Old Saigon at ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro
My strange aversion to the smell of some Asian restaurants dates back to my glamour days as an advertising exec in Manhattan, when I was barely eking out a living and my lifestyle was a lot more like Dick Whitman's than Don Draper's. I lived with three roommates in a shoebox over a Chinese restaurant. On Monday, the restaurant's owner would sell large boxes of mystery food for five dollars — which I could stretch into an entire week's worth of dinners. And while my roommates and I came down with food poisoning more than once, we still were there every Monday, Abe Lincoln in hand.
This was not chef Lon Symensma's New York restaurant. After working at two Michelin two-star restaurants in France, Symensma traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia and China; opened Jean-Georges in Shanghai; then headed back to New York, where he worked at Spice Market and in 2006 became executive chef of Buddakan, last year's ninth-highest-grossing restaurant in America, according to Restaurants & Institutions. But he left that to move to Denver, of all places, and start ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro, a lovely, sleek spot that opened October 5 in the Sugarcube building. And unlike so many Asian restaurants, ChoLon smells of nothing but promise.
I sat down at the beautiful bar, an eight-inch-thick piece of carved walnut, and gazed at the shelves of liquor, set in front of beautiful glass etched with waving strands of grass and damask-patterned tile. The sound system played a musical selection that ranged from Johnny Cash to the Clash to Billy Idol; behind me, the oversized windows offered a good view of the traffic on Blake Street and all the people who weren't smart enough to be in this place. All in all, ChoLon looked and smelled nothing like my old Manhattan neighbor, and the drink menu contained none of the archetypal Asian cocktails (think Singapore Slings and lychee martinis). I first went with the Vin Pearl ($10), made with 10 Cane rum, coconut nectar, lemongrass, pineapple and a Ron Zacapa dark rum float; for all the fancy ingredients, it still tasted like any fruity rum punch. So I decided to try the Old Saigon ($12) made with Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, muddled Thai basil, Luxardo cherries and housemade bitters. The drink was as eclectic as the soundtrack, and just as satisfying. Taking another sip, I settled back on my stool and realized I'd found my new favorite drink, and my new favorite Asian restaurant. Welcome to the neighborhood, Lon.
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