As I write this, ChoLon is preparing to celebrate its one-year Denver anniversary, so I thought it about time to stop in to see what chef-owner and James Beard nominee Lon Symensma is up to.
A lunch meeting provided the perfect excuse to get to know the Asian bistro that helped put Denver on the culinary map. On the day I arrived, Denver weather was hot and steamy, not Southeast Asia monsoon muggy, but steamier than usual. My first impression of ChoLon was cool, but it wasn’t the air conditioning, a Zen-like calm settled in as the hostess walked me to a window table.
The dark woods, slate floors and minimalist Asian décor said serene. Though Symensma has a history at Jean Georges Spice Market and Buddakan in New York, ChoLon’s décor said San Francisco. It was just what I needed to shed some Denver tension. My rest was short-lived. When my dining companion arrived, the meeting of two jumped to three, and the hostess seamlessly moved us to a bigger table. My Zen was back. The atmosphere wasn’t lost on my tablemates—they too felt a peace and calm, but also excitement to dig into the menu.
I heard that ChoLon has great cocktails, but I appreciated the nonalcoholic drink menu for a lunch business meeting. We opted for three varieties—a simple iced green tea, a sweetish Vietnamese iced tea and a roasted beet, lime and ginger concoction. They were fresh and light, a perfect start to the meal. The drinks came with the restaurant’s signature black sesame puffed rice cake, balanced in a stand like an antique Asian platter, and a deeply red dipping sauce with a smashing kick. It is an instant mood setter that made everyone smile.
According to one of Symensma’s ChoLon TV videos (a nice online touch), he built the restaurant with the single ambition in mind, to avoid taste-bud boredom. Our first taste of ChoLon dishes did not bore—Kaya Toast with Coconut Jam, Egg Cloud, Curried Duck Spring Rolls with Cilantro Yogurt, Cheese Steak Wontons with Raclette Fondu and Rib Eye Satay with Hong Kong Steak Sauce.
Traditional Kaya Toast is a gently toasted bread with coconut jam, dipped in a softly boiled egg and drizzled with salty dark soy sauce. ChoLon’s Kaya egg is a take on the traditional, but the egg is slow-cooked and forced through a nitrous oxide whipped cream dispenser, which creates frothy loose custard. The thick bread is coated with a coconut jam. Our taste buds were rapt by the captivating combination of the airy custard and the sweet floral jam.
The spicy curried duck rolls contrasted nicely with the cool cilantro yogurt and the vinegary steak sauce and beef satays, presented upright on sticks, were an impressive presentation. I particularly liked the Raclette cheese sauce with the cheese steak wontons. Raclette’s nutty flavor pairs well with beef, and use of this often overlooked cheese revealed Symensma’s familiarity with European cuisines.
Our next courses included the Vietnamese French Dip with ChoLon Mortadella and Phô Jus and Green Papaya Salad with Tamarind Sorbet. The French Dip at ChoLon is another European take on a familiar dish.This time Bánh mi, a widely popular Vietnamese baguette sandwich traditionally made with pork or headcheese and pickled vegetables. The beefy-onion Phô jus was a flavor I would taste again later at dinner in a signature ChoLon dish.
The green papaya salad was Asian art on a plate. A clear shelf of tomatoes, cashews, candied ginger and bean sprouts balanced over a bowl of julienne shards of green papaya, green beans and cabbage. The quenelle-shaped scoop of tamarind sorbet was a surprising change-up in texture and a soothing contrast to the heat and crunch in the salad. The salad summed up my afternoon, cool, clean and refreshing.
During my second visit, it could have been in a different restaurant, ChoLon hangs out a party lantern in the evening and Denver shows up ready to partake in the fun. Unlike lunch, when the pace was relaxed, evening rolled on at a higher RPM. Every table was filled. Conversations from couples, girls-night-out groups of friends, and families filled the room with a cacophony of sound, much like any other big-city Asian restaurant in this country or nearer to Vietnam’s parallel 17.
The waiters, sporting the same sexy, just out of bed hairstyle as Symensma, worked the room quickly filling the large tables with small plates. But as the evening went on, they seemed to get caught up in the activity. Plate transitions were brusque and the service pacing became erratic. The timing of small plates takes a great deal of orchestration, patience and communication between the kitchen, the staff and the customers. If you get it wrong, it shows. It seemed that efficiency turned to curt impatience. It was particularly evident when a waiter stood nearby impatiently with a water pitcher waiting for a person in my party to finish drinking.
In between the rush of plate clearing, we took a deep breath and tried to focus on the food. I added a couple of new dishes to those I’d already tried. Sea-fresh Chili Crab Rolls, with charred-corn salad and spicy Sriracha mayonnaise was a smoky-hot combo of flavors with a sweet Southern-American influence.
A signature dish, sweet onion, Gruyere soup encased in soft dumpling skins was meltingly good—they recalled a food memory from the French Dip Pho jus I’d had for lunch. I tried the French onion soup dumplings with the Raclette fondue (leftover from a plate of cheese steak wontons) and liked the combination better than the wontons.
From the Wok Menu, the Stir-Fried Brussels Sprouts with Ground Pork and Mint won over all the women at the table, and even a few men who usually avoid the bitter baby cabbages. Bits of puffed rice and fried kaffir lime leaves gave the dish an added crunch and a subtle reminder of its inspiration, Thai larb. It was so good that it was hard to imagine that larb lovers and chefs hadn’t thought of it already.
To go with the sprouts, we ordered the “Porkerhouse,” a pork steak that was as large (and as pricey at $25) as any ala carte beef Porterhouse I’d seen recently. A garnish of watermelon cubes, infused with pure heat, caught some off-guard with the intensity of the spice, but the meat was tender and the glaze was a good match for the meaty steak. A heat-lover in our party declared the spicy yet traditional Kung Pao Chicken as the best dish of the evening for its firecracker flavor.
For dessert, we shared a pyramid of spiced doughnuts, with Vietnamese coffee ice cream and Vietnamese coffee. The dessert was delightful, but the coffee was the main topic of conversation. It was served in a cup with a traditional filter called a Phin. We watched the coffee slowly drip, drip, drip into the cup. The server warned it would take as long as five minutes, she was right.
The only dish that didn’t meet expectations was the evening wok special, a long bean noodle dish. It had a thick, gummy consistency that was surprisingly bad, especially since it seemed to be the easiest dish to prepare among all that we ordered.
Symensma came to Denver under a spotlight of New York anticipation. His culinary resume was like few other Denver chefs experience in two-star Michelin restaurants and at the Arzak in San Sebastian in Spain, as well as mentoring from Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz. Did he live up to the expectation? I would say yes. Service pacing aside, ChoLon is a highly inventive and fun addition to the Denver restaurant scene.
I also agree with Symensma that his restaurant is not Asian-fusion, a word he called the f-word in a Bon Appétit magazine interview. The over-used term implies blending, a whisking of two cuisines. ChoLon is all Asian with a cool breeze of influence from American and European cuisine. It will be interesting to see how Symensma’s travels and mentors further influence his talent, and to see how Symensma further elevates Denver’s growing food credentials.
ChoLon | 1555 Blake St., Ste 101, Denver | 303.353.5223 | cholon.com