Dining

Review: ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro

May 2011

ChoLon

Food:
Service:
Ambience:

1555 Blake St., Suite 101, 303-353-5223, cholon.com

The Draw Artfully prepared, Asian-inspired cuisine served in a vibrant downtown space.

The Drawback Dishes can arrive too quickly, which makes you feel rushed, or too slowly, which makes you feel forgotten.

Don’t Miss Sweet onion and Gruyère soup dumplings; chile crab rolls; lobster siu mai; green curry tofu; spiced doughnuts with Vietnamese coffee ice cream.

Price $$ (The menu is built around shared plates ranging from $7 to $27; average price: $14)

Last fall, when Lon Symensma opened ChoLon, his upscale homage to Southeast Asian cuisine, local foodies rejoiced. Here was a chef with pedigree—his resumé includes Spice Market and Buddakan in New York, Jean Georges Shanghai, and Michelin-starred restaurants in France and Spain—who chose Denver as home for his first restaurant. It was hard knowing what to be more excited about: what ChoLon was going to offer, or what the restaurant’s arrival said about Denver’s dining scene.

In short, my expectations were high, and they inched even higher the first time I walked into the polished, modern space in LoDo. With an open kitchen, high ceilings, a minimalist Asian aesthetic, and lighting that has been given as much thought as the food, the space—in a word—beckoned.

ChoLon is chic, but not snooty. Upscale, but comfy. And while the food is seriously crafted, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. That’s because much of the menu is built around what is commonly considered street food, including dumplings, pot stickers, spring rolls, and wok dishes. It’s hard to get all fancy when you’re spearing, dipping, chopsticking, and splitting everything on the table.

Symensma, 34, spent a year traveling through southern China, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam and fell in love with the cultures and cuisines. With ChoLon, he’s taken the flavors and fragrances of the region—lemongrass, green curry, coconut, ginger—and blended them in a menu that respects traditional preparations but infuses them with modern sensibilities, including French accents and emulsions.

His menu is broken into four categories, and to fully experience ChoLon, you should order something from each.

For small bites, each dish has been engineered to pack a lot of flavor into singular, appetite-inducing morsels. Start with the soup dumplings, a mini-masterwork in which Symensma combines deeply caramelized sweet onion, an intense sherry-and-thyme-enhanced beef broth, and nutty Gruyère to bring a distinctly French twist to the Shanghai dumpling. Bite into them, and you’ll experience a warm rush of sweet and cheesy onion soup followed by the delicate chewiness of the dumpling exterior. You will want more than the customary order of four delivers. Move on to the curried duck spring rolls, and find a light and crispy shell surrounding warm, shredded duck that begs to be slid through the cool cilantro yogurt. Opt for the pork belly pot stickers, and encounter chewy bites of meaty goodness that grow lively when plunged into the sweet-hot ginger mustard. The textures, flavors, and heat of the small bites are so well balanced, you’ll be hard pressed to name a favorite.

Once your taste buds have been revved, move on to the small plates. The lemongrass and beet salad is an artistic tumble of frisée and butter lettuce, crunchy candied walnuts, earthy beet cubes, and tangy blue cheese. The bright lemongrass plays well against the cheese and puts an aromatic, Far East spin on what has become a ubiquitous Western starter. Bites of this salad reveal the care and detail with which Symensma views every dish. For a richer second course, go for the silky foie gras, which is among the best I’ve had in Denver, served with a rustic, bacon-wrapped duck terrine and brittle toast points.

Wok dishes and large plates offer more substantial fare, although no dish can be considered heavy. Instead, the larger portions allow Symensma to showcase the fresh and assertive Asian flavors. In the green curry tofu, for example, cubes of smooth tofu are combined with knobby cauliflower and fingerling potatoes in a traditional coconut curry broth pierced with ginger, kaffir lime, garlic, and green Thai chiles. The Australian sea bass, served with crunchy, wok-tossed bok choy and water chestnuts, is another winner—one nicely accented by the heat of red chile paste and the sharp, heady fragrance of cilantro. And on a menu where stylish dishes compete with one another like models on a catwalk, the black pepper short rib is a standout. The fork-tender rib meat, coated with a sticky house-made kecap manis (similar to a sweet soy sauce, only thicker), forms the dish’s hearty anchor. But it’s the accompaniments—the spirited slices of dried pineapple topped with fuzzy orange balls of carrot foam—that will grab your attention.

The wok and large-plate categories are as finely crafted as the rest of the menu—however, timing and service issues have prevented me from fully enjoying these dishes. On each visit, servers recommended ordering everything at once. I followed their advice twice, and both times the latter courses arrived well before we had finished the starters. Crowded tabletop aside, it also meant the food—by the time we got to it—had cooled significantly. Case in point: the egg noodles, scallops, and calamari I’d been looking forward to had grown cold and gummy.

Hoping to avoid this scenario on my third visit, I requested the courses be more evenly spaced. Unfortunately, the server—by her own admission—forgot to place the latter orders, and we found ourselves waiting a good 40 minutes for the entrées to arrive.

Thankfully, none of the service issues prevented us from ordering dessert, all of which are sweet and satisfying without the belly-filling richness that so often accompanies the final course. The five-spice doughnuts served with cool, chickory-accented Vietnamese coffee ice cream were especially addictive. For chocoholics, there’s a chocolate cake served hot with a molten center, cubes of light, homemade marshmallow, and a cylindrical scoop of creamy peanut ice cream. The ice cream, which starts smooth, becomes a bit salty, and ends on a sweet, nutty note, may surprise you. And you’ll likely be thinking about its salty-sweet contrast all the way home.

If it weren’t for the inconsistent pacing, ChoLon would have lived up to—and perhaps even exceeded—all the hype. When evaluated on its own, ChoLon is upscale, urban, and understated in all the right ways. But if you analyze ChoLon for what it says about Denver, it says our tastes have matured—that ethnic cuisine is no longer the province of strip-mall storefronts, but something that deserves all the attention it’s getting. It says, in short, that we’ve arrived.