Cafe Society

ChoLon presents Southeast Asian market cuisine with an upscale twist

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.

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.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk