now-standard San Francisco destination likely will log another decade before it's all said and done.