After a six-month closure for remodeling, Inner Richmond favorite Le Soleil is back, turning out bright, precise Vietnamese cooking tweaked just a little by chef-owner Dennis Wong.
Wong calls it “new Vietnamese cuisine.” This means, among other things, spot-on balancing of hot, sour, sweet and salty — and impeccable, greaseless deep-frying.
The reassuringly small, if peripatetic, menu embraces dishes from Wong’s Vietnamese-Chinese background, his gentle innovations and Vietnamese dishes that incorporate unusual but authentic ingredients.
Served in the comfortable, soigne new dining room lit by votives, this personal, rather elegant Vietnamese cooking proves to be a bargain for a civilized night out with well-chosen wine, or just a casual bite. Everyone walks out feeling elevated and happy.
Lotus root salad ($9) — a crunchy, juicy, savory melange of raw and cooked ingredients, all finely minced and decoratively piled onto a maroon banana leaf — epitomizes the delight of Vietnamese cuisine. Sharply scented with fresh herbs and dressed in sweet and sour dressing spiked with chili, the dish offers a vivid yet complex, brightly colored tapestry with each bite.
Vietnamese soups are hot versions of the salads, and Wong has a feeling for them. In his hot and sour soup ($5, $8), naturally sweet catfish, fresh pineapple, fresh tomato and crunchy sprouts dance in a chrysanthemum-scented broth.
At lunch, the unique crab and shrimp tomato soup ($9) weaves soft bits of crab cooked with egg and shrimp paste noodles with rice vermicelli in a tomato-tinged broth.
You might think that escargot noodle soup ($9.50) would be similar, but it’s not. The snails are tender and taste like the sea, and this clear, red broth is full of ginger, a traditional combination.
At dinner, Wong’s garlic egg noodles topped with half a Dungeness crab ($22) are exciting, the noodles rich with bits of egg, brown butter, crab butter, good fresh garlic and red chili. It’s my favorite version of this dish.
Slices of short rib breaded and fried like a cutlet are sauced in yellow coconut curry, which you mop up with hot, buttery garlic toast ($16) — a Le Soleil original.
Lunch features special dishes such as crispy noodles ($9.50), a nest of magically dry-fried noodles that falls apart with the touch of a fork, filled with a stir-fry of Western vegetables, shrimp and chicken in the most delectable, thin, mushroom-scented gravy. Wong’s preparation of this typically mundane dish is so elegant, he turns it into something new.
Shrimp rice crispies ($7) — cracking little sticky rice balls with shrimp cake, water chestnut and tree ear filling — are another reason to stop by for lunch.
During my visits, old customers streamed in, admired the new decor, expressed relief that Le Soleil had reopened and asked for dishes on the old menu.
Although the kitchen seemed to accommodate, I hope Le Soleil stands by its new ideas. Wong’s buoyant creativity, infallible taste and technique earn our trust.
These are my last few weeks writing for The San Francisco Examiner. To follow my reviews, subscribe to my printed newsletter “Unterman on Food” for the whole story, or visit my new website www.untermanonfood.com for up-to-the-minute food and dining notes.
Location: 133 Clement St. (between Second and Third avenues), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 668-4848; www.lesoleilusa.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Price range: $6 to $16; $22 for Dungeness crab
Recommended dishes: Shrimp rice crispies, lotus root salad, crab and shrimp tomato soup, garlic noodles with Dungeness crab, curry short ribs
Credit cards: All major