As new Chronicle critic Soleil Ho moves into her eighth month on the job, she's continuing to reevaluate some of the longstanding curios of the local restaurant scene with fresh eyes. The latest target is Le Colonial, the 22-year-old Indochine-themed, sort-of-Vietnamese restaurant tucked down an alley in the Tenderloin.
Ho takes the dated theme and aesthetic of the Orientalist fantasy restaurant, saying it's "covered with the sticky film of racism" and "compounding this insult is the fact that the food isn’t well-executed or particularly exciting." She writes that Le Colonial is "full of bone-dry meats, clumsily plated $36 entrees and nigh-undrinkable $15 cocktails," and laments, "If I’m going to sit in a place that’s this uncomfortable, shouldn’t I at least be able to get some pleasure out of it? And if the menu isn’t even that compelling, then why does this place exist — and for whom?"
She also directly challenges the last review of the place by her predecessor Michael Bauer in 2017, in which he wrote of the surprisingly improved cuisine (since his last visit five years earlier), and described the setting as a "handsome dining room that evokes a tropical French oasis in Vietnam during the 1920s."
This isn't her first upending of the Bauer opinion archive, of course — her first big review back in February was a takedown of Chez Panisse, a Bauer sacred cow if ever there was one given that the Michelin people took away its last star years ago but he continued to give it four stars in the Chronicle.
But this time it's personal. Ho is of Vietnamese descent, and she says her first name has always bothered her because it reflects her mother's own embracing of the French culture that invaded her mother's homeland in the last two centuries. The appropriation of Vietnamese food, in the framework of white peoples' nostalgia for the colonial period of French Indochina, clearly gets under her skin. And I think I speak for a lot of San Francisco food fans in agreeing with the strange persistence of Le Colonial, despite it recycling a 1990s trend of colonialist white-washing that included things like the musical Miss Saigon, the Oscar-winning film Indochine, the New York City restaurants Indochine, Asia de Cuba, and Le Colonial, which opened there first in 1993 before ultimately taking over the former Trader Vic's in SF. (And Trader Vic's itself came out of a post-World War II trend of cultural appropriation: the Tiki bars that were meant to evoke Polynesia and Hawai'i.)
Ho points to the story about a similarly themed restaurant in Portland called "Colonial" that was forced to change its name and concept in recent years due to protest. She invokes cultural historian Erica J. Peters's term, grouping Le Colonial with the "Disneyland view of colonialism," and suggests that everything down to the photographs on the walls of the restaurant "are spectacles to survey from your well-appointed manse in the jungle, not people whose names you need to remember."
She devotes a few scant paragraphs to the actual food and drink at the restaurant, saying all of it was either "underwhelming" or downright bad — with the exception of a chicken salad and the black sesame creme brulee.
And after a review that essentially leaves little doubt about her view of the worth of this restaurant, Ho writes, "it’s not my intention to demand that restaurants that outlive their political correctness be automatically thrown into a wood chipper." But how Le Colonial can fix itself at this late date remains a mystery to her.
Photo: Diana H./Yelp