As the restaurant's name reminds us, Vietnam was a French colony for about a century, and executive chef Joseph Villanueva's fine menu captures glints of the resulting cross-cultural pollination. Among the most compelling examples of his ambidexterity are the pan-fried brussels sprouts ($10), or rau xao — all the dishes bear Vietnamese names — in which the halved sprouts are cooked with portobello mushrooms and plenty of ginger before being liberally slathered with sweet chili sauce. Using such intensely flavorful ingredients to subdue a notoriously uncooperative vegetable is the culinary equivalent of an enhanced interrogation technique, but when a confirmed brussels sprouts-hater takes a tentative taste or two (after much cajoling), then serves himself a big heap, we know all the bother was worth it.
Luckily, most of the menu doesn't need this kind of strong-arming. Wok-tossed Blue Lake beans ($8) are wonderfully crisp-tender and simply dressed with a garlic-soy sauce. Niman Ranch pork ribs ($14) are rubbed with five-spice powder, given a honey-ginger glaze, and roasted to an aching tenderness. The same glaze ends up on fried quail ($14), which is only marginally less tender. Among the lemongrass-inflected dishes, it would be hard to beat chicken two ways ($25), roasted and sautéed, and served with a warm salad of shiitakes, baby spinach, and micro-cilantro.
There are disappointments. The fresh rolls wrapped in rice paper are a little tough and, tastewise, on the delicate side. On the indelicate side, we have black tiger prawns ($29) in a coconut curry broth that sounds promising but is made with powdered curry, rather than the Thai-style paste, with a certain metallic harshness as a consequence.
But knocking a few points off a dish here and there does nothing to diminish the overall experience in a place as atmospheric as Le Colonial. As with a view restaurant, the temptation must be strong to lean on the enchanted setting and its storied past while letting the food and service discreetly slip. It's a credit to Le Colonial that if the restaurant served its menu in a setting a tenth as compelling, we would still judge it worthy.
Dinner: Sun.–Wed., 5:30–10 p.m.;
Thurs.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.
20 Cosmo Place, SF