Chef Nicole Routhier, culinary director at Le Colonial

Image: Julie Soefer

Le Colonial, the long-standing French-Vietnamese upscale restaurant with a location at River Oaks District, will be revamping its menu based on Culinary Director Nicole Routhier’s latest trips to Vietnam and the burgeoning native-led food culture she tasted while there.

“I saw it as a chance for me when we opened in Houston to start adding modern touches to our menu,” says Routhier, who has published several cookbooks and has shepherded Le Colonial’s menu development since she was hired in 2016.

These changes may take effect at all Le Colonial locations: Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, and San Francisco. They come just months after San Francisco Chronicle dining critic Soleil Ho questioned the suitability of the concept, which was born in the 1990s in New York and celebrates the “seductive spirit and vivid flavors of 1920s French Colonial Southeast Asia,” according to its website. 

Routhier’s travels back home to Vietnam have taken place over the last few years. Her latest journey focused on the cuisine of Central Vietnam, particularly near the cities of Hue, Da Nang, and Hội An, where cooks are known for their skills in creating unique dumplings and seafood dishes. The restaurants Routhier visited, however, weren’t the traditional stops for someone trying to find the newest trends in Vietnamese food.

“Until recently, modern Vietnamese food in Vietnam could only be found in grand hotels’ fancy dining establishments, and those kitchens are usually run by Western chefs,” Routhier says. “So I was more interested in restaurants that offered that same kind of food experience but with a point of view from a native Vietnamese chef.”

In Da Nang, the restaurant Nén stood out for Routhier because a native young woman, Summer Le, leads the kitchen, and her food is not only delicious and presented well, but also pushes the boundaries of Vietnamese culinary tradition.

“I give her high scores for even daring to stray from tradition. If you know Vietnamese people, they are very, very protective of their traditions,” Routhier says. “However, I felt that it was difficult to detect the connection between the Vietnamese roots and the end results. It could be maybe because this is in its infancy. What she’s trying is new.”

In addition to this new native-led approach to cooking Vietnamese food, Routhier says the dumplings she encountered in Central Vietnam captivated her with their intricate designs and ancient cooking traditions.

“Here in the West you think of two shapes,” Routhier says. “In Hue, my god, the dumplings come in all shapes and sizes and the wrappings themselves are made from scratch and so the textures are all different. It’s really intricate and that goes back like thousands of years.”

Additionally, Routhier’s experiences on farms in central Vietnam gave her a new appreciation for the laborious task of raising unique varieties of crops in an environment known for its hot sun and high humidity.

“I was highly inspired by just a plain plate of fresh produce, of lettuces and herbs,” she says. “Since my return from that trip I’ve been really wanting to come up with a tasting menu highlighting Hue specialties, maybe giving it my own twists, but recent events have put that on hold.”

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Le Colonial has actually been able to maintain some amount of regular business with takeout only, and at the beginning of the outbreak, the restaurant saw an increase in sales compared to the year before.

“We actually saw a nice pick up in sales during all the month of February and into the first week of March,” Routhier says. “To me this shows a strong vote of confidence from both our customers that are very loyal to us—some of them dine there two or three times a week—and the dining public at large.”

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