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ChoLon presents Southeast Asian market cuisine with an upscale twist

See photos of the menu options at ChoLon.

ChoLon presents Southeast Asian market cuisine with an upscale twist
Chinese Sausage Fried Rice with a Poached Egg at ChoLon Bistro. See more photos of the menu options at ChoLon.

As the sun rises in the humid sky, a woman draped in a shawl turns over spiky magenta dragonfruit, finally purchases one, peels away the skin and buries her teeth in its gray, kiwi-like flesh. Nearby, a short man in a red cap clutches the feet of two live chickens, a bird hanging from each hand as he weighs them against each other before making a selection and handing a couple of bills to another man who brushes the rejected, squawking bird back into its cage. At a table just beyond that, a woman cleaves a fish with a swift, dull whack, putting a stop to its slippery slapping. Right in front of me, the smell of oil and meat wafts into the morning air as an old woman with silver hair paints batter on a hot, flat surface, then pulls it up with a stick. She takes the translucent pancake and wraps it around pungent minced pork, douses it with a sweet, vinegary sauce, and passes it over to two people sitting on low stools, who eat their breakfast noisily with chopsticks and spoons. And all the while, other shoppers crowd by, chattering in myriad languages, buying, selling, haggling, eating, laughing, living.

It's from one of these Southeast Asian markets — Saigon's Cholon — that ChoLon Bistro draws inspiration.

Lon Symensma had a pretty good gig in New York City. He was the executive chef at Buddakan, a high-end Chinese restaurant that's one of the highest-grossing eateries in the United States. Before landing there, he'd cooked his way through a couple of two-star Michelin joints in France, put in three years at the Spice Market, the acclaimed Jean-Georges Vongerichten eatery in Manhattan, and opened Jean Georges Shanghai. He could have gone anywhere with a reasonable assurance of success. But when he decided to strike out on his own, he came to Denver, because he wanted to be an integral part of a dining scene about to explode and create something young, fresh and collaborative. Something that pulled together all of his restaurant experience, mixing Chinese and French technique in one concept — without doing anything that might be labeled fusion.

Lon Symensma thought Denver was the right place for the ChoLon Bistro concept. See more photos of the menu options at ChoLon.
Mark Manger
Lon Symensma thought Denver was the right place for the ChoLon Bistro concept. See more photos of the menu options at ChoLon.
Chinese Sausage Fried Rice, Poached Egg. See more photos of the menu options at ChoLon.
Chinese Sausage Fried Rice, Poached Egg. See more photos of the menu options at ChoLon.

Location Info

Map

ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro

1555 Blake St., 101
Denver, CO 80202

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: Downtown Denver

Details

ChoLon Bistro
Charcuterie $15
Kaya toast $6
Beef tartare $13
Stir-fried Brussels sprouts $9
Green curry tofu $12
Chinese sausage fried rice $11
Black pepper short ribs $24
1555 Blake Street
303-353-5223
Hours: 11 a.m.-close Monday through Friday, 5 p.m.-close Saturday

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So he looked to Indochina, an absolute mecca of eating, where those two cuisines are woven into the culinary tradition. And after doing some research, he stumbled on Cholon, a massive Chinese market where French colonial architecture surrounds the stalls of vendors who make some of the best street food in the world. "Plus, the market has my name in it," Symensma told me over the phone. "It was fate."

After a three-month research trip, he joined his partner, Jim Deters, in Denver, intending to channel the French, Chinese and Vietnamese fare he'd found at Cholon, the market, into ChoLon Bistro.

But there was a catch. "The last thing you want is for someone to be wishing they were down on Federal, paying half the price for the same dish," said Symensma. Nor would that someone want to eat the dish while perched on a tiny, rickety plastic chair, in a setting that duplicated the market's questionably hygienic accommodations. To succeed, this ChoLon would have to be a fine-dining establishment that somehow captured the charming essence of its inspiration.

For the restaurant's design and decor, the partners came up with an interpretation that's clever as hell. The clay statues, porcelain vases and wooden-ringed chandeliers adorning the otherwise sleek, urban dining room recall artifacts available in Indochinese art shops. A mortar-and-pestle set, the kind used to make green papaya salad in every Southeast Asian market, is displayed in a window; Vietnamese coffee cans on the bar hold chopsticks. All serve as subtle reminders of place without intruding into the seamless flow of a meal at ChoLon.

For their staff, Deters and Symensma chose a professional, well-trained crew who, after an obligatory warm-up period, are quite comfortable imparting their vast knowledge of an innovative menu. Symensma has drawn from his experience and insight to construct a roster of dishes — both large plates that serve as entrees and much less expensive small plates, meant to be shared family-style in another homage to Southeast Asian customs — and given many of them an untraditional twist.

I got my first taste of his culinary creativity a few minutes after I sat down for my first meal at ChoLon and ordered a drink. (I went with a bottle of Tiger, the crappy light beer that's universal in Asia because it provides a refreshing break from the heat without taking the focus away from the food.) A waiter brought a puffed white circle of rice paper leaning against a picture frame to the table. I dipped pieces of the deep-fried cracker into an accompanying dish of sienna-hued sauce, a blend of red peppers and tomatoes imbued with a hint of chile. It was a twist on Malaysian red curry meant to vaguely resemble salsa, and as the thin bits of rice paper dissolved on my tongue, they left behind the light heat of the sauce.

It was an excellent start. From there I moved on to the green papaya salad. In Southeast Asian markets, vendors make this dish with a mortar and pestle, bruising cherry tomatoes and green beans with the blunt stick, crushing in chile peppers, then grating thin, snappy strips of green papaya into the mix and dousing everything with fish sauce and lime. The salad is utterly simple and refreshing, and I thought the versions I'd had at those markets were perfect — but Symensma took the idea to a new level. He preserved the flavor profile of the dish, mixing chiles, fish sauce, lime, green beans, red cabbage and green papaya in a bowl, then placed a thin, clear-plastic rectangle on the rim to hold cherry tomato halves overlaid with bean sprouts with cashews and some candied ginger on the side. But the stroke of brilliance was a scoop of tamarind sorbet — tamarind juice is a common substitute for lime in the salad's traditional preparation — placed in the nest of julienned papaya, which added not just a refreshing, tart sweetness, but an interesting textural and temperature element. Each bite of the salad had a kiss of heat but ended with a cooling, clean finish.

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4 comments
Trhodes
Trhodes

We went for lunch yesterday and it was pretty good. The soup dumplings are cool and freakin good. It's a good place to checkout.

Guest
Guest

Laura: You are now cooking with gas! This is the first time since Sheehan's departure that I have enjoyed reading the restaurant review. Thank you! This piece transports the reader to places beyond a shopping-list menu review. The descriptions of the plates and flavors left me drooling. How good was the review? I now want to go to ChoLon Bistro. Typically, I'm dubious of places that use way too many Iron Chef tricks: plates with brush strokes of sauce, foams, freeze-dried powders sprinkled on stuff, non-edible leaves as decoration, micro-greens dusted everywhere, too-cute plating (papaya salad, satay, spring roll holders), deconstructed stuff that should be left constructed (bahn mi), anally arranged potatoes Anna, sriracha-mayo passed of as 'fusion,' artifact-y decor, and overly-clever word play in restaurant names (ChoLON)... but instead of 'going down to Federal to pay a fraction of the price for the same dish,' I will give the place a try. PS: don't call Tiger beer "crappy" because thats like complaining that the boxed wine doesn't have a high enough Wine Spectator rating; there's a reason both are cheap.

Colfax
Colfax

Thank you for writing this article and providing the fantastic photos! I have reservations for Cho Lon for restaurant week ( my first time dining there). Now I really can't wait!

Mayor
Mayor

It is interesting to say the least. As far as going once a month, I don't know...Too weird for me. But I'm old. I wanted Mexican when I left.

 
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