A fundamental concept of ancient Chinese philosophy is the idea of yin and yang. The general principle is that no thing exists without some opposite. Yin and yang contradict but are also inseparable equals. Harmony is achieved through their balance. This is how I finally resolved the question of why Le Colonial is needed in the Shops at Buckhead, when you can walk a few blocks and find Chai Yo just down the street.
I reviewed Chai Yo very favorably in this publication last winter. Even then, like many citizens of the metropolis, I questioned why anyone would go out in cold weather for Asian food when there is a wealth of excellence on offer for delivery. In the case of Chai Yo, I concluded that you must occasionally leave the house for premium ingredients and quality service. Those same judgments apply to Le Colonial, but how they should we decide between two equally good places that are just a stone’s throw apart?
We should start with a foundational fact: Chai Yo is Thai and Le Colonial is Vietnamese. A lot of people have no sense of the culinary differences between these two cultures. Both are rooted in strong Chinese influence, but then Vietnam was eventually colonized by the French and Thailand remained relatively neutral amidst the territorial squabbles of the British and the French. The extent of French influence on the food in Vietnam is a matter of some debate, and Le Colonial purports to represent some part of that influence.
You can mostly leave that conversation to the history buffs or seriously niche foodies, but it’s fair to say in general that a people subjugated by a foreign power necessarily develop a sense of humor that can fly under the radar. This slight cheekiness is everywhere on display at Le Colonial, from the pepper garnish pointing out at you from the top of the spicy lime cocktail to the decidedly more relaxed and modern approach to service. You can go to Chai Yo to be mothered by more traditional waitstaff, whereas at Le Colonial you are more likely to share a joke with your server.
But let’s talk about how good the food is. At Le Colonial, you can find high end preparations of some of your favorite delivery options, like chicken dumplings and spring rolls. The dumplings have wonderfully crispy edges, and in addition to the savory black vinegar sauce, shredded ginger adds a lot of bonus flavor without additional heat. The best small plate is the yuzu crab salad, which offers delightfully perky citrus notes to brighten up your winter atop equal parts avocado and lump crab meat. In each entrée plate, the veggies are exactingly sized into cubes or slices, as well as steamed to perfection in a way that preserves crunch, color and texture. My favorite was the yellow coconut curry with tofu, which had the usual array of eggplant, green bean and cashew, but the added delight of yam and mango. The sauce coats those two orange gems so that they look identical and each mouthful is thus a bit of a playful surprise.
Everything there is beyond simply proficient, but I actually think dessert is the thing Le Colonial does best. The table-side pour-over of Vietnamese coffee is a cool show plus utterly delicious. The presentation of the cinnamon poached pear is awesome and sneaky. First luxuriate in its layers of chocolate sauce and gold foil, then knock the top off the pear to reveal citrus Chantilly cream inside. The coconut pineapple upside down cake has layered multiple thin rings of pineapple on top to best achieve that sticky caramelization that makes this kind of cake so mouthwatering to begin with. The crown jewel of the dessert menu, however, is the coconut and lemongrass panna cotta in cherry brandy sauce. That lemongrass shines brightly through a variety of well-balanced and delicate flavors from the raspberry and mint garnishes, lending taste all the way through, as opposed to a scent that dissipates quickly into the usual vanilla.
At Chai Yo, you find modern dishes full of high drama paired with classical and distinguished service. At Le Colonial, you find old world dishes full of understated amusements paired with somewhat more casual and congenial service. How nice to find two varieties of superior Asian cuisine with entirely fresh ingredients just a couple of blocks apart in Buckhead. They need not compete, as both are charming. Go with whichever suits your mood in the moment but remember to strike a balance because you really ought not neglect either one. They are like yin and yang.
Le Colonial is located at 3035 Peachtree Road. For more, visit lecolonialatlanta.com.