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Restaurant Tours: Vietnamese bistro does it up royal

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I never imagined that a little French Vietnamese storefront restaurant could make me feel like a member of the British aristocracy. I've always wanted to be waited on like one of the upstairs crowd on Upstairs Downstairs. I wouldn't even mind being a royal. So what if Charles is a bit of a twit? I've put up with plenty of twits in my time, and it would have been a lot more pleasant with Di's clothes allowance.

The china at Le Bistro wasn't bone china, the chairs weren't antiques, and nobody called me Mum, but at least there were white linen tablecloths and flowers, and each course was served separately with fresh plates and cutlery at the precise moment we were ready for it. My hairdresser John told me that on his first visit he'd had the thrilling thought that perhaps the staff had mistaken him for Queen Elizabeth.

The service wasn't the only favorable surprise. I can't recall the last time I didn't have to strain to hear my dinner companions: I've been developing a theory that all the local eateries play a tape of restaurant noise over hidden speakers to give the impression they're packed.

It isn't that I care so much what's being said at my own table, although unlike my married friends I don't find it excruciatingly boring, but that I'm afraid I'll miss something at the next table. I'll never forget the time I sat near a man who was having lunch with his mistress when his wife walked in and confronted them. Both women started screaming at the man. He finally walked out and they ended up eating together. I've always wondered which one of them picked up the check.

Conversation at Le Bistro was nothing to write home about but the food, or most of it anyway, was just plain sensational. Although a recalcitrant Laney refused to go with me because she thought it would be too spicy, most of the dishes were fairly mild. The waitress offered to have the chef make them spicier if we wanted, and there was also a bowl of hot sauce on the table. At any rate, Laney could have ordered from the American menu section, which features steaks, fish, and Laney's favorite, broiled filet of chicken breast ($8.95).

The egg rolls ($2.95) were the best we'd ever tasted. The mushu vegetables ($5.95) came prerolled in perfect little pancake tubes, with an exceptional plum peanut sauce.

And then there was the papaya salad ($6.25), young green papaya shredded with raw carrots, topped with pork and shrimp, and delicately spiced with cilantro. I've never liked anything that wasn't fattening before. I had to check to make sure those little dark specks were actually cilantro and not chocolate sprinkles.

A main course of batter-fried shrimp ($7.95) came with a creamy sauce on a bed of lettuce. The Dungeness crab ($14.95 for the small/$18.95 for the large) consisted of cracked crab claws sauteed with onions and butter, with white rice on the side. One friend found it a little dry, but the rest of us thought it sweet and gooey and enjoyed it thoroughly, especially accompanied by French Vietnamese beer.

Our dessert consisted of fried bananas and baked bananas with coconut milk and chopped peanuts ($1.25 each). I ended up pouring the custardy baked bananas over the fried ones, a double treat.

Le Bistro's owner, Julie Mai, is one of its main attractions. She pitches right in, checking to see that the service is all it should be, explaining the menu to neophytes, and encouraging customers to special-order. Her only concession to the inherent sloppiness of her native cuisine was a black leather skirt. Black leather can survive anything; ask the Hell's Angels. General conversation revealed that she and I shared the same hairdresser. In fact, she said that back when he was sick and had refused to cut my hair, he had managed to cut hers. (Later I asked him about it and he said she'd brought dinner over. Easy for her, she owns a restaurant. I'd had to whip up a bread pudding blinded by bangs a sheep dog couldn't see through.)

Julie, perhaps sensing I was a bit miffed, sent over another order of fried bananas and a complimentary combination hot-pot soup ($10.95), a delectable melange of seafood and vegetables floating in a mildly spicy sweet and sour broth.

I returned for a second visit, this time accompanied by John. Although John said the frequent fresh plates were the norm, initially the service wasn't as good, and we ended up with the usual Oriental restaurant flavor medley, everything running together. Hell hath no fury like a woman with a bad haircut; maybe John had screwed up.

It wasn't until after the papaya salad, a rather uninteresting lemon beef salad ($6.95), and a small crab that fresh plates began to appear with each course. And when we said we'd like to sample a few dishes, the poor waitress couldn't keep up with Julie's offerings any more than our appetites could. We tried a marvelous orange chicken, cut in chunks and sauteed with orange peel in a sweet sauce ($7.95); some rather limp noodles mixed with vegetables and seafood ($8.95); the same hot-pot soup; shrimp sauteed with garlic in Satay sauce ($7.95), very good and definitely spicy.

For the cost of a couple of reasonably priced meals, Le Bistro once again made me feel pampered, cosseted, and coddled. Located at 5004 N. Sheridan, Le Bistro is open six days a week from 10 to 10. They are closed Monday, and they do take reservations. A small room in the back is available for private parties. For more information call 784-6000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Phara Fisco.

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