Le Colonial is a place you would perhaps encounter in a dream—a place poetic and luxurious. Here history and culture are combined with warm service. As you stand in front of this building located in the heart of Manhattan, you are transported to days gone by. This townhouse could have been a mansion of old New York, Europe, or a colonial residence in Southeast Asia.
As you enter, you feel that you are perhaps in French Indochina of the 1920s. Slowly turning fans adorn the very high ceiling, banana and palm trees are scattered all around —even in the middle of the room as dividers to separate space and tables in the spacious dining room. The smell of fresh flowers, lilies, and such transport you to the lush tropics.
Handsome, louvered shutters line the walls of the dining area. Woven rattan chairs surround the dining tables that stand over the uniquely tiled floors, while photographs full of history and life of the 1920s hang around the walls and up the staircase into the upper level where you will find a large mahogany bar.
Guests can sit at the bar or lounge in the comfortable sofas and antique furnishings of east and west. Sit down and relax to the nostalgic music in the background, loud enough to hear while carrying on a conversation but not obtrusive. The music is from the personal collection of executive chef Xuan Pham, with songs by Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Lucienne Delyle, George Brassens, Yves Montand, Juliette Greco, and Enrico Macias.
As she sat across from me, Pham told me that the French occupation of Vietnam left a mark on the cooking techniques of Vietnamese dishes, like shaken beef known as Bo Luc Lac, the French Baguette or Banh Mi, and their fondness for the Vietnamese ice coffee or ca-phe sua da.
With degrees in different fields, from pharmacology, to an MBA, and then to cooking school, Pham told me that she came from a family of scientists and was married to yet another scientist who entertained a lot at home. That experience, mixed with the basic education in Saigon that girls should be good housewives, and with her world travel, gave her a lot of exposure to many cuisines.
When she saw what came from the kitchens of many Vietnamese restaurants in the United States, she felt that a lot of interesting aspects of her county’s food and culture was missing and wanted to introduce these elements for the world to enjoy.
I believe that Pham is a true culinary artist who has elevated this cuisine to high gastronomic levels. It only requires one experience to realize this. Make sure you go with an empty stomach, for there is plenty to explore. The menu is diverse, with each dish perfectly executed. There are the specials, regular, and bar menus. Pham’s work is an example of the diversity that can be found in Vietnam. Pham trained under culinary legend, chef Michel Richard and is now the executive chef for Le Colonial in San Francisco and New York.
Pham told me about her challenges in designing the menu for these two locations. She said that one must understand the culture, its people, and the clients in order to please. The two menus vary depending on the season and availability of ingredients.
Pham tries to maintain a menu that is authentic Vietnamese with a French twist to keep the full experience of that of 1920s. She also believes in sustainability and the use of fresh ingredients from local farms. According to her, “My mission in life is to be both a messenger and a healer.”
You can see that in the exquisite array of dishes done with impeccable sensitivity to color, texture, taste, and presentation. Pham believes in the balance of yin and yang. She is also another type of artist: a pianist and a painter who believes in a “minimalist form.” These sensibilities are reflected in her dishes that appear simple but contain intricate and complex flavors.
Vietnamese food, like the nation, has its own personality. This personality is not only found in the street food or the stands that we know of that sell the famous noodle soup or the Banh Mi sandwiches. It is also much more sophisticated, diverse, and complex than I imagined. It is delicate, refined, full of flavors, colors, and textures. Fresh herbs and lettuce wraps accompany almost every dish to enhance its flavors and textures. It is about balance between yin and yang, to enhance health and moods.
The cuisine is affected by its regional areas with their different temperatures and surroundings. Bursting flavors of hot and cold, sweet and salt, smooth and crunchy. Using a basic sauce to compliment most dishes is a salty fish sauce Nuoc Mam or a seafood-based broth with vegetables called canh.
The traditional way of using this prevailing sauce is with the Nuoc Cham, a delightfully tangy, piquant seasoning mix with garlic, chili pepper, sugar, lime juice, and vinegar—a combination yielding a well-defined personality, indispensable for savory dishes. It adds depth of flavor to soups, salads, marinades, and dipping sauces.
Another basic ingredient used in Vietnamese cuisines is rice paper. Traditionally it is made with thin batter of rice steamed over a piece of cloth then transferred with a bamboo stick to a drying crosshatched bamboo mat for markings. This is the rice paper used for all spring and summer rolls. It is then rolled in leafy vegetables and herbs.
My friends and I have been to Le Colonial a few times, and each time has been as good as the first. From the Specials Menu, we started with the Avocado Crab Martini, very refreshing with a wonderful tangy taste and balanced with crunchy celery and sweet red pepper, a nice way to start your meal on a hot day. The crabs are hand picked from Maine and served in a martini glass.
We then had few of the signature dishes starting with spring rolls. The Cha Gio, traditional imperial crispy spring rolls, are made with shrimp, pork, and shiitake mushrooms. The Cha Gio Vit, crispy duck rolls have taro, jicama, mint, and nuoc cham dip. My preference is the Cha Gio. However, both had complex flavors with soft and crunchy textures wrapped in fresh herbs and lettuce giving the hot and cold contrast.
We then had the Goi Cuon, summer rolls with shrimp, bean sprouts, rice vermicelli, mint, and peanut sauce. This shows the fine, delicate, and intricate work it takes to make this food.
Pham demonstrated how the rice sheets are made with her dainty hands. It takes such hands to produce this intricate and delicate work with attention to balance of texture and flavors. A painter paints with a brush to produce a painting, this talented chef, is able to do so with food—the presentation was as if painted with a brush on canvas. While the textures, the smoothness of the rice paper mixed with the crunchy jicama and the sweet dipping sauce.
The Banh Cuon Tom, shrimp raviolis drizzled with light coconut milk. Each of the pieces was gently folded like a gift, very delicate with wonderful flavors while the Banh so Tom Diep, the chef’s original composition of scallop pot stickers served with ginger ponzu dipping sauce. For avid shrimp lovers, the Chao Tom, grilled shrimp mousse wrapped on sugar cane with lettuce wrap and peanut sauce. You want this to be chewy, so it won’t fall apart. As you bite the contrasting flavors burst in your mouth.
For entrées, I highly recommend Tom Rang Me, butterfly prawns in tamarind lychee sauce over a bed of crispy cellophane noodles with mango, a popular and mouthwatering dish from Vietnam and one out of this world. Only a culinary genius could produce a dish that looks simple but rich with flavors—zesty and tangy, sweet and sour with influence from Thailand by using the cellophane noodles. The shrimp is cooked with its skin that should be eaten. It sparkles with flavors.
Two other favorite signature dishes are a must have, the Steamed Chilean Sea Bass, gently and tenderly wrapped in banana leaves and ginger soy sauce. As my friend took a bite, she stopped for a moment, as if she made a double take, then gave a big smile as she swallowed and said, “I did not know that fish could taste so good.” Indeed, the dish was heavenly. This fish has layers of fat, which gave a texture as smooth as is buttered milk melting in your mouth.
The Ca Chien Saigon, crispy whole red snapper comes with its head. Although fried, it is light and crispy on the outside and juicy inside with a sweet and sour sauce that blends perfectly with it. This wonderful chef can put forth a delightful array of dishes on both sides of the continent.
In China, there is a saying about great chefs, “To make a simple dish is as difficult as ruling a nation.” Every ingredient has its personality, and Pham knows her ingredients.
A great meal would be incomplete without dessert. All desserts are made in house by the same chef. The Chocolate Pyramid Mousse would be a choice for the chocolate lovers. It comes with the right balance of chocolate, crème anglaise, and raspberry sauce. For those who prefer fruit, try the apple and pear torte with a crust that is fluffy and buttery, yet light and not too sweet. I like to add a bit of ice cream to it.
For an after dinner drink, I suggest you visit the upstairs lounge, which is also good for intimate rendezvous or an after-hours refuge.
Le Colonial has locations in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.
In New York it is located at 149 East 57th Street, between Lexington and 3rd Avenues.
Phone: (212) 752-0808, Fax: (212) 752-7534. www.lecolonialnyc.com
Hours of Operation
Lunch is served in the main dining room
Monday through Friday from 12:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner is served in the main dining room:
5:30 to 11:00 p.m. Sunday and Monday
5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday
5:30 to 12:00 a.m. Friday and Saturday
The second floor bar and lounge is open at 4:30 p.m.
Lounge menu: Tuesday through Saturday until 1:00 a.m.
Sunday and Monday until 12:00 a.m.
Call for special events and private parties
Major credit cards accepted
Dress Code: Formal and nice casual
Appetizers: $10 to $14
Mains: $18 to $28