I'm back after three weeks in northern India -- stay tuned for the highlights (and the lowlights) of the trip -- and realize that I'd forgotten that I'm a food blogger. I'd just purchased a new camera for two big reasons, primarily to (1) capture the colors of India better than my point-and-shoot, and (2) improve my foodtography upon my return from India. I didn't use the camera for foodtography while in India since, well, it's Indian food. How attractive could piles of daal on piles of rice (delicious as they may be) possibly look in the din of flickering florescent lights in restaurants around, say, Old Delhi? But when Four-sides Reynolds invited me to join him and TLR (who recently wept with Mondo Guerra and 600 of his closest friends at the end of this season's finale of Project Runway) for dinner at the hip new place in town, I should have jumped at the opportunity to practice with my new camera.
Alas. I left the camera at home.
My heart sank as dish after dish of the most visually interesting food I'd seen in weeks was delivered from the kitchen to our table, knowing that I had no camera to capture the moment. So now I'm putting my food-writing skills to the test, without the crutch of photos to describe the food. Just as well, since I haven't written about food in the last 3 weeks either. I need the practice.
Let's start with my impressions of the hip new place. When ChoLon Bistro was barely more than a twinkle in Denver's eye, it caused a bit of a stir around town. Mr. Rose's college girlfriend emailed him with news that her grad school roommate's brother was coming to town and hanging up his own shingle. "It will be called ChoLon. It's a modern Asian bistro," Mr. Rose announced to me, knowing it would provoke a reaction. I have long proclaimed that the word "Asian" (or any subset thereof, such as "Thai" or "Japanese" or "Vietnamese") has no business preceding words like "bistro" or "bar & grill." A "bistro" is what I typically think of as being European, particularly, French. A "bar & grill" is American. As much as I love the melting pot that is America, I hate it when the cuisine of eastern and western continents collide, mostly because most chefs do a generally shitty job of it, making things far too sweet and foregoing the flavor complexity of both cuisines. "Cholon? Asian bistro?" I sneered. "Well, I guess we have to try this one out since you practically know the guy."
Who doesn't like saying, "I know that guy" when that guy is the likes of Lon Symensma, Chef-owner of the hotly anticipated, hip, new place in town? Sure, he's my husband's ex-girlfriend's roommate's brother. That puts me at only 4 degrees of separation, which is probably about 2 degrees closer than I am to Kevin Bacon. I am so. Close to. So. Much. Greatness.
So when Four-sides Reynolds invited us to join him at ChoLon, I said, "Yeah, we know that guy. See you there at 7." The friendly hostess gave us a table with a great view of the kitchen, as if we actually did know him.
Four-sides Reynolds and TLR had been planning this dinner for a few days, and TLR had been studying the menu fastidiously. She fixated on the chili crab rolls with charred corn salad and Sriracha mayo. They were scrumptious. The rolls were tender on the outside, with a delightful crunch of corn complimenting the sweet crab meat inside.
After spending three weeks in India where cows are sacred and, therefore, never on the menu, my eyes honed in on the beef tartare with Chinese mustard and tapioca puffs. Unbeknownst to us at the time we ordered, TLR does not eat red meat. Not that she never has, but she chooses not to now (oh, those sweet fuzzy little cows!). So when the plate arrived, adorned with white crisps made of tapioca and dotted with pale yellow Chinese mustard along side a log of luxuriously red beef tartare, she was a little torn. She had never eaten beef tartare. But she decided to give it a try. Yes, that's right. We popped her beef tartare cherry. It was a good way to do it -- it was the perfect opportunity. The tapioca puffs were both visually unique and satisfyingly crispy. The mustard gave just a touch of zing. And the beef melted in my mouth. It was divine.
A little birdie from French Press Memo had tweeted at me: Don't miss the soup dumplings. So we ordered the soup dumplings with sweet onion and gruyere. They were indeed tasty little sacks of French onion soup, disguised as the Shanghainese steamed dumpling, xiao long bao. Xiao long bao is magical to me because a delicious clear broth gushes out of the delicate flour wrapper just before your teeth sink into that tender nugget of minced meat inside. To me, the addition of gruyere takes the magic out of it because the fat of the cheese could act like an impervious Gore-tex jacket, keeping the onion broth inside separate from the steaming flour wrapper, thereby aiding the wrapper by making it less susceptible to dissolving or falling apart in the steamer basket. I tried to explain this to the table. TLR paused respectfully, as if to show she was giving my science due consideration, then announced, "These are awesome. I could eat these all day, every day." She was right -- they were awesome, magic be damned. We all nodded in a moment of silence while we stared at the empty steamer basket longingly.
We had a couple of large plates that did not disappoint either. Of note, the Australian sea bass with wok-tossed boy choy and water chestnuts looked and even smelled like sweet and sour -- my biggest fear for the continental collision -- but it turned out to be bursting with flavor, and not sweet and sour at all. It had a plucky bit of spice to it, with whole mustard seeds or maybe coriander seeds and cilantro. The fish was battered and cooked to perfection (though I found the batter to be a tad on the salty side). The water chestnuts and bok choy had a refreshing and complimentary crunch to them. The roast chicken with potatoes anna and soy jus was incredible. The chicken was so tender that you could cut it with a fork. And you could actually taste the potatoes. My mouth waters now, just thinking about it.
As we marveled over the large plates, our server brought us a bowl of the chicken fried rice with poached egg, "Compliments of the Chef." I looked up toward the kitchen and locked eyes with Lon Symensma. I smiled and waved thanks. Fried rice made creamy with the yolk of a perfectly poached egg. Yum. Just yum. Our server came back and asked, "I saw you and the Chef waving at each other. Do you know him?" I blushed. "Um, no," I admitted, "But he's so kind to send us this rice!" Four-sides Reynolds hypothesized that he recognized me from MasterChef. I did my best impression of Gordon Ramsay, confusing our server, who clearly never saw the best show ever to hit FOX television. He mumbled something about refilling our water glasses and shuffled off.
We got some dessert -- I fell in love with the spiced doughnuts with Vietnamese coffee ice cream for the rich flavor and departure from boring chocolate blahbiddy blah.
Now here's where the story turns and 4 degrees of separation became just one degree. Apparently, I confused more than just our server by waving at the Chef. Chef Symensma emerged from the kitchen and appeared at our tableside for a chat. We explained how Mr. Rose knows his sister, welcomed him to Denver, and then gushed about the gorgeous meal until he headed back into the kitchen. If I'd had a camera, I would have taken one last photo, with the Chef. Digital proof that "I know that guy." Well, at least I met him. Proudly.
A hip and inventive restaurant that is completely different from anything else Denver has to offer, ChoLon Bistro dispelled some of the doubts I had about the word "Asian" preceding the word "bistro." And it reminded me that I'm a food blogger in the most delicious way. I'll remember to bring my camera next time.