Le Colonial San Francisco: Elegant Dining in Bygone Vietnam
By Monique Burns
There’s a little corner of Old Vietnam in the center of San Francisco, just steps from Union Square. It’s called Le Colonial, and it will transport you to the idealized romance of the 1920s when Vietnam was a French colony, and the ravages of war lay far in the future. You’ll get a sense that you’re not in Kansas anymore from the moment you turn off Taylor Street into Cosmo Place, a hushed alley amid the downtown hubbub. The entrance to the restaurant’s white two-story standalone building is flanked by antique wrought-iron lamps, and topped by a romantic glass-and-iron door canopy bearing the name “Le Colonial” in graceful pale-blue neon script.
Enter the building, whose slightly faded foyer seems peopled with ghosts, ascend the broad staircase, and you find yourself facing a lush patio. The long narrow expanse has white walls draped with purple bougainvillea and other tropical foliage, rattan chairs and tables, mosaic floors, and pale-green fluted columns that rise to a glass-and-ironwork ceiling. A pair of carved wooden doors opens into the main dining room, with rattan tables topped with white tablecloths, brown tin ceilings, shuttered windows and ceiling fans. Adorning the old-fashioned cream-colored woodwork are antique wall sconces, mirrors, and vintage black-and-white photographs of Vietnamese laborers and Frenchmen in light summer suits.
San Francisco’s Le Colonial is part of a small, lovingly tended family of Vietnamese restaurants that includes Le Colonial New York and Le Colonial Chicago. All three were developed by Jean Denoyer, the longtime restaurateur who has been called “King of the Bistro,” and whose well-known restaurants include New York City’s Orsay, Brasserie Ruhlmann and La Goulue. Though the San Francisco restaurant opened in 1998, a little over 15 years ago, it is, in many ways, eternally young. Part of that youthful air comes from the feeling you get of being caught in a time capsule, an illusion produced by the late designer Greg Jordan who, in 2005, was named one of Architectural Digest’s 30 “Deans of Design.” The other is Chef Terence Khuu, who uses fresh local ingredients to produce classic, but updated, Vietnamese dishes. If you’re not sure what Vietnamese food is, the best way to experience it is to book a table at Le Colonial.
In Vietnam’s elegant French-Colonial days, on-the-rocks concoctions, along with “umbrella drinks,” were probably quite popular, if only to provide a respite from the tropical heat. At Le Colonial, cocktails are taken seriously, too. An upstairs bar and lounge, with cushioned green-and-brown rattan couches and chairs, small polished wood tables and faded Oriental rugs, is open every evening at five for cocktails, beer and wine, tea and appetizers. Downstairs, in the restaurant, diners can choose from more than a dozen specialty cocktails, including the Bees Knees, with tea-infused No. 209 gin, saffron gin from Dijon, France, honey, lemon and egg white, and the Captain’s Mai Tai with Trader Vic’s silver and gold rums, almond liqueur, blood orange and mango puree. Threesomes should consider ordering Trader Vic’s classic Scorpion Bowl.
The menu at Le Colonial is quite large and includes daily specials. But your cheerful server will politely search out the secrets of your culinary soul and make appropriate recommendations. Starters include several traditional chicken, beef and tofu-based broths with basil, chili and lime, as well as various spring rolls, with Asian ingredients like rice noodles, shiitake mushrooms, wood-ear mushrooms and taro, and West Coast ingredients like Dungeness crab and jicama. There are refreshing salads, too, like the fusion-style Goi Ga with shaved Brussels sprouts, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), cucumber noodles, carrots, crispy shallots, and shredded free-range Mary’s Chicken from nearby Sonoma County. Otherwise, try Banh Hap So Diep, (potstickers, or dumplings, with minced sea bass, scallops and shrimp), Cha Cua (crispy coconut-crusted mini Dungeness crab cakes) or Suon Nuong (baby-back pork ribs braised in five-spice powder with hoisin barbecue sauce).
Entrees feature a wide variety of seafood, including prawns, salmon, sturgeon, Chilean sea bass and lobster. Meats include chicken, duck, pork, beef and lamb. There also are vegetable and tofu dishes. When I ate at Le Colonial there were three specialties on the menu, including Tom Hum Sot Bo Toi, a wok-fried whole lobster with garlic noodles, and Bo Luc Lac, wok-seared filet mignon on a bed of salad with crispy shoestring fries. I ordered the heavenly Ca Hap La Chuoi, a dark, dense combination of sea bass, with tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, sweet-potato noodles and black-bean coconut sauce, stuffed into a banana leaf.
I might have ordered a light dessert like classic French crème brûlée, or a dish of gelato, perhaps macapuno, made from the jelly-like flesh of certain coconuts. But my server wisely steered me to the traditional Vietnamese baked cassava cake with coconut sauce. Sweet and dense, it was perfect after my spicy dark sea bass entrée. Forgoing brandy or dessert wine, I settled on a nice hot cup of tea from the restaurant’s long list, including Celebration with China tea leaves infused with chocolate liquor; White Lotus with zesty notes of ginger and lemon, and sweet, spicy Bleu Peacock with notes of citrus. There also are several types of coffees.
I nursed my cup of tea just as long as I could, relaxing in the peaceful elegance of Colonial Vietnam, my eyes flitting across the soothing decor and my mind wandering back to the remarkable tastes and aromas of dinner. Frankly, I hated to leave that friendly little corner of Vietnam which, in just a couple of hours, I’d come to love. So, this Northeasterner vowed to return the next time I came to the West Coast, and to visit Le Colonial’s sister restaurants in New York and Chicago as soon as I got the chance.
What higher recommendation could there be?
IF YOU GO
Le Colonial. 20 Cosmo Pl., San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-931-3600. www.lecolonialsf.com
The restaurant and lounge are open daily for dinner. Reduced-rate parking for 2-3 hours is available at Cable Car Parking Services on Cosmo Place with validation from the restaurant.