Cafe Society

John Holly’s 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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan