Houston has the third-largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. That makes Houston seem like prime territory for upscale French-Vietnamese concept, Le Colonial, 4444 Westheimer, G-140. It’s the fourth location for the company and located in the fancy River Oaks District shopping center. Chef Nicole Routhier, a chef and author who helped create the menu for the first Le Colonial in Manhattan in 1993, oversees the culinary program. The executive chef is Dan Nguyen and Le Colonial is owned by restaurateurs Rick Wahlstedt and Joe King.
The group is attempting to do something never done before in Houston—Vietnamese fine dining. Unlike many restaurants in Houston's International District, Le Colonial has been designed as an upscale beauty, which fits in nicely within the ritzy River Oaks District. The interior design is reminiscent of a 1920s French Colonial villa in Southeast Asia, with high, pressed tin ceilings, palm fronds and vintage black and white photographs from the era. In addition to patio dining, Le Colonial’s first floor contains the restaurant space while a bar and lounge area are on the second floor.
Le Colonial’s take on Cha Gio, or Vietnamese-style fried eggrolls, features a filling of shrimp, pork and Asian mushrooms and the flavors of each come through. It's a stylish presentation, with each eggroll laid on a bed of vermicelli and lettuce, making it easy for guests to pick up and eat. Banh Uot, or “wet cake,” is typically served on a bed of rice noodles with cha lua (Vietnamese pork sausage), but Le Colonial uses grilled ribeye and rolls it in thin, steamed crepes made of rice noodles. The crunch of fried shallots add contrast and texture and the ribeye efficiently soaks up the lime garlic sauce.
Le Colonial’s Ca Chien Saigon, or “fried fish,” is a crispy whole red snapper with a light, spicy garlic glaze. The manager deboned and separated the snapper tableside, which was a nice touch. While there were many small bones, the fish was flaky and wonderfully combined spicy and sweet flavors. The savory fish sauce is noticeable but not overpowering.
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Every Vietnamese restaurant has its own version of Bo Luc Lac, or “shaking beef,” and Le Colonial’s includes caramelized filet mignon, snow peas, roasted garlic, watercress salad and wine vinaigrette. The filet was very tender and flavorful, but there was not much of it. The snow peas added a nice contrast to the dish and was a welcome addition. Other than the use of filet mignon for the beef cubes, the main distinguishing characteristic of this version was the price tag: a whopping $29, which is double what most Vietnamese restaurants charge for theirs.
Therein lies the issue Houstonians might have with Le Colonial. Whether or not they will appreciate Le Colonial depends on their perspectives. While its ambience is vibrant and cuisine is good overall, comparable, if not better, Vietnamese cuisine in Houston can be had for much less. However, compared to other restaurants within the River Oaks or nearby Galleria areas, Le Colonial is actually a very good deal. Most of its appetizers are under $15 and most entrees are less than $30.
That, combined with its lively bar area and patio dining with prime views of the River Oaks District, means Le Colonial can potentially trailblaze a niche of Vietnamese fine dining in Houston.