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The Romance Of Old Saigon

April 21, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Oh, it's easy to fall for the exotic looks of Le Colonial, a new Vietnamese restaurant in West Hollywood. As I step from the car one night in a driving rain, the neon sign over the doorway announces the name in glowing blue script. Palms whip in the wind. And, even with Beverly Boulevard at my back, I almost imagine I'm at the portals of a Saigon club during the French colonial era. Maybe this is where Rick turned up after leaving Casablanca.

Inside, fans twirling from the maroon pressed-tin ceiling churn up a light breeze, rustling the fronds of potted palms. There are tall shuttered windows and a floor of antique patterned tiles bordered in green. Framed black-and-white photos of Vietnam under French rule and haunting music from the soundtrack of the French film "Indochine" evoke another era. Waiters in pajama jackets closed with ornate frogs glide through the dimly lit rooms, bearing platters garnished with handfuls of fresh mint and basil, wafting the scent of lemongrass.

Vietnamese cuisine, with its emphasis on fresh herbs, vegetables and seafood cooked with a minimum of fat, is lighter than Chinese food, more varied than Japanese cooking and more delicate than Thai cuisine. Neighborhoods such as Westminster or Rosemead are filled with tiny noodle shops and family restaurants where you can eat good, simple Vietnamese meals. Yet Los Angeles has never had a serious Vietnamese restaurant like Tan Dinh in Paris, with refined Vietnamese cooking and a renowned wine list.

The original Le Colonial in New York was such a hit on East 57th Street that French owner Jean Denoyer decided to open an outpost here. His chef, Khai Duong, was born in Vietnam but grew up in this country in a family of restaurateurs. (His brother Binh is co-author of "Simple Art of Vietnamese Cooking," published by Simon & Schuster.) A graduate of the Cordon Bleu in Paris and the kitchen of Le Bernadin in New York, Duong has created a menu of Vietnamese dishes that should appeal to even the most cautious palate. He's edited out adventurous offerings like frogs' legs or squid--or dishes based largely on pork.

After all, Vietnamese cuisine is beautiful to behold: spring rolls wrapped up with snippets of fresh herbs in a lettuce leaf packet and dipped into nuoc cham, a sauce based on Vietnam's famous fermented fish sauce (nuoc mam) splashed with lime juice and vinegar and flecked with chile; sea bass encased in a banana leaf and steamed with lemongrass and chile; a tangy, fragrant soup of shrimp in a tamarind-soured broth laced with tomato.

After a number of meals, I want to love Le Colonial, but each time I come away a little disappointed. The food is good, but it doesn't thrill. For the dish called goi tom, grilled shrimp garnish a lovely salad: ribbons of carrots, cucumbers and white radish marinated in sweet, vinegary dressing infused with plenty of fresh herbs. Goi ga, shredded chicken and cabbage drenched in lime juice, is also a satisfying starter. But shrimp threaded and grilled on fresh sugar cane, then served with a sweet-hot peanut sauce, are lackluster. Cha gio, fried spring rolls filled with chopped shrimp, pork and mushrooms, and cha gio chay, stuffed with shredded vegetables and tofu skin, are hard to tell apart; their rice-paper wrappers are greasy and taste it. And goi cuon, which the menu translates as "soft salad roll," is plain rice paper wrapped around rice vermicelli, shrimp, bean sprouts and aromatic herbs. But these are perhaps too bland; they need more herbs and repeated dipping in the peanut sauce.

Fish lovers can't go wrong with the filet of sea bass wrapped in a banana leaf, which is opened at the table, releasing the aromas of lemongrass and ginger. Whole red snapper, presented in a graceful sweet and sour sauce barely touched with chile, is another good choice. And I liked the sauted jumbo shrimp with chunks of eggplant in a light and beautifully modulated coconut-curry sauce. Oven-roasted chicken suffused with lemongrass and chopped into small morsels is moist and delicious, meant to be

dipped in a fragrant lime sauce. And though chicken breast simmered in a clay pot has the nice edge of black pepper and lilt of lemongrass, the nuggets of chicken are so dried out that no one at my table ventures another bite. Filet mignon sauted with Chinese long beans and cubes of sweet potato is so protein-rich that it is best enjoyed with a bowl of sticky rice and maybe an order of steamed okra showered with basil and chile.

Le Colonial has a wonderful two-page wine list of California wines and hard-to-find wines from lesser-known regions of France. There's a Muscadet, a Savennires (a Chenin Blanc), a great Sancerre from Lucien Crochet, all from the Loire Valley, and several ross, which may be the perfect wines with Vietnamese food.

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