“Why Denver?” I ask Lon Symensma, executive chef of the forthcoming ChoLon Bistro, as he assembles a green papaya salad. Before answering, the high-profile former New York chef finishes grating the underripe fruit on a mandoline. “Denver is going to be the next up-and-coming food scene,” he says, transferring the papaya to an oversize mortar and pestle (hand-carried back from a recent trip to Vietnam) and tamping it down to release the starches. “I wanted to come here and be a part of something young and growing.”
When Symensma announced several months ago he was trading New York City’s culinary scene for Denver’s, the news was met with disbelief. Why would this promising protégé, who had worked in the kitchens of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Stephen Starr’s Buddakan (where he served upward of 1,100 diners a night), leave the culinary capital of the United States?
“I saw my friends [in New York] starting to dumb down their abilities to fit the economy,” Symensma says, carefully placing a quenelle of tamarind sorbet on the composed salad. “I didn’t want to do that.”
Instead, the 33-year-old chef came to the Mile High City to open his first signature restaurant. The modern Asian bistro, slated to open on the corner of Blake and 16th streets in early October, is named after the largest Chinese-influenced market in Saigon, Vietnam. The menu will showcase Symensma’s intimate knowledge of Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisine. And while the roots of the dishes will be traditional (thanks to Symensma’s extensive travels throughout Southeast Asia and posts at Jean Georges Shanghai), Symensma adds twists to make the flavors and presentation distinctive.
Even so, Symensma wants the restaurant to be approachable. Take the prices: The most expensive item on the menu—the grilled New York strip “au poivre” with young carrots and dried pineapple—is just $28, and most of the menu hovers around $11. Without a doubt, the food will be thrilling, but Symensma says it will be accessible, too. “I’m not jaded by New York,” he says. “If my mom [who lives in Indiana] came here to eat, there’s nothing she wouldn’t be able to understand.”
1555 Blake St., Suite 101, 303-353-5223, www.cholon.com