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The Chic of the Indochine

[whitespace] Le Colonial

Remembrance of Colonists Past: Le Colonial pays homage to prewar Vietnam.

To the victor go the spoils

By Michael Stabile

I'm certainly not a proponent of discord, and even the most revisionist historians may be alarmed by such a flighty analysis, but I sometimes wonder if the Vietnam War wasn't less about hearts and minds and more about tongues and stomachs. Several reputable backpacking gourmands noted large discrepancies in quality between the cuisines of North and South Vietnam. Could it be that our once-communist foes (later capitalist acolytes) were invading what was then South Vietnam in an attempt to gain entrance to the Indochine delicacies prepared within that state? Had someone alerted them that there was more to life than pho?

No fan of American imperialism am I, and yet I wonder if, knowing then what I do now, I wouldn't have defended the spicy, flamboyant cuisine of Saigon with my life. (And perhaps we would have a free Tibet if Tibetan food were better known to the American palate than Chinese?) After all, had we not defended France against Germany in WWII, we might have lost wine, oysters and pâté as well as freedom. God only knows why we defended England, since I rate fish and chips on a level with sausage. But I digress (just in time to keep my theory from fully unraveling).

Le Colonial, replacing the illustrious and tony Trader Vic's on the discrete downtown alley of Cosmo Place, resurrects the prewar elegance of French-influenced Vietnam while staying true to regional cuisine. A naturally lit walkway garnished with tropical flora leads to a bustling dining room filled with A-minus-list socialites and well-Benz-ed flocks of gay men. The recreation lacks the sultry heat of the warmer and moister climes of the fallen Eden, but the relaxed and decadent attitude of the patrons calls to mind other paradises lost, like Weimar Berlin and Batistan Havana. Of course the prices have been updated for lost inflation.

For the budget traveler, it's best to stick to mid-afternoon sustenance in the form of a delightful ginger-infused Pho Ga ($4.50), an aromatic and biting take on the savory Vietnamese breakfast soup. It's equally grand as either a light meal or a late-night refuel. The Bo Tai Chanh ($8.50) more accurately reflects the pricing of the appetizers, and is pungent and delicious. Thinly sliced beef tenderloin marinated in lime juice is perfected with the addition of slightly burnt onions and cleansing cilantro. When price is less of an object, one should not discount the Hao Song ($12), a half-dozen oysters discretely topped with a chile, lime and mint granita. Like a frozen mignonette, the cool granita was able to add zest to the oyster without overpowering its buttery texture and briny liquor.

The prices for entrees jumped exponentially, almost enough so that I wondered if I should have saved the money and bought a round-trip ticket to Southeast Asia. The Vit Quay ($24), a surprisingly subtle Muscovy duck breast, was decorated with an uneventful orange-ginger glaze and a plate-saving vegetable ragout. The Lau Hai San, a hot-and-sour seafood hotpot, aggressively infused lobster, tiger prawns and mussels and held more appeal, with large mouth-melting scallops and the prawns half the size of the lobster. However, I should have questioned the "market price" notation on the side, but I figure, if you have to ask, you can't afford it. It may be the best hotpot in the city, but at $40, it unsettled my stomach a little too much. Atmosphere becomes more costly by the day. Perhaps one day restaurants won't need to serve food at all.

Luckily, the upstairs bar offers less pricey, more cocktail-oriented fare and dazzling desserts that attracted visiting bitch-goddess Sandra Bernhard more than a few times over the length of her month-long one-woman show. Again, the expected steaminess is missing amid the ferns and other flora, but the remembrance of spheres of influence past is not. Geometric cakes and rich caramel ice creams end the meal in fast-forward modernity and allow one to re-live mid-century exile at a price that won't make you question the value of capitalism.

Le Colonial, 20 Cosmo Place, (415.931.3600).

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From the April 12, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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