John Hollys Asian Bistro
I'd been to John Holly's Asian Bistro before. Several times. Since it opened three years ago, I've eaten in the slick, smooth dining room, waited in the entry for takeout orders of Yushan pork, steamed vegetables and sushi. But I never thought about reviewing the place until I spoke with chef John Ye a couple of months ago (Bite Me, November 16) and found myself completely enthralled by his commitment, his loud dedication, his total candor about what it takes to operate a successful kitchen, and his unqualified obsession with food. Food is what this man loves, first and foremost. All food. Any food. Chinese food in particular, but not exclusively. Chinese food or Japanese food or American food: People will eat what they're offered, as long as what they're offered is good.
Ye has cooked all over, but he's spent the past few years in this Lone Tree spot owned by John Holly, who's had an interest in everything from Mao to Little Ollie's to the John Holly's on Downing Street. Food is what fills Ye's every waking hour, and when he goes to bed at night, food is what he dreams about. "I have no time for anything else," he told me. He's at the restaurant every day, in the kitchen or on the floor. From morning 'til night, he focuses on his food first, his customers second -- and everything else a distant, almost vanishing, third.
After our conversation, I realized it was time to venture once again into the wilds of Park Meadows, that shining utopia of big-box consumerism scaled to serve tens of thousands of shoppers, punters and looky-loos daily, with its emphasis on lowest common denominators and broad-spectrum demography. The unchecked capitalism of those surroundings and Ye's uncompromising mania regarding his culinary mission seemed mutually exclusive; I wanted to see how a Chinese restaurant with a Chinese/Japanese/Amerasian menu, a Chinese galley and Chinese operators would work within the manifest borders of the American Dream.
The answer: not well at all -- but also better than I could have imagined.
Standing at the door a few weeks ago waiting on a table, I heard a person who'd come in behind me assure a member of his party that she was going to love the Thai-style duck. Half a duck, roasted, crispy, with razor-sharp Thai chili sauce -- it wasn't the Peking duck you'd find at most sit-down Chinese restaurants (though Peking duck is also available) and it certainly wasn't sesame chicken, but a very different, interesting choice for this restaurant. Asian duck preparations are not easy. They require time, require kitchen space, require a trust that customers are actually going to order the damn things so that at the end of the night, the joint isn't stuck with a lowboy full of wrapped, portion-controlled, unsold dead ducks.
And here were those customers, not yet seated, not even looking at a menu, but talking about the duck as if they'd all been here before and eaten their fill and enjoyed every bite. That gave me hope. I love hearing people who look forward to their meals, who know exactly what they want and are eager to get at it. Those people are proof that a restaurant is doing its job -- no matter what kind of food it serves.
Part of its job, at least. Because before that food arrives, the rest of John Holly's is a complete disaster.
While I waited, I noticed that the servers all had the look of barely contained insanity -- as though at any moment, one of them might leap up onto a table, slap a rice bowl on his head and start doing a scene from Madame Butterfly. To a man or woman, they were rushing around the crowded floor, almost jogging between tables. Some were panting, rolling their eyes; all were constantly apologizing to their customers for this or that. And on the far side of the dining room, at a table catty-corner from the pass window of the line, the cooks were...eating lunch? I had to look twice to make sure, but yes. They were eating a staff meal, filling plates from a communal pot of something, five or six of them grabbing a bite while a couple of others poked around on the line. I could see them through the pass, and they exhibited none of the panicked rush of the floor. In fact, they didn't exhibit much activity at all.
I finally was seated at a table with no silver, no napkins, no plates. I ordered appetizers -- spring rolls and lobster spring rolls and miso soup -- and before I could ask about an entree, my server wandered off, slouching away in the general direction of the back of the house, taking his ink-stained pockets and food-stained cuffs with him.
The food, when it arrived, did so sporadically. Slouchy McGee came back with drinks, and I pinned him down long enough to order honey shrimp as an entree. My dining companions asked for basil chicken (one of the house specials) and chicken lo mein -- pretty simple stuff. The spring rolls and lobster spring rolls appeared almost instantly. An extra order of egg rolls never found its way to our table. The soup came only after two of us were almost finished with our meals. I ended up eating honey chicken (like sesame chicken without the sesame seeds, glazed about an inch thick in pure, sugary, syrupy sweetness, and tasty in a rapid-onset diabetes kind of way) in lieu of the honey shrimp I'd ordered. The server forgot our lo mein, and when it came -- fifteen minutes after the last of our entrees but still before the soup -- it was cold. We were never given chopsticks, took napkins off an unoccupied table, and had to ask (twice) for silver that was finally brought by the fistful and left for us to sort out.
But while we waited, we had plenty to talk about. We joked about the service and watched other tables devolve into Lord of the Flies-style barbarism -- snarling, stealing food off of other people's plates and eating appetizer garnishes while waiting on orders of tuna tataki that would never arrive. As our own meal started winding down, we made a game of imagining what would happen when we asked our server to pack up our leftovers. He might take our half-finished plates away, but what would he return with? I guessed three chopsticks, a half-eaten spring roll and soup just poured into the bag. Someone else guessed our missing egg rolls, a salt shaker, two time cards and a 1982 Honda Civic.
Mixups aside, the food was decent -- not great, but certainly not bad. We'd ordered fairly benignly, but had been served (eventually) Chinese food that was made with some care and showed a deliberate attempt to skew toward Pac-Rim freshness and away from stale American strip-mall fare. The basil chicken was threaded with sautéed stalks of whole basil -- the herb treated like a green, like spinach or kale, cooked right alongside its attendant protein -- and thus strongly flavored with basil (and black pepper and hot chile powder) at its most potent. And served hot, the lo mein might have been very good as well -- the noodles tender, the chicken in a dark, sweet sauce with a smattering of vegetables.
We weren't the only ones who recognized the kitchen's good intentions. All around us, people were not ordering the sweet-and-sour chicken, the kung pao whatever, instead going for something more adventurous. At the table behind us, I saw a woman who had to be in her nineties -- and sat with an oxygen tank propped against her seat -- eat sushi for the first time. And enjoy it. I saw little kids nibbling gyoza and magura sashimi, saw tables full of Buffys, Biffs and Chets in their designer holiday sweaters spooning up Holly's excellent wonton soup, served family-style in a vat big enough to poach a whole chicken, looking for all the world like the crews of Chinese restaurant cooks and families you see in those neighborhood places along Federal and Alameda, fighting for the last tidbits with their chopsticks.
On my next visit, the service was even worse. The highlights were a waitress who seemed to be suffering from the plague, an appetizer dropped onto the floor and returned to the plate by a waiter, and a sushi-bar crew who seemed to be operating inside some special Zen bubble of calm and competency while chaos reigned all around them.
When I returned yet again, the service on the hugely busy floor was almost comically bumbling -- the same bowl of soup brought to my table three different times by three different servers; blanket apologies for the wait, the pace, the timing of courses, offered to every table by every waiter and waitress, even before they said hello. Still, I had good Singapore rice noodles in a deeply flavorful yellow curry touched with a laser beam of heat; perfectly salted and steamed edamame; a Thunder Roll from the sushi bar that was badly rolled, unevenly cut and ugly as hell but nonetheless delicious, with spicy tuna and a shell of avocado topped with glossy black and salty tobiko. The filet of sea bass in gingered soy was served in two large pieces, glazed with sauce, all bones intact. Prizing them out with my fingernails caused the filets to slide apart into a striated fan -- the flesh buttery, fatty, overpoweringly rich and perfectly cooked.
And again, all around me, diners were going crazy. They were flapping their hands at the waiters, mispronouncing "edamame," asking how the sushi was made, forgoing the moo shu and lemon chicken for miso-glazed tenderloin and Cantonese chow fun, and marveling over flavors coaxed from a simple piece of pork.
This is what John Ye's commitment -- his food obsession and understanding that people will eat the good things you offer them -- has bought. Even though the service is bad, the results are good -- a rare victory for those going at least a little bit bamboo here in the heart of consumer America.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.