To celebrate the end of a formidable week and the beginning of our final two weeks in Colorado, Juliet and I decided to make the drive into Denver last night and partake in one of our most exciting and relaxing endeavors; fine dining Since our trip to Hong Kong and Vietnam in March we tend to have rampant cravings for Asian food and Asian decorum.
Cholon Bistro delivers both with a marked western bent towards excellent service. As habitual restaurant diners and having been in and around the industry for most of my adult life my opinion of a restaurant more and more comes down to service and overall execution. Cholon reminds me of a symphony orchestra getting together for a jam session. In other words, the polish and execution are unquestionably exceptional and yet the team is relaxed, cheerful, and full of life as if no one is watching. This level of joy in the labor of food service and preparation was something I simply have not experienced in our 6 month exploration of Colorado dining. Cholon is simply doing it better than everyone else and it obviously stems from the spirit of executive chef Lon Symensma.
While being seated for our reservation at a 2 top among some of Denver’s well-heeled I immediately noticed 2 places at the chef’s counter in front of the kitchen were available and our hostess was quite pleased to offer them to us. I came to find out over the course of our 2+ hours that we had lucked into the best restaurant seats in Denver. As soon as I sat I noticed that Chef Symensma was calling orders to the line and expediting final plating immediately on my right. In essence, we were seated front and center for the food show and there is no other place we would rather be.
Of course Juliet and I broke out the iPhones and began a photography barrage as soon as we sat and our gracious host and chef commented that he enjoyed what we were doing which set in motion a great back and forth dialog over the course of the meal. It turns our Chef Symensma was trained at the CIA (among many other renowned locales) and had just returned from a 2 week teaching stint at his alma-mater’s Singapore location. It was clear he enjoyed the systems he learned in school and working for the formidable Jean Georges Vongerichten, yet he and his team of high energy chefs were able to find a playfulness in the rigors of french culinary tradition. While Oui Chef was the affirmative used by the team when receiving orders from Symensma, the affected accents, engaging side banter, and obvious respect for the craft made the line seem like the happiest place in the world. This was not a belabored galley from the annals of Kitchen Confidential, this was Santa’s Workshop and we were the kids with the golden tickets (I realize the fantasy misnomer here).
I only once looked back over my shoulder to see the faces of the masses in the dining room behind me. I was later told by a Cholon employee that diners often feel too intimidated to sit at the chef’s counter. I was not surprised to hear this and at the same time I know it will change. Cholon is only a year into its life and Symensma believes Singapore to be the most exciting food city of earth and bringing the experiences of his training to bear on the citizens of Colorado will surely lead to a rush for these seats as word spreads round the country of what is happening here.
Now, for the food! Cholon’s cuisine is inventive and yet completely familiar and comforting (assuming you know and eat Asian food). The culinary team delivers a streamlined menu without confusion, intended to be shared, and executed with aplomb. Juliet and I sat smiling each time our talented server, Hannah, delivered a recommendation or simply asked our thoughts (usually reading our mind). As the pace slowed during the waning business hours the line team began to break the fourth wall and playfully engaged Juliet and I. Their work had been an honest pleasure to watch. I must have seen 200+ plates leave the kitchen and every one of them was consistent, appetizing, and pored over by the chef and his athletic runner.
The wine list was precise and easy to gauge. There were several excellent Rieslings, a lovely Pichot Vouvray, and top flight Sake’. The prices were restaurant fair and certainly in line with the level of service and attention to detail. They also had Saigon beer from Vietnam which makes me happy just to see the label.
This was precisely the meal we needed to get back on our feet after such a tough week. Broths, judicious use of curries, lots of pork belly, and absolutely nothing heavy or heavy-handed made each dish feel like eating in a dream where one is never full and the joy does not cease. The team at Cholon is crazy about food. I chatted with our hostess for a few minutes on the way out and she was quite knowledgeable about the restaurant, the menu, and was ecstatic that we seemed to “get it”. This simply does not happen. How Chef Symensma put this group together is a formula I wish he would bottle and sell. Great meals are like a continuous orgasm without the need for an opiate. This was a great meal and above all, a great experience.