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Le Colonial

It seems like something from an old picture. In the first half of the century when the French were still in Vietnam, restaurants in Saigon must have looked dazzlingly simple like Le Colonial. Palms, shutters, ceiling fans, dim lights, wicker furniture, walls hung with softly-blurred photographs of the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s and beautiful Vietnamese women dressed in native garb serving exotic drinks. Most guests have a pre-dinner cocktail and appetizers in the crowded second floor salon, which is much like a parlor. Every table in the first floor main dining room is taken, too. New York has given this little-known food a big welcome.

Vietnamese cooking is delicate and refined. In the family of Asian cuisines, it's the cousin who went to finishing school. Spring rolls were light and crisp and filled with chopped vegetables that kept their crunch. Steamed Vietnamese ravioli were melt-in-your-mouth noodles, dotted with bits of chicken, shrimp and mushrooms. You could easily eat upstairs, making a meal from those little dishes. But we recommend trying the entrees. The seared whole red snapper and the spicy sautéed filet mignon were sublime. It's hard to choose between sticky and jasmine rice so order one of each; both are good. Except for the desserts no French influence invades the kitchen. The carmelized lemon tart with its intense citrus flavor got our vote.

Le Colonial, 149 East 57th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tel. 212-752-0808. Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner every night. The salon opens at 4 p.m. daily. Moderately priced.

Spring 1995