Smartly channeling the romance and exotic allure of a faraway, long-ago world — and proffering beautifully accomplished Vietnamese fare — Le Colonial bows in River Oaks. By Dennis Abrams, Photos by Julie Soefer
THINK MARGUERITE DURAS’ The Lover. Think Graham Greene. Think dark wood, slowly rotating ceiling fans, and women in sumptuous Ao Dai. Think of all of your most romantic fantasies of the mysteries of the East, of another era come to life. Think escape. Now imagine yourself sitting at a table at the River Oaks District’s newest fine dining concept, Le Colonial.
A canopy-like entrance of wrought iron leads into the 95-seat dining room with an intimate bar at the entry. The dining room is stunning, with cement floor tiles from Provence, antiqued mirrors, brass wall sconces, mahogany mill work, period photography and wicker seating, all of which combines to create a luxurious, yet relaxed, “colonial” atmosphere.
The interior dining space gracefully leads to an outdoor sidewalk café with authentic Gatti Paris chairs in bent bamboo and natural straw. And the upstairs lounge accommodates an additional 50 with seating and banquettes, perfect for intimate conversations. The expansive mahogany bar makes the upstairs lounge a great place to sample unique cocktails such as the Tamarind (Maker’s Mark, tamarind pulp, pineapple, and — the kicker — star anise) as well as a special late-night menu.
Of course if the food doesn’t live up to the décor …
At Le Colonial, Culinary Director Nicole Routhier, who developed the menu at the original location in New York nearly 20 years ago — and is today considered the premier author of Vietnamese cuisine in the country — has teamed up with Exec Chef Dan Nguyen to create a menu filled with light, healthy dishes designed for sharing. Nguyen is “a Vietnamese chef … praised for his traditional fine Vietnamese fare who brings an incredible authenticity and level of operational skill and culinary … expertise to the Le Colonial kitchen,” says co-owner Jon King.
And that expertise is evident in each bite. The Cha Gio — crispy rice paper spring rolls filled with shrimp, pork and Asian mushrooms with aromatic herbs and chili-lime dipping sauce — is a case in point. A dish that appears on every Vietnamese menu in town, these rolls are exceptionally delicate and crispy, ready to be wrapped in already-prepared little cups of butter lettuce filled with herbs and such, then dipped into a surprisingly subtle sauce. It’s the attention to details that raises this dish above the norm. The same can be said about the Suon Nuong, perfectly grilled baby back ribs whose lemongrass-garlic rub and honey glaze don’t come close to overwhelming the sweetness of the pork. And of the Goi Ga, a red and green cabbage salad tossed with pulled chicken, Texas pink grapefruit, more aromatic herbs and a chili-lime dressing, totally reminiscent of an evening in Saigon.
Among the entrees, both the Com Chien Dac Biet (fried rice with chicken, lap xuong sausage, broccoli, lemongrass and basil), and the Bo Xao Sate (cubes of filet mignon served in a mildly spicy sauce with haricot verts, yams, coconut milk and Thai basil) are notably sophisticated and satisfying.
But the dish you must try, the one you’ll return for, is the Bun Thit Nuong. Imagine calling this a salad: vermicelli noodles, mesclun, bean sprouts, more herbs, limegarlic fish sauce and peanuts, topped with skewers of tender yet ever so slightly chewy char-grilled pork belly. A hit to be sure.
For dessert, you could go one of two ways: the traditional banana tapioca pudding, or the pineapple flambé. Or get both! What a lovely end to a lovely evening, a trip to the Saigon of the 1920s, without leaving Houston.