Chef Lon Symensma's energy level clocks in somewhere between a welterweight boxer and a young kid on a sugar rush; he's always moving, always looking at things from several angles at once. After launching two restaurants this year, Concourse Restaurant Moderne (which made our list of the best new restaurants this year) and Kaya Kitchen (inside Avanti Food & Beverage), the chef is already strategizing his next moves, but this time he won't have to move far. Longtime vacancies in the Sugar Cube building, where his first eatery, ChoLon Modern Asian (1555 Blake Street), resides have been in his sights for some time, and now he's moving in on them, aiming for an August 2018 opening of two new projects.
Those two will be Kaya Asian Cafe, a breakfast-and-lunch version of Kaya Kitchen, and Leroux, a pan-European eatery named after one of Symensma's former instructors at the Culinary Insitute of America in New York. They'll take over the space facing the 16th Street Mall next to ChoLon where H Burger closed way back in 2013, along with additional square footage along the alley between the Sugar Cube and Illegal Pete's.
"We're really homing in on the breakfast aspect of Kaya," Symensma explains of the first concept. So along with delicious Malaysian-style kaya toast (which you may have treated yourself to at Avanti, or you should), there will also be breakfast banh mi and other morning fare inspired by all of Southeast Asia. Kaya will close after lunch so that it can serve as private dining space for ChoLon next door. So how will a fast-casual lunch counter integrate into the much more upscale ChoLon? Symensma explains that he has hired design firm Semple Brown to oversee an update to his first restaurant's dining room so that it will meld with the design of Kaya. "Most notably," he adds, "we're going to drop in a completely soundproof ceiling at ChoLon."
As for LeRoux, Symensma describes it as a similar idea to ChoLon, where iconic dishes from around Asia are reinterpreted though a modern, creative viewpoint. Think about those famous French onion soup dumplings at ChoLon as an example, and then apply the same logic to the cuisine of Southern France, Italy and Germany and hyper-local regions like Alsace and Provence.
"I'm telling a story here," the chef continues. "Before I even knew what Asian food was, I was knee-deep in Escoffier. I spent my time in Europe getting my ass kicked. I was nineteen, twenty years old and these guys were pushing for three Michelin stars — and I was having pans thrown at me."
Before coming to Denver, Symensma worked and staged his way through legendary kitchens like Arzak in Spain and those of Paul Bocuse in France, thanks to connections made by Daniel Boulud in New York City (for whom he also worked). So French technique was drilled into him from a young age. "But I don't want to pigeonhole myself," he says. Like the family-style plating at ChoLon, he says that LeRoux will offer "family-style plates featuring European flavor profiles." So you may find schnitzel or gnocchi, for example, but don't expect the same old stodgy fare that has made other Continental restaurants little more than museums of stagnant cuisine.
Like a boxer circling his opponent in the ring, Symensma is taking jabs at the often uninspiring culinary offerings on the 16th Street Mall. It's a dust-up that needs to happen, and it comes from someone who's already proven he knows how to win.
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