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Let The Sun Shine In

Le Soleil illuminates the Inner Richmond

It's no secret that the Inner Richmond is paradise for ethnic food lovers. Crammed into ten short blocks on Clement Street are eateries specializing in Hunan, Schezuan, Korean, Hot Pot, Noodles, Dim Sum, Barbecue, Pizza, Thai, Indonesian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Persian, French, Japanese, Vietnamese ... even American Greasy Spoon. With all of these wonderful options at hand, a restaurant has to work pretty darned hard to stand out. Everyone has their deal breakers--a certain dish cooked a certain way, waiters that scrape the floor, a particular booth or table--but my basic requirements are simple. To merit a return visit, a restaurant needs two things: good food and a sense of style. Le Soleil has both.

The Style

By style, I don't mean Farallon-quality furnishings and a high-toned attitude, nor do I mean a hipper-than-thou, see-and-be-seen scene. I like a restaurant with a sense of adventure, a little je ne sais quoi, something interesting that sets the restaurant apart. I've found that ethnic eateries provide plenty of style, especially Thai and Vietnamese cafes, where unique ornamentation is usually accompanied by gracious service. At Le Soleil, the service is excellent: polite, attentive and expedient. The decor is lovely, too. A far cry from the typical dimly lit hole in the wall, Le Soleil feels a little bit like Atlantis. Pale green and peach walls are offset by a gilded painted border, soft, bright lighting, nautical Oriental wall hangings and decorative greenery. A fish tank dominates the entryway. The whole effect is dreamy, gentle and extremely pleasant.

The Food

I'll cut to the chase: Le Soleil is a little expensive. But you get what you pay for. On one night, we ordered vegetarian spring rolls, Vietnamese chicken salad, a vegetarian crepe, steamed sea bass, rice and spicy green beans. The bill was under fifty bucks. Not too bad, especially when you consider the quality of the food. The spring rolls were fresh and minty, the perfect balance between soft rice wrap and crunchy vegetable layers. The spicy green beans, which were steamed until just a little bit crisp, then seasoned with chile oil, wild mushrooms and garlic, exploded on our tongues. The fish, seared in butter, then steamed and served in a soy vinegar sauce with green onions and garlic, was tender, delicate and not at all "fishy." The scene-stealer was the crepe, a sauté of mushroom and bean sprouts fried in a rice-flour wrapper and served, omelet-like, on a bed of mint and lettuce. We were not the only diners who liked Le Soleil's crepes; a furtive glance revealed a crepe on almost every table. The only disappointment was the chicken salad, which was only mediocre. But after all that wonderful food, who cares?

Why to Go

Le Soleil is a great place to take your visiting mom and/or grandmother, both of whom have never eaten any ethnic food besides dollar Chinese from their suburban take-out kitchen. Le Soleil is an easy way to introduce relatives to the San Francisco dining experience: it's clean, safe and easy, but just a little bit "different" and not too weird. Le Soleil is also a great date spot, perfect for dying-to-impress-you-with-my-dining-acumen first dates, as well as for if-I-eat-another-plate-of-your-pasta-I'll-kill-you longtime couples. The lunch menu is a little limited, but will still appeal to solo diners looking for a little peace or exhausted shoppers looking for a little surcease.