Dining, particularly fine dining, is a form of escapism. Like a movie or theatrical performance, when the lights are turned down, we put aside reality and engage with the show. For a full experience, we have to buy into the cast (service staff), the props (decor), the plot (menus) and anything else that producers and directors (chefs and owners) deem necessary and appropriate for telling the story.
Dining at Le Colonial, the upscale French Vietnamese restaurant that recently joined the Shops Buckhead Atlanta, means getting swept back in time to 1920s French Colonial Vietnam. It is a setting that’s fittingly described on its website as “a luxurious escapist oasis.”
An elevator ride to the second floor takes you to a breezy veranda decorated with palm and banana trees. Perhaps it is here that a hostess, attired in a traditional long, flowing ao dai gown, will seat you on one of the rattan chairs as you tuck yourself in under a white tablecloth while fans whir overhead and the glare of a setting sun is shaded by Bahama-style louvered shutters. The tropical theme continues past the French doors of the terrace to a formal, stately dining room and, in the rear, to a spirited bar and lounge with comfy soft seating surrounded by dark mahogany millwork.
Le Colonial is new to Atlanta, but the concept is not. It debuted 26 years ago in Manhattan and now includes locations in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston, although each operates independently. The Atlanta outpost is a project by hospitality veteran Rick Wahlstedt, one of the original founders (and a partner at Le Colonial’s neighbor restaurant Le Bilboquet), along with Joe King and highly esteemed French Vietnamese chef and cookbook author Nicole Routhier. (Wahlstedt and King also operate Le Colonial in Chicago and Houston.)
Routhier was a consultant for the menu when Le Colonial opened in 1993 and came back on board with the launch of the Houston location in 2016 and the task of keeping Le Colonial’s menu in tune with the times. She, along with executive chef Hassan Obaye, have fashioned a menu of shareable plates intended to showcase classic Vietnamese flavors for an Atlanta audience.
During an unseasonably hot September, a light dish like the crunchy green papaya salad dressed in tangy nuoc cham, the sweet-sour-spicy Vietnamese dipping sauce of lime juice, rice vinegar, sugar, fish sauce, fresh chiles and garlic, popped with bright color and clean flavor. So did goi cuon, chilled spring rolls of Gulf shrimp, bun (threads of rice vermicelli), bean sprouts and lettuce, tightly wrapped in translucent rice paper.
Although the flavors of shrimp, pork and mushrooms were muddled in the fried roll version (cha gio), the purity and freshness of chicken from Joyce Farms in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, shone in savory Sui Cao Chien, delectably moist dumplings garnished with slivers of ginger and scallions.
Japanese eggplant was a visual stunner in the ca tim nuong. Grilled, rolled and arranged like sushi, and slickened with slightly spicy basil-lime fish sauce, bite after bite is a delight to pluck up with chopsticks.
Vietnamese cuisine is about bold flavors, about finding a balance between sweet, sour and spicy heat, and contrasting textures. Chef Obaye nails it with a dish that also highlights contemporary technique and regional flavors: suon nuong, aka baby back ribs. A plate that the well-traveled Moroccan native created for Le Colonial’s Houston location after having acquainted himself with Texas barbecue, the ribs marinate 24 hours in a mix of lemongrass, shallots, garlic, oyster sauce, fish sauce and a house five-spice blend. Once chargrilled, the tender meat is glazed with a finger-licking, sweet-spicy sticky sauce of honey, hoisin, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, chile paste and apple cider vinegar.
Other plates were less successful in capturing the essence of Vietnamese cuisine. Chicken curry, known as cari ga, as well as com chien, fried rice, came with little personality or even visual appeal. Vit quay — roasted duck for two — tasted as if it could have come out of any new American kitchen; the only thing giving it a sense of place was the small bowl of tamarind ginger sauce for dipping. A small pile of barely pickled vegetables and bland shiitake mushroom sticky rice added to the $60 disappointment.
What’s not overpriced and is a clear expression of Vietnamese cuisine is Le Colonial’s pho bo. Commune with this $12 bowl of slurp-able rice noodles, thin slices of beef tenderloin and crunchy bean sprouts in a flavorful, complex oxtail broth. It’s not the best-tasting bowl of pho I’ve ever had, but it is probably the poshest setting in which I’ve ever consumed pho.
So let’s get back to the setting, then. In this “luxurious escapist oasis,” it is delightful to nibble on those baby back ribs and to pluck a half-dozen chicken dumplings off a plate with chopsticks. Between bites, you can sip an Asian-inspired highball such as the Spicy Lime featuring tequila and Thai chile-infused Aperol, a mocktail like the Mua Tu — a simple yet tart and refreshing mix of lemon juice, spicy simple syrup, Thai basil and Sprite — or any number of mainly European wines whose prices match the high-end space.
Servers clad in formal white coats fastened with black bone hooks are quick to take your order and quick to deliver the goods. The restaurant is all about shared plates and family-style dining, except that can make for cramped eating, as few tables are large enough to hold more than a few dishes at a time. An attempt to remove empty dishes or bowls to make room for more is cause for frequent commotion. At times, servers were warmly cordial. Other visits, servers barely cut a smile, breaking the fantasy and taking me back to reality.
Dining at Le Colonial can be a trip back in time to 1920s French Colonial Vietnam. Per its website, the restaurant is “designed to capture a bygone era of sophistication and opulence,” but not everything about that period is glamorous. Period photos of Vietnamese natives that line every wall are a stark reminder that colonialism isn’t a bygone era for everyone. Young and old, men and women stare blankly at the camera. None breaks a smile. All are nameless.
In her recent review of Le Colonial, San Francisco Chronicle dining critic Soleil Ho pointed out that the space “references the film set of ‘Indochine’ — sumptuous and historically accurate — but not its actual plot, which follows the parallel dissolutions of French colonial rule over Vietnam and the unraveling life of its heroine, a French woman who owns a rubber plantation.”
Le Colonial celebrates “an architectural period in time that we find to be very romantic,” Wahlstedt told me later in a phone interview. “It does not have anything to do with oppression.”
The photos tell a different story.
When I left Le Colonial one evening, a dining partner said of the photos, “I don’t understand the statement. I don’t know if I want to be part of the statement.”
You can fully escape to a different era at Le Colonial and have a pretty decent dinner for a pretty penny, but fully escaping also means not staring colonialism in the face.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: French Vietnamese
Best dishes: Pho Bo (Hanoi Beef Noodle Soup). Suon Nuong (baby back ribs). Sui Cao Chien (pan-seared chicken dumplings). Ca Tim Nuong (Grilled Japanese Eggplant).
Vegetarian selections: Cha Gio Chay (Crispy Vegetable Roll). Bo Bia (Chilled Vegetable Roll). Le Colonial Salat (vegan greens salad). Goi du du (Green Papaya Salad). Ca Tim Nuong (Grilled Japanese Eggplant). Mi Xao Don Chay (Crispy Egg Noodles).
Price range: $$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m-4 p.m. daily; dinner: 4-10 p.m. Sundays-Wednesdays; 4-11 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays
Children: not recommended
Parking: garage parking, free the first three hours
MARTA station: Buckhead
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: comfortable on veranda and dining room, more boisterous in bar/lounge
Patio: gorgeous veranda
Takeout: not recommended
Address, phone: 3035 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta. 404-341-0500
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