Le Colonial is set to debut at the Shops Buckhead Atlanta on Wednesday. The original Manhattan restaurant introduced French Vietnamese cuisine some 26 years ago. Since then, several Le Colonial spinoffs have opened in major U.S. cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston.
In Atlanta, hospitality veterans Rick Wahlstedt and Joe King join acclaimed French Vietnamese chef and cookbook author Nicole Routhier and executive chef Hassan Obaye to present a “shareable menu that showcases heirloom Vietnamese recipes alongside contemporary takes on classic dishes.”
Wahlstedt, who is a partner in nearby Le Bilboquet at the Shops Buckhead Atlanta, is an original founder of Le Colonial in Manhattan. With King, he operates Le Colonial locations in Chicago and Houston. Routhier created the first menu for Le Colonial in 1993, and rejoined the group in 2016 as a partner and culinary director.
Located in the former Dolce Italian space, Le Colonial occupies 8,100 square feet above Etro boutique. Arrive via elevator to experience a “chic, destination restaurant” that conjures tropical French Indochina, with shutters, ceiling fans, copper sconces, wrought iron work, and other evocative decor.
The design by Chicago-based architect Mark Knauer mixes indoor and outdoor expanses in the main dining room and adjoining veranda, private dining and event rooms. The cozy, clubby bar and lounge area features a “speakeasy” stairwell entrance in back.
Last week, Wahlstedt, King and Routhier were at Le Colonial in Buckhead, where they talked about the evolution of the design and the food for their newer restaurants.
“Chicago opened 22 years ago, then L.A. and San Francisco opened in 1998, and Houston opened in 2016,” King said. “Atlanta is the latest version, with a little lighter, brighter look and colors. We use millwork in the ceilings, and we have a lot more steel, and a lot more glass. We use more shutters to get the feel of the Colonial period in Vietnam, and we’ve added a lot more art, too.
“The way we’ve changed the food is with upgraded preparations and presentations. Nicole Routhier is probably the foremost French Vietnamese chef in the country. And Hassan Obaye, who is the regional chef for Atlanta and Houston, has a strong French culinary background.”
Speaking about the decision to open in Atlanta, Wahlstedt cited the success of Le Bilboquet as a major factor.
“That has been a great thing for us, and I think the community really likes it, and it fits well, and it’s been a great experience,” Wahlstedt said. “Due to that, I thought this would be a nice addition to the community, and something that was a little bit different. It’s authentic Vietnamese food.
“Some of the presentations and so forth are influenced by French cooking, but the ingredients and techniques are Vietnamese. Our menu has evolved, going to much more organic, farm to table, and working with purveyors in the area. This food in particular has always been healthy. Vietnamese food is lighter than Chinese, and a bit less spicy than Thai, I think. It’s family-style, also, so everything is about sharing.”
Routhier — who grew up in Saigon, and studied in Belgium and France, before moving to New York City, and then Houston, where she lives now — noted that Vietnamese food wasn’t well known when she wrote her first cookbook in 1989.
“I was way ahead of the curve, 30 years ago,” Routhier said. “That was at the time when there were barely any cookbooks on Vietnamese cuisine. There was nobody teaching people how to cook Vietnamese food at home. I said, ‘I’m going to be the one,’ because I was so passionate about it, and this is a cuisine that people should know about. So I just wrote what I knew, the food I grew up with, and I just happened to make a career out of cooking.
“We are going in a newer direction now. To me, change is good, but we don’t do change for the sake of change. It has to make sense, and still be respectful of the roots of the food. That’s my role here. I have to make sure that the food will please me first; that it’s still Vietnamese, I love the presentation, the quality of the food, and it’s what it should be. If it’s veering too far away, we cannot call it Vietnamese.”
After all these years, and even as Vietnamese restaurants are much more common, nowadays, Routhier still considers herself an ambassador for the food she grew up with.
“There’s that trust thing,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. Make people feel comfortable about trying the food, because once you try it, you will fall in love with it. Because I teach cooking, I’m an educator at heart. I like for people to understand where the food comes from.
“The good thing about Vietnamese food is that we have a little bit of the Chinese and the Thai and the Cambodian and Laotian influences. But we just have a knack for making it our own. We never borrow wholesale. If something is heavy, we will lighten it. If it’s spicy, we will balance it. It’s always the balance that we try to maintain, and that’s what we’re trying to do here, too.”
3035 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta. 404-341-0500, lecolonialatlanta.com.
Scroll down for more images from a First Look at Le Colonial at the Shops Buckhead
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.