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Sadly, the salad is now off ChoLon's menu. But Symensma replaced it with something equally clever and delicious: a charcuterie board, meant to be deconstructed banh mi, that artfully arranged the traditional elements of this Vietnamese street-food sandwich — bread, pâté, shaved meat, mayonnaise, pickles and microgreens — in a way that very much belonged on a special-occasion table. The crisp, delicate toast points; peppery, bacon-wrapped duck terrine; whipped, decadently creamy foie gras and chicken-liver pâté, all sprinkled with salt, were balanced by the crunch of lightly pickled carrots and daikon radishes, as well as the sharp nip of a Chinese mustard-mayonnaise specked with micro cilantro.

The Kaya toast was another smart starter. Griddled slices of thick white bread glazed with coconut jam came with a light, ethereal egg cloud, made by whipping eggs with milk, cooking them sous vide and then aerating them with a nitrous charge. You dipped the toast in the cloud, and the sweet jam played off the savory egg and the crunchy toast harmonized with the foamy dip; the combination created the best, most delicate French toast ever. Like everything else on the menu, the Kaya toast has a backstory: Symensma was inspired by a simple Singaporean snack of bread spread with sweet coconut jam, sometimes plated with a runny poached egg. The egg-cloud innovation was a way to make the dish both shareable and more refined. Symensma also refined the beef tartare, which several servers singled out as a personal favorite. The small chunks of raw beef had been studded with fried shallots for crunch and formed into a rectangle, then doused with a generous squeeze of lime. I spread the beef on tapioca puffs, which were like rice cakes practically bursting with air, then smeared on sharp mustard; the result was an elegant example of how strong elements can be balanced. And I saw that again with the black pepper short rib entree, which pitted the bone-in, fork-tender honeyed beef against baked pineapple, dry on the outside and moist within, and earthy carrot foam.

My own favorite was the stir-fried Brussels sprouts, which recalled another Southeast Asian staple, larb salad, traditionally prepared by cooking cabbage, minced pork and fish sauce thickened by rice powder in a wok. Wanting to use seasonal Colorado produce, Symensma substituted crisply sautéed sprouts, which happened to play perfectly off the finely chopped, spice-infused pork. To give the dish a textural element similar to larb without making it sticky, he sprinkled puffed rice over the mix after it came out of the wok. He also added a few fried kaffir lime leaves, which were as sweet as artificial flavoring on the first nibble but gradually permeated the tastebuds with a bitter pineyness, adding a depth of flavor along with a significant crunch.

Location Info

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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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Over several meals at ChoLon, just two things on the menu, the green curry and the Chinese fried rice, left me less than enthralled; tellingly, they were the most straightforward versions of those dishes you might find at restaurants on South Federal Boulevard, with few Symensma flourishes. Although the kitchen made the green curry from scratch using all of the right ingredients, including ginger, lemongrass and galangal, it lacked the intricate layers of spice, earthiness, savoriness and sweetness that you find in a truly great curry. The thin curry tasted just faintly grassy; it wasn't helped by the rubbery cubes of firm tofu, which failed to soak up what little flavor there was. And while the fried rice had been punched up by peppery Chinese sausage and slices of red chiles, then pulled together by the cascading yolk of a poached egg, the rice was heavy and oily — a sign that it wasn't dry enough when it went into the wok.

But any disappointments were erased by the sight of the dessert doughnuts. They came piled five high next to a rich, caramel-y Vietnamese coffee ice cream, their sugared, golden-brown crusts enclosing warm, air-pocketed pastry. On the frenetic streets of Hanoi, I'd seen women carrying wide baskets filled with similar doughnuts, threaded on sticks; they'd smile at the tourists, seducing them into buying the treats while dodging motorcycles.

And sitting in ChoLon's elegant dining room, surrounded by chattering diners —making deals, falling in love or lust, haggling over who was going to pay the check — I was suddenly transported back to the life-affirming bustle of a Southeast Asian market.

Which is exactly where Symensma wanted me.

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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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