Le Colonial Does Better in the Non-Traditional Mode

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The crispy whole red snapper at Le Colonial was presented standing up, twisted artistically on a bed of spring salad leaves of arugula, lettuce and baby spinach. A syrupy glaze glistened atop the fish, with confetti-colored bits of red and yellow pepper and green onion accenting the effect. The ca chien Saigon was filleted tableside and the carcass was taken away, which left the crunchy, crispy tail and head to complete the presentation of the fish. The sauce was garlicky, sweet and tangy, and the snapper was cooked to perfection. A whole fried fish in a typical Vietnamese restaurant would more likely than not be doused with nuoc mam pha or nuoc mam cham, a dipping sauce composed of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, garlic and chile sambal. Le Colonial’s take on the sauce for this fish was refreshing and sophisticated, introducing different layers of flavor in each bite.

This 1920s French-Vietnamese colonial-themed restaurant is the fourth one of its kind to open in a major city. Restaurateurs Rick Wahlstedt and Joe King opened the first Le Colonial in Manhattan in 1993. Under the guidance of chef Nicole Routhier, a menu was developed that would reflect authentic Vietnamese cuisine re-imagined for fine dining. When Wahlstedt and King brought the concept to Houston, Routhier was tapped to join the team, cooking alongside chef Dan Nguyen. Together they created a menu that they hoped would capture the eyes, appetites and hearts of Houstonians in the upscale River Oaks District.

Fellow Houston Press freelancer Thomas Nguyen noted an issue when he wrote about his first impression of Le Colonial. He said, “Whether or not they [Houstonians] will appreciate Le Colonial depends on their perspectives.” Before embarking on this gustatory challenge, I found myself wrestling between the roles of Vietnamese home chef, educated Vietnamese diner and simply Houston food enthusiast. I wanted to give Le Colonial a fair assessment, as if I were a typical diner, slightly more familiar with Vietnamese cuisine, but it was difficult not to notice a few missteps in follow-through and delivery.

From this viewpoint, Le Colonial impresses with decor, service and quality; however, its idea of authenticity leaves much to be desired. We tried several traditional as well as some non-traditional items on the menu, and were disappointed with a few of the former and pleasantly surprised by much of the latter.

The cha gio, a Vietnamese-style egg roll encased in rice paper instead of a wheat-flour-based wrapper, was outstanding. These appetizers were a perfect blend of ground pork, wood-ear mushrooms, glass noodles, carrots and spices. The rice paper fried up incredibly crispy and airy, with crunchy pieces of the wrapping giving way to a meaty, flavorful bite. Four pieces were presented alongside already-crafted cups of butter lettuce cradling vermicelli, pickled daikon and carrots and mint. The proper way, frankly the only way, to eat cha gio is with it tucked inside lettuce and accompanied by a plethora of leafy fresh mint and cucumber. But why not give us an entire piece of butter lettuce per roll? At $13 a plate, it would have been better to have a whole rather than a dainty quarter-cut piece of lettuce.

The bo luc lac, or shaking beef, was another example of a traditional dish non-traditionally presented at Le Colonial. Filet mignon was carefully cooked to a medium rare — hence the “shaking beef” reference — and was scattered among a field of greens. The description on the menu promised a watercress salad and wine vinaigrette. Instead, a spring mix of leaves was used as the bed for the soft pillows of beef. The addition of al dente-cooked snow peas made for a great balance of texture. Pieces of roasted garlic chunks were soft and soaked up the wonderful flavors in the marinade of the meat. We were delighted with this dish, but with its price of $29, we honestly could not fathom ordering this item again. The beautiful oyster-flavored marinade in bo luc lac comes through just as well in a humble eye of round at not such a heavy price.

We ordered the goi do bien (seafood salad) to check out the freshness of the shrimp and calamari. Fifteen minutes passed and the server came back to apologize, telling us that Le Colonial no longer offered that dish, but it had not yet been removed from the menu. No big deal; on another visit we ordered the goi ngo sen, which is composed of lotus root with crispy tofu, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, mesclun greens and chile lime soy dressing. This was not a traditional Vietnamese preparation, but was very well done. The lotus root had a fresh crunch to it, and the dressing had just the right amount of acid, sweetness and spice. The crispy fried tofu added a subtle touch of protein that satisfied completely.

We were excited to see so many common Vietnamese comfort and street foods on the menu. Banh cuon, also known as steamed rice flour crepes but described on the menu as Hanoi steamed ravioli, came sparsely stuffed with a ground chicken breast and wood-ear mushroom mixture, laid on top of steamed bean sprouts. The plate was sprinkled with chopped fried shallots and fresh-cut mint, and Le Colonial’s chile lime garlic sauce was spooned atop the ravioli. A true version of this dish is a comfort food, full of ground pork, minced onions and wood-ear mushrooms. Either Le Colonial is afraid to write the words “fish sauce” on its menu or it needs to add them to its “chile lime garlic sauce.” What was served on the banh cuon was watery and lacked the spice and tangy punch that would commonly be found in a nuoc mam cham.
Le Colonial’s interpretation of the bo bia (cold vegetable roll) was more inspired than the traditional Vietnamese version. Packed with egg omelette, jicama, carrots, bean sprouts and fresh herbs, the veggie-friendly roll was a hit at the table. That was when we noticed that the menu offered a huge selection for gluten-free and vegan diners. How very cool to be able to customize and substitute ingredients to satisfy all types of eaters. The only noticeable goof was the missing tamarind dipping sauce. Instead, a small saucer of hoisin sauce with a dab of chile sambal and crushed peanuts accompanied the plate. Still, the vegetable roll tasted great with or without the sauce.

A personal must-order was the ga xao xa ot. I love a good lemongrass pepper chicken. The dominant taste should be of fresh, citrusy lemongrass. My family’s recipe includes millimeter-thick rings of the herb, cooked down so that texture isn’t an issue. We enjoyed this dish immensely at Le Colonial; however, it was not lemongrass pepper chicken. The organic chicken breast pieces were cooked very well, and were complemented by garlic, red pepper and onions. There was a yellowish tint on the meat, and the scent of turmeric or curry spice lingered around the dish. The fresh basil cooked into the sauce and a tingly spice from the red jalapeños tickled the lips. The lemongrass component seemed to be an afterthought that made this dish reminiscent more of a Thai chile basil preparation than of a Vietnamese lemongrass pepper dish.

The two most underwhelming dishes were again among the traditional items: the chao tom (sugarcane grilled shrimp) and the com chien dac biet (combination fried rice). Both simply lacked flavor. Chao tom is a pounded shrimp mixture usually made with black pepper, and sometimes fish sauce or salt. The mixture is wrapped around fresh sugarcane and grilled. The presentation was beautiful; each of the five pieces arrived in its own butter lettuce cup with rice noodles, not wheat noodles (as described on the menu), pickled veggies and mint, similar to the cha gio arrangement. It’s an unpretentious dish that Le Colonial muddles with refinement. We were confused again when the dipping sauce presented with the dish did not match the description on the menu. The same mix of hoisin, sambal and crushed peanuts (the one served with the bo bia) was delivered instead of a peanut plum sauce.

My guest and I both uttered the same comment after having a spoonful of the com chien dac biet (combination fried rice): “Boring” (insert sad face). With bits of broccoli stems, strips of egg omelette, quartered pieces of Chinese sausage and irregular chunks of unmarinated, dried steamed chicken breast, the fried rice dish was a complete failure. I wondered if the kitchen had forgotten to add the other ingredients. The rice tasted as if it had been soy-sauced separately from the rest of the components, then thrown in a wok with them to be heated. The bowl was left unfinished and barely touched.

According to the bartender, Houstonians seem to love Le Colonial so far. He mentioned that the upstairs lounge is packed every night of the week starting around 7 p.m. We checked out the space and fell in love immediately with the sexy French lounge music, the barely lit corners and the gorgeous bar. The decor matched the colonial dark woods, the tropical trees and the black-and-white photography found below. There were lots of pretty people sipping martinis, chatting softly and sharing small plates of food. It was quite a contrast to the loud dining area downstairs, where the tables were squeezed too close for comfort.

The idea of Vietnamese fine dining is not a myth, although it may not yet be realized in Houston. Le Colonial sets the stage for something great to come; the service is attentive and the ambience is seductively inviting. The inconsistencies between the menu and the kitchen are a bit odd for a place that upcharges for its polished, upscale reputation. But Le Colonial is still relatively new here. In time, we hope, it will perfect its follow-through.

Le Colonial
4444 Westheimer, Suite G-140, 713-629-4444, lecolonialhouston.com. Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Dinner: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday; 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Lounge: 4 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Wednesday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Sunday.

Cha gio (egg rolls) $13
Bo bia (cold vegetable roll) $11
Chao tom (sugarcane grilled shrimp) $12
Banh cuon (Hanoi steamed ravioli) $13
Goi ngo son (lotus root tofu salad) $12
Com chien dac biet (combination fried rice) $12
Ca chien Saigon (whole-fried snapper) $38
Bo luc lac (shaking beef) $29
Ga xao xa ot (lemongrass pepper chicken) $19

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