One of the restaurants that was listed prominently in that Zagat Survey was Le Colonial, an upscale, French colonial Vietnamese restaurant lauded as one of the top restaurants in the city on both the strength of its food and its romantic atmosphere. It was never part of my regular dining rotation with my parents, and its prohibitive pricing left it just out of my reach, but every time I read something about it, I thought back to my girlhood readings of the Zagat Survey. So, when Restaurant Week rolled around this year, fate would finally give me a chance to visit Le Colonial. Restaurant Week is a relatively new tradition in Chicago, consisting of a Great Recession-era promotion in which many of Chicago's preeminent (and very expensive) offer slightly more affordable fixed-price menus at lunch and dinner. You can get an appetizer, entree, and dessert from a limited set of predetermined choices for $22 at lunch and $32 at dinner. It's still not cheap, but it definitely falls within the realm of affordability.
On Saturday, when Lauren, my trusty weekend brunch partner, texted and invited me out to brunch at Le Colonial, I immediately said yes. My acceptance was followed by a momentary panic as I questioned whether the Restaurant Week promotion would still be running, but thankfully, Lauren had done her research in advance. In the span of a week, I would have gone from sampling my first Swedish food at Ann Sather, to Greek gyros with Mom last weekend, to Italian food with Dad at dinner during the week, and finally, French colonial Vietnamese food with Lauren once more. It would be a veritable culinary world tour, without even leaving Chicago.
Honestly, I've always been a little leery of Vietnamese food. I love Thai, Chinese, and Japanese food, but the prevalence of cilantro in Vietnamese cuisine has always been a turn-off for me. (I really, really hate cilantro, but that's a story for another day.) I was doubly concerned about the choices on the fixed-price Restaurant Week menu, as none of them stood out as particularly appealing in my eyes, but the prices on the regular menu kept me from venturing into ala carte territory. In actuality, I needn't have worried. Every dish that I sampled was incredibly tasty, even if I wouldn't have had the gumption to order them if it hadn't been for financial necessity.
I started the meal with a bowl of sup ga, billed as chicken soup with baby corn. The texture was more akin to that of the egg-drop soup found at Chinese restaurants, with bits of chicken and chopped baby corn suspended throughout. Thankfully, the cilantro was limited to an easily-removed sprig floating on the surface. It was ridiculously delicious, and deeply comforting at the same time -- a perfect dish for winter. Lauren allowed me to sample her bo bia, spring rolls filled with a soft salad of vegetables. I was also pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying them, even though I could detect the presence of cilantro in them as well. For an entree, I selected the com tho ga, a dish of exceptionally tender chicken and vegetables served over jasmine rice in a clay cooking vessel. Aside from the succulent meat, the dish was actually somewhat bland, but it complemented the comfort-food vibe that I had inadvertently created within my meal. Lauren's entree, ca nuong, consisted of superbly cooked, flavorfully marinated salmon over rice noodles. I almost wished I had made the same selection as her, but I was thankful to have gotten to try two different dishes. My dessert of chocolate ice cream, although in no way exotic, satisfied a craving that I had been nurturing all week, and provided a refreshing capstone to what had been a rather heavy lunch.
Also, the atmosphere lived up to its billing. Although a reviewer on Yelp had described it as, "fine, if you like your dining with a side of Third-World subjugation," I enjoyed the slightly threadbare, crumbling empire ambiance at Le Colonial. Perhaps it has something to do with all the time I spent dedicated to studying the Vietnam War and its causes in college, but for me it captured the romantic essence of a world long-gone. I would most certainly recommend it if you are feeling adventurous, amorous, and like your pockets are too heavy for your liking. Otherwise, I might suggest waiting until Restaurant Week in 2011...