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Here's Looking at You 

Wednesday, Nov 24 1999
One of my more oblique hobbies is collecting bartender's guides, the more arcane the better. Bar guides reflect their time and place as subtly and as knowingly as a vintage kinescope or a trashy paperback. The prize of my collection is Bernard De Voto's The Hour, a slender, witty, absolutely anthropological treatise on the perfect martini circa 1948, but there are other equally illuminating examples: The Savoy Cocktail Book, a peerlessly urbane collection of recipes, tributes, and deco aesthetic that could only have come out of London circa 1930; James Beard's Guide to Cocktails and Hors d' Oeuvres, a 1950 entry in which all the drinks rely on gin, rye, bourbon, or scotch (vodka is consigned to a separate chapter with ouzo and Cynar two years before Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale); and 1968's Time-Life Wine & Spirits Guide, with its inclusive appreciation of tequila, Pimm's, Carpano, and ojen.

A favorite volume, though, is Trader Vic's Guide to Food and Drink. Here we have postwar America in all its brawling power. Published in 1946, this is a man's man sort of cookbook, with the Trader (who, you discern, is a wonderful sort of no- nonsense roughneck who's traveled the world in a tramp steamer) ordering you to chop up some onion and throw it in a pot and cook it till your eyes water and throw in a handful of hacked-up tomatoes too if you feel like it. There are drawings as well, of hungover bachelors with ice packs on their heads and tough guys manning barbecue pits. And, this being 1946, meaning the book's target audience has just returned from faraway places with strange-sounding names, there are depictions of native girls in sarongs serving gardenia-bedecked coconut shells containing (one assumes) the sort of potation you could only order stateside at the Trader's rendezvous in Emery- ville, Calif.

The Emeryville venue is all that remains of the Trader's once-global restaurant empire, of which the jewel in the crown was the San Francisco outpost in Cosmo Place. (Before the chain's expansion, back in the '40s, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce was horrified to discover that polled tourists' top three attractions were peering at the prisoners on Alcatraz, standing in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge to see how far the suicides drop, and going to Trader Vic's.) Trader Vic's was where you went to dine on the sort of food Gauguin and Marlon Brando presumably enjoyed among the simple folk of the South Seas: mai tais and barbecued ribs and bongo bongo soup. Here you could experience delicacies even more exotic than Chinatown's, without as much authenticity to perturb the gastric juices, and with good service and surrounding elegance to reassure the status quo.

But times change, and as people traveled more widely and the genuine culinary article became more available -- served up in restaurants operated by actual citizenry of the faraway places in question -- the Trader's version dwindled in popularity. The Cosmo Place venue closed down despite a bar unmatched for its bonhomie and most excellent tiny umbrella-type drinks overflowing with fresh mango juice. After a lengthy renovation, the space reopened as Le Colonial.

The idea's the same: exotica served up in an atmosphere of drowsy tropical elegance. Wicker furniture, shuttered light, and slow-moving fans conjure up the British Raj and tiger hunts and long cool drinks out of the midday sun. You enter this dramatic space through a small, neon-lit portal reminiscent of Rick's Café Américain and cross a palm-fronded atrium open to the (untropical) air. The restaurant's two floors and multiple rooms are rich with darkly carved wood and gleaming napery; the upstairs bar area is especially in- viting, with comfortable armchairs and an attractive veranda where cigars are proffered with the brandy by white- jacketed waitstaff. Here we sampled the Le Colonial ($7), a juicy vodka cocktail in the Vic's tradition, copious and refreshing, and the Dark & Stormy Night ($7), a lustier (if somewhat medicinal) potion of rum and ginger beer ideal on a cool autumn evening.

Le Colonial acknowledges San Francisco's modern global savvy as Vic's never quite did, offering a lengthy menu of specialties out of Southeast Asia, Vietnam in particular, with the occasional intimation of fusion sensibility thrown in: squid-lemongrass soup ($7.50); crab cakes with Saigon chili-plum sauce ($10.50); prawn curry with coconut, mango, and eggplant ($18); caramelized ahi with pineapple, saw leaf, and "paddy field herbs" ($24); and scallops with taro chips and mint-mango emulsion ($26). We began with two excellent soups: a creamy butternut squash concoction based on coconut milk, touched with cinnamon and cilantro and laden with sweet, fresh crab meat ($5), and the perfect cold-weather brew -- chicken (rice) noodle soup infused with ginger and the heady sort of aromatic herbs that make salubrity unavoidable ($4.50). An outstanding starter is the tempura ($12), not in this case your basic zucchini-carrot platter but sweet-briny tiger prawns and slices of abalone suspended in nimbuses of heat and air with hot mustard alongside for dipping. Another appetizer, sirloin marinated and charbroiled and wrapped up in wild betel nut leaves, is silky and tender and tasty with scallion oil and roasted peanuts ($9.50).

As so often happens nowadays, an outstanding overture leads here to a middling main performance. The roasted halibut ($22) is nestled against a dense, delicious cushion of purple sticky rice and fragrant Napa cabbage, but the fish itself is bland and overdone despite the best efforts of its lemongrass crust. The duckling ($24) is moist enough, but doesn't have the wonderful supple flavor you associate with this fatty bird, and the bland whipped potatoes accompanying it don't help. But the Dau Dua Xao side dish ($6.50), string beans sautéed with meaty shiitake mushrooms, crunchy peanuts, and chilies, is a wonderful amalgam of crisp and tender, sweet and spicy.

A dessert of creamy coconut-infused tapioca ($7), served in a martini glass with glazed banana slices on top and (no kidding) two strands of candied spaghetti projecting outward, is delicious and reassuring. Le Colonial's wine list is extensive, concentrating mostly on the local and Gallic product with a few vintages from New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and South Africa thrown in.

As befits an establishment rooted in a tradition of colonial imperative, service is attentive yet discreet, with just enough savvy and knowledge to put you at your ease. After a Scorpion or two, the Trader would have felt right at home.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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