In Houston, Vietnamese restaurants and liquor don't often go together. A significant exception? Le Colonial, the upscale Vietnamese restaurant in River Oaks District that's known as much for its bustling bar scene as its modern Viet fare. But until now, happy hour came and went at that upstairs bar without a food menu of its own. Enter Le Bar Bites menu, a range of $8 plates intended for nibbling alongside Asian inflected cocktails like the Red Buffalo, a spicy mix of strawberries, basil and Belvedere with Thai chile.
OK, in Alief, $8 will get you a sizable entrée. This isn't Alief. You're paying partly to be handed your cocktails and cuisine by servers in traditional dress, in a floral-painted, rattan-chair-filled room with all the exoticism of an Indiana Jones movie set, if that movie's extras were all middle-aged businessmen. But you're also paying for top flight ingredients. This is clear at a refreshing first bite of the goi ga, a plate of big, crispy taro chips mounded with cabbage, local grapefruit, and chicken salad that sizzles with a tangy chile-garlic vinaigrette. Canh ga nhoi thit, breaded chicken wings stuffed with minced pork and shiitakes, show enviable care. The partially deboned wing is sliced in quarters, then set in a lovably complex tamarind-lemongrass sauce.
But the best thing we tasted at an event introducing the menu was the banh mi. Le Colonial's fusion dishes typically overshadow its more traditional ones. As chef Nicole Routhier put it that evening, the fact that much of Vietnamese cuisine dates back 2,500 years "really limits the cook. But I don't like to be limited." Banh mi, of course, only traces its roots to the French colonial period that gives the restaurant its name.
Routhier, then, doesn't have to do much to spiff up the sandwich. A crisp, cool baguette layered with char-blackened pork belly, pickled veggies and cilantro is enough, save a swipe of spicy aioli. How to make it an even more satisfying meal? Add a cocktail (perhaps the Passion, made with passion fruit juice, Belvedere Passion Mango and lime) and a plate of Vietnamese frites, battered fries dusted with five spice for a suggestion of Asia, but the greasy satisfaction of American pub grub. As Routhier says, "Good food is good food."