SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF, August 25, 2014 – Le Colonial combines the gilded atmosphere of a sophisticated colonial outpost from 1950’s Saigon with the wildly inventive nouvelle cuisine of French Indochina to create a fine dining experience that is a joy to savor year after year.
This San Francisco culinary institution has been a delightful refuge in the City by the Bay since 1998. It remains a completely unique gem of a restaurant, a constant of excellence known for brilliant food in an expansive, comfortably exotic, yet casual setting.
Located near Union Square in a white stucco townhouse set apart and down an alley, Le Colonial creates the air of a speakeasy in the tony part of town from the entranceway through the spacious restaurant to the after party bar upstairs.
A covered walkway filled with plantings leads to a large chamber with darkened lighting and a distinctive French Colonial sense of atmospheric illusion. Antique hand hammered tin panels with uniform patterns set across a vaulted ceiling are a sensory detail that isn’t unnoticed in this intoxicating room that once was the home of the legendary Trader Vic’s.
Le Colonial was one of the leaders in developing a distinctive Vietnamese take on French Indochina Pan Asian cuisine. It continues to present a vibrant and inventive culinary palate with a wildly creative and versatile menu that is as comforting for its reliability as it is exquisite.
A memorable feast, Le Colonial retains its original outpost in New York on 57th Street in a stunning townhouse and in Chicago in the heart of the Gold Coast in a lovingly restored vintage row house, each with nearly identical menus to San Francisco. For fans of Le Colonial, to be in any of these three cities for any length of time is to need to spend an evening there at least once while visiting.
Start with traditional Vietnamese chicken soup or Pho Ga, and then move on to a selection of Goi Coun or spring rolls with poached prawns, red leaf lettuce, and bean sprouts in a peanut sauce. Banh Hap So Diep or pot stickers filled with scallops, shrimp and ginger are an outstanding appetizer.
Try a Hirsch Vineyards 2010 San Andreas Fault Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir from the excellent wine list and settle in for the main courses.
Ca Ri Tim is a fabulous dish of coconut curry prawns with eggplant, shiitake mushroom and mango in a rich green curry sauce, deliciously spicy and tangy with just a hint of basil. Their signature dish, Ca Hap La Chuoi, is a wonderful steamed sea bass wrapped in banana leaves in a black bean coconut sauce, delightfully tender and rich, and beautifully presented.
Ca Kho To, or clay pot Loch Duart salmon with baby Portobello mushrooms and pickled papaya noodles in a sweet savory black pepper caramel sauce is as amazing as it sounds, a wholly original and delicious taste treat. A brilliant standout is the Vit Ngu Vi Huong, or the five spice duck breast and leg comfit in a spectacular tamarind sauce.
It is a disappointment that the Bo Sate, a ridiculously amazing combination of sautéed filet mignon with roasted yams, Asian long beans and a spicy sate sauce and a legendary signature stand out dish, is not on the menu currently in San Francisco, but it is in New York and Chicago.
This oversight is made up for somewhat by a sumptuously delicious Cuu Nuong or grilled lamb chops with soy glazed sweet potatoes, watercress apple salad with a black pepper lime dipping sauce.
Entrees are a very reasonable $25 – $35, appetizers are in the $15 range, and starters are generally around $10. Take your time through the meal, luxuriate in the atmosphere under slowly turning ceiling fans, and order a lot of different dishes to share.
The service is friendly and crisp, the sensibility of a special environment is inescapable, and a casual meal can easily consume two hours or more in a room buzzing with businessmen, regulars, and tourists.
The bar upstairs is a spacious very pleasant after dinner surprise with its casual club like atmosphere, rattan furniture, and a live swing band playing the hits to a packed room of young dancers.
The atmosphere is electric as Paul Mehling and Clint Baker and their group, Le Jazz Hot, light up the band stand at their weekly Monday night gig with soaring swing tunes and stirring lead runs on trumpet, clarinet, and violin. The upstairs bar at Le Colonial features eclectic live rockabilly, jazz and swing music four nights a week, DJ.s on weekends, and is always a great space to hang out in.
Joel Berliner is a travel writer who lives in Los Angeles.
All photos by Alison Reynolds