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July 17, 2006

Le Soleil, 9616 N Lamar

Le Soleil continues the grand tradition of superb Austin ethnic restaurants in nondescript strip centers. Nestled in a corner of the bustling and sometimes sketchy mega-intersection of Lamar and Rundberg, Le Soleil distinguishes itself from the surrounding gaggle of Eastern and Far Eastern establishments with somewhat professional-looking signage and a far nicer big-screen television. I haven't had the occasion to use the restroom yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to find a fresh flower there in place of the usual surfeit of plungers.

Nevertheless, atmosphere this place has not; fluorescent lights just don't dim very effectively, I guess, and you can only squeeze so much comfort out of stacking institutional high-back chairs. Le Soleil is all about the food and, after a few visits, I'm convinced this may be the best Vietnamese joint in Austin.

Le Soleil doesn't do 300 versions of Pho and Bun along with some Chinese throwaways to keep the grandparents happy. Sure, all the standards are here, but the focus is on a larger variety of traditional dishes with simple preparation. I don't know if Le Soleil is really re-thinking Vietnamese, but they are certainly offering up some of the best of what this cuisine has to offer.

Start out with a Vietnamese crepe - I've had the shrimp and chicken twice and can't seem to move on to any of the other configurations. For something like eight bucks, a spread of traditional stuffing, wrapping, and dipping implements is laid out - lettuce, mint, a number of leafy herbs that even our waiter didn't know the English words for, plus fish sauce - all to accompany a hearty, egg-based crepe stuffed with bean sprouts and chunks of shrimp and chicken. Two could probably have this as a meal, but it manages to satisfy without ever seeming heavy.

There is plenty to recommend here, including a cold, tangy Vietnamese beef salad that I could eat every summer day and a rich, deeply flavored beef "cubes" dish whose sauce manages to evoke an almost French heritage (imagine that) in its similarity to a dark demi-glace. I'm uncertain whether a reduction is involved or just a secret alchemy of soy sauce and sugar, but the results are stunning, and the beef is cooked perfectly.

The star of Le Soleil, however, has to be the clay pots. Maybe I'm just a sucker for burnt rice in earthenware (I can never get enough dol sot bi bam bap, whenever I can find a good one at a Korean place), but the clay pot dishes here are an object lesson in dirt-simple yet spectacularly flavorful comfort food. Rice, straw mushrooms, a meat or fish, and some soy sauce and black pepper is about all that goes in here, and it is perfect. Earthy and aromatic, Le Soleil's clay pots will tempt you to gobble them up in minutes, but it's really best to let them site for a little while and develop that wonderful chewy rice "crust" on the outside, then go at it with a spoon. You'll be scraping the sides for the next half hour.

Highly recommended.

Posted by brentbuford at 09:54 PM | Comments (0)