If anything sets Houston’s culinary scene apart from those in other cities, it’s the incredible diversity of the restaurants, especially the wealth of Vietnamese options. Houstonians are as likely to argue over where to find the best pho or banh mi as they are the best burgers or barbecue.
Despite all of those options — everything from the innumerable crawfish joints on Bellaire to slightly more obscure options like beef seven ways at Saigon Pagolac — the city lacks a restaurant that merges a contemporary concern for ingredients, fine dining-style service, and traditional Vietnamese flavors. Essentially, what’s the Vietnamese equivalent of what restaurants like Kiran’s and Indika represent for Indian cuisine or what Hugo’s did to broaden people’s awareness of the different between regional Mexican cuisine and Tex-Mex?
Le Colonial attempts to fill that gap. Officially open since Monday in River Oaks District, the restaurant started in New York 20 years ago before expanding to Chicago and San Francisco. Set in an elegant, two-story space that features dining downstairs and a bar and lounge upstairs, the restaurant aims to deliver locally-sourced ingredients, refined techniques and plating, and high-quality service that will elevate people’s expectations for what Vietnamese food is capable of.
Owner Rick Wahlstedt worked with cooking instructor and cookbook author Nicole Routhier to craft a new menu for the Houston location. Routhier worked on Le Colonial’s opening menu in New York but has lived in Houston for almost 20 years. She acknowledges that selling $13 orders of spring rolls and $29 orders of bo luc lac to people who typically pay half that may be a challenge, but notes that Houstonians haven’t been exposed to many of the dishes she’s created with executive chef Dan Nguyen.
“Wherever I go, (most Vietnamese restaurants) offer the same menus. It gets tiring sometimes. This is my chance to take Vietnamese cuisine a notch up. Presentation doesn’t have to be everything slumped on a plate in huge portions,” she says. “What we try to do here is offer the whole package. Not only great food, but also great service, great atmosphere. There’s a lot more than ‘let’s have Vietnamese food, stuff our face, and go home.’”
Le Colonial also aims to change the perception that Vietnamese food can only be inexpensive and served at small, family-owned restaurants.
“To my chagrin, I’m a little bad sad to see that people, whenever they think about ethnic cuisine, they think it has to be dirt cheap and have huge portions for very little money. I could not disagree more, because it takes a huge amount of effort to make these dishes. Vietnamese cuisine is based on 2,000 years of tradition like the Chinese. Therefore, there’s a lot of prep involved, and a lot of labor-intensive work,” Routhier says. “I think there’s a huge disconnect right there. We are trying to step away from that. It can be delicate and elegant and it doesn’t have to be dirt cheap for people to enjoy it.”
Helping up the value proposition is the restaurant’s luxurious decor that’s inspired by 1920s French Indochina. The intricate designs on the wall aren’t wallpaper; they’re hand painted murals. Imported tile floors, extensive wood panels, and comfortable furniture further set the stage. Upstairs, diners will find the lounge, patio seating that looks out over River Oaks District, and a 14-person private dining room. Dubbed the Lotus Room after the Vietnam’s national flower, the space will feature a special menu of four, five, or six course dinners.
Patrons will also recognize some familiar faces in the dining room. Director of operations Martin Theis and sommelier Sebastien Laval are industry veterans who most recently worked at La Table.
If the reaction to last week’s invite-only preview meals is any indication, Le Colonial is already winning fans. Friends who dined there are already making plans for repeat visits. In particular, the canh chua (shrimp and pineapple in a spicy tamarind broth) and ca nuong (grilled salmon and asparagus with minted mango sauce) are drawing raves.
Factor in the crowds that are already flocking to River Oaks District restaurants like Steak 48, Toulouse, and Hopdoddy and the appeal of Le Colonial’s dedicated bar that will stay open until 2 am on Friday and Saturday, and it seems like Wahlstedt and Routhier have the potential for a real hotspot.