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    Cultural Appropriation, or Fine Dining? Le Colonial Gets It Deliciously Right

    By David Landis–The Gay Gourmet–

    “Cultural appropriation is not what food criticism should be about,” my dear friend Christine offered after a fine lunch at the delightful Akira Japanese restaurant on Bush Street in San Francisco. I couldn’t agree more. When a certain food critic at a major daily newspaper lamented about this issue after visiting San Francisco’s French Vietnamese-themed Le Colonial, I decided to re-visit that restaurant—one that I’ve loved for more than 20 years.

    Conclusion? Le Colonial is a restaurant, not a history lesson. And, despite what that other critic says, the food is absolutely delicious.

    Le Colonial, the San Francisco outpost of a New York restaurant by the same name located on a tiny alley off Union Square, last year celebrated 21 years in the same location where Trader Vic’s reigned supreme with the City’s society crowd for decades. For those with a historical memory, the original Trader Vic’s was the place where Mai Tais were invented. The Cosmo Alley outpost was the City’s place to see and be seen up until 1996, when it closed. San Francisco’s Le Colonial, (whose owners also own the famed La Goulue in New York, another Gay Gourmet favorite) opened in 1998; the restaurant also has outposts in Chicago and Houston.

    Any visit to Le Colonial should include a drink either in the outdoor courtyard at the top of the stairs as you enter the restaurant—or at the cozy upstairs 721 lounge, which often offers live music that complements the colonial atmosphere. In honor of Trader Vic’s, my drink of choice (as readers of this column might guess) is their Mai Tai. Le Colonial’s version is a bit more prosaic, but if you ask them to add a splash of passion fruit, it transforms the drink tastefully.

    The cocktail menu includes such tiki-inspired creations as The Parisian Sling (gin and guava), the Monkey Shoulder Colada (whisky and pineapple) and the Spice of Saigon (gin, blood orange and jalapeno). You can also partake in shared cocktails that serve larger groups, but they are potent—so buyers beware! These include: the Flaming Buddha (tequila and fresh topical juices), the Pineapple Express (vodka, tequila, pineapple juice and ginger beer), or the infamous Scorpion Bowl (a Trader Vic’s special, with Argonaut Brandy).

    Le Colonial’s atmosphere is French Colonial-inspired, like stepping back in time to Vietnam in the 1920s. The generous space features plantation shutters that adorn the windows amid comfy rattan furniture and tropical greenery. It’s all underneath a lofty and decorative pressed-tin ceiling; fans above provide a breeze to make you think you’ve just sojourned to some deserted island.

    The wine list is extensive, with most offerings (of course) from France and California. Instead, we chose a classic red Austrian wine, Kirnbauer Das Phantom (made from Blaufrankisch, Merlot, and Cabernet grapes). This wine is light enough to complement the spices and tastes of Vietnamese cooking impeccably—but heavy enough to pair amicably with some of our red meat courses.

    A native of Ho Chi Min City, Chef Tuan Phan has steered the inspired kitchen for more than 17 years and created an eclectic offering of choices. To start, I’d recommend Le Colonial’s version of Pho Ga, a Vietnamese soup that includes tasty morsels of Mary’s chicken, cilantro and peppers (on the side), bean sprouts, basil, chili and lime, all in a rich chicken broth with rice noodles.

    Since it’s crab season, we also sampled the crispy rolls with Dungeness crab, shrimp, chicken, noodles, and wood-ear mushrooms. It’s fun to take the rolls, wrap them in a lettuce cup, add a sprig of mint and dipping sauce, and then enjoy.

    For the main course, we opted for the hoisin-marinated rack of lamb, cooked perfectly to medium rare, accompanied by grilled asparagus, frisée salad and crispy rice. The savory lamb and sweet hoisin sauce combined perfectly to perk up our taste buds.

    Next, we sampled the white prawns with garlic noodles (Mi Toi Xao Tom Sate), a flavorful variation of Pad Thai, with scallions, bean sprouts, and yellow onion. We thought we were full, but we simply had to try a couple of the desserts. Sweet and savory mix seamlessly in a truly innovative dessert: the black sesame crème brûlée. Another great capper for the meal is the restaurant’s passion fruit cheesecake, which is creamy, fruity, and surprisingly light.

    So, pay a visit to Le Colonial. It’s like stepping back in time and experiencing colonial Vietnam with a delicious twist. If you’re headed to the theatre—or just headed for a night out on the town—Le Colonial is worth the journey (and you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to get there).

    Le Colonial is located at 20 Cosmo Place between Sutter and Post and Jones and Taylor. The restaurant is open nightly for dinner, Sunday through Wednesday, from 5:30 to 10 pm, and Thursday to Saturday, 5:30 to 11 pm. Valet parking is available. Visit Le Colonial on the web ( www.lecolonialsf.com ). For more information or reservations, visit Open Table ( https://www.opentable.com/start/home ) or call 415-931-3600.

    Mai Tai Update

    You’ll recall that last year, the Gay Gourmet talked about finding the best Mai Tai in San Francisco (https://bit.ly/3aOUw4T ). Well, here’s a welcome update. Le Colonial’s Mai Tai (see above) should be added to the list—and an inventive version takes center stage at Michael Mina’s new Hawaiian-inspired Trailblazer Tavern (https://www.michaelmina.net/ ), across from the Salesforce Center in downtown San Francisco. Trailblazer’s version has a slice of orange that makes it distinctive. The happy hour at Trailblazer is especially fun, and afterwards, it’s always a pleasure to walk the 5-block Salesforce Park.

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer, and a PR executive. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF, on Twitter @david_landis, email him at: david@landispr.com or visit him online at: https://gaygourmetsf.com/