Le Colonial is that rarity: a transportational restaurant. It takes us not only to a favored place for food, wine and cocktails but also to a land that’s distant in miles and especially in time. Having spent a couple of hours soaking up the semi-imaginary life of a French colonial in the Vietnam of, say, 1920, we can’t be blamed if we want to be that guy.
Word is, the restaurant’s owners (who launched the first Le Colonial in New York City in 1995 and opened this one in the River Oaks District this past August) ordered architect Mark Knauer and team to watch the film Indochine before putting pen to paper. That story, to whatever degree it’s true, explains the place’s profoundly cinematic quality.
What is within that scope is that the owners turned to the Vietnamese-born but oh-so-French-named chef Nicole Routhier, who consulted on the first Le Colonial, to help create (and update) the menu here, in the city in which she’d chosen to live ever since. After all, the place, the concept and particularly the menu has always had a special hold on Routhier’s heart.
“They knew I was here, so that played into their decision to open in Houston,” offers Routhier. She’s sitting at a small corner table beneath a lamp that’s spinning golden light over the dark wood and brass railings of a French brasserie transplanted to the tropics—like Vietnam. “They knew this city is my home, and I wasn’t going to open a restaurant anywhere else.”
A devoted researcher and cookbook author, Routhier knew well her adopted city’s large Vietnamese population and passion for Vietnamese cuisine. But she also knew it was often confined less to French style and more to the “casual” tastes typically associated with the nourishing beef soup known as pho and the multiethnic sandwich called banh mi. Thus, the menu she’d created from her Vietnamese and French heritage in 1995, later carried to Le Colonials in Chicago and San Francisco, seemed the perfect place to start.
Within a few weeks of opening, the intimate 95-seat dining room, arrayed around the drooping fronds of a banana plant, became a place for denizens of River Oaks and Tanglewood to see and be seen. Perhaps even more so, the clubby lounge upstairs became a favored late-night hangout for Dom Pérignon and Veuve Clicquot. The second-story balcony doubles as a colonial overlord’s veranda, including one corner table for six that quickly became the ultimate place to sit. Unlike any and all other verandas in the real colonial tropics, this one in Houston, Texas, has air conditioning.