ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro
A few months prior to our trip to Denver, my husband and I sat down at the computer and put together a short list of places we wanted to see, things we wanted to do, and some restaurants that we were interested in. As our trip approached, we started planning in earnest, making final decisions on where we would go and what we would do. Somehow, in the shuffle of all of the planning, this list that we had made months earlier escaped our minds. When it came time to plan meals, which is what I was really concerned about, I started scouring the internet to try and find places that I thought that all four of us might like to try while in Denver. I came across a lot of recommendations for a particular restaurant serving Asian cuisine that I thought might be good since I knew my husband and I liked Asian food, but also knew that my sister-in-law and brother-in-law were fans of as well. After looking at the restaurant’s menu online, I told my husband that no matter what, I wanted to try this place out. He agreed, but said that we should play it by ear as to when we’d go there depending upon what was going on during the course of a given day. The funny thing is, a few days before we flew out to Denver, I found the list that my husband and I worked on, and decided to look through it. What do you know, the same Asian restaurant was on the list that we made months beforehand, I just hadn’t remembered. This must mean I really wanted to try it if I came up with the idea to try out this restaurant on two separate occasions.
ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro is a highly acclaimed restaurant located in the LoDo (Lower Downtown) section of Denver. Situated at the end of the very popular 16th Street Pedestrian Mall, the restaurant is an eclectic mix of modern industrial restaurant with tranquil, hip interior decorations and a lovely outdoor patio. The restaurant is the brain child of a husband and wife team located in Denver, along with the wife’s longtime friend and fellow chef whom she met 13 years ago while they were both doing fellowships at the Culinary Institute of America. The chef, who has worked under the guidance of some of the world’s top chefs at some of the world’s most renowned restaurant, including a period of time in which he traveled extensively through Southeast Asia before returning to New York City to ply his trade, had always talked about creating a restaurant with the wife and her new husband. So, the chef decided to relocate to Denver, and the three of them came up with the idea to create a restaurant called “ChoLon” which translates to “big market” and pays homage to the largest Chinese spice market found in Saigon. This family style restaurant has a menu that “features inspired interpretations of traditional Asian dishes” which encourages guests to come together and share.
The restaurant’s menu appears to be limited in-depth, but believe me, not in flavor. They may only make a few items, but they do these few items extremely well. The menu is designed to be family style with a number of small bites, or appetizers, all of which come in servings of 4, perfect for four people, a number of salads and soups, a selection of larger plates, more like entrees, and then a collection of dishes from the wok, which serve more like side dishes to meals. Our waiter had indicated to us that for a party of 4, 7-9 dishes shared between us would be appropriate with some small bites, some plates and some from the wok dishes mixed together. After looking through the menu, we were able to agree on a number of plates, and after placing our order, the food began to roll in. Each dish seemingly more impressive than the previous dish.
But before dinner could begin, we were presented with what the waiter called ChoLon’s version of the traditional chips and dip you’d find at some other restaurants. In this case, the chip was a large rice paper cracker with black sesame seeds, and the dip was a spicy tomato chili chutney. The presentation of the large rice paper cracker was dramatic and certainly meant to be shared through the table. The spicy tomato chili chutney was delicious with a hint of spice, but not too overpowering. Within a few minutes, all four of us had devoured the entire rice paper cracker.
First up, of the dishes we ordered, was the soup dumplings. Our waiter had mentioned that this dish was one of the restaurants specialty dishes. And it is the dish that everyone raves about. So, of course, we had to try them for ourselves. Essentially, you have sweet onions and Gruyère cheese stuffed into a traditional Chinese dumpling that is then steamed in a traditional Chinese bamboo bowl and served hot at the table. Translation, you actually have one bite of French onion soup wrapped in a doughy dumpling all to be eaten in one bite! Huh, you may wonder? But trust me, this was probably one of the most creative and amazing dishes I’ve ever tried. How someone even comes up with a dish such as this blows my mind. The bamboo bowl comes to table, steaming hot directly from the steamer. You’re supposed to wait a couple of minutes for it to cool down or else the soup inside will burn your tongue. Then you’re to take the entire dumpling and eat it in one bite. When you pick up the dumpling, you can feel that it’s liquidy inside as the dumpling kind of rolls around and doesn’t have much shape. When you pop it in your mouth, you can taste the doughy consistency of the steamed bun. Then you take a bite and it’s literally a flavor explosion in your mouth! The sweet and salty French onion soup broth explodes in your mouth in one delicious, concentrated bite. You then get the creamy, melt-in-your mouth sweet onions, and the stringy, nutty Gruyère cheese, all the while getting a hint of the sweet steamed bun which I guess substitutes for the crouton you usually get with French onion soup. I still don’t understand how they put something liquid like soup inside of a dumpling, wrap it up and steam it. But it doesn’t matter how they do it, it just matters that they did it and it was AMAZING! The best one bite I’ve ever had. It was so good, that later on in the meal when we were told that the restaurant had run out of an entrée that we had decided to order, instead of ordering a replacement entrée, we all agreed that we’d go for another order of the soup dumplings just so we could have more of them!
The next dish to come to the table was the kaya toast. I had read that this was probably more of a dessert item than an appetizer, but that it was well worth ordering. Essentially, it’s crunchy toast with a coconut jam spread over the toast. You are given a bowl of something they call an “egg cloud” with which to dunk your coconut jam toast. The toast on its own with just the coconut jam was really tasty. Yes, kind of sweet, and probably more of a dessert item, but good nonetheless. The “egg cloud” was more like an egg custard that hadn’t quite set and then was topped with perhaps sea salt? It was hard to tell. But it was also good. Dunk in the toast into the egg mixture and it was a mix of creamy and sweet flavors. It was almost like having a donut to dunk into a cup of coffee, it just makes for a great combination.
Shortly after the kaya toast came the pork and vegetable potstickers with ginger mustard dipping sauce. The potstickers were perfectly cooked, tender and flavorful on the inside, and the perfect combination of crispy and well cooked on the outside. The ginger mustard dipping sauce was the star of the dish. We all agreed that the ginger mustard had the right mix of sweet, and spice. It was initially sweet when you first tasted it, and you could definitely taste the ginger in it, but then it left a little hint of spicy heat as an aftertaste which was nice. The sweetness of the dipping sauce paired well with the sweetness of the port and vegetables inside the potsticker. I think we all agreed that we could have handled another order of these beautiful 2-bite potstickers. However, we never got a chance to get another order as we still had a ton of dishes coming.
Pork belly buns were up next. The pork belly pieces were perfectly cooked with a sesame-honey glaze which was perfectly sweet enough to balance the pickled vegetables (cabbage, red cabbage, red onions and carrots) served with the dish. Along side was a bamboo bowl that came with steamed buns. You’re supposed to take the buns, and open them up like a sandwich, load it up with the pork belly, the pickled vegetables and then some of the hoisin-sriracha sauce also served on the plate. Put it all together and you have pork belly buns that were a little sweet, a little sour, and a little spicy – a perfect trifecta of flavors and textures with the pork belly, the crunchy pickled vegetables and the soft steamed buns. Wow! Each dish that came to our table was just so full of flavor and was so creative and unique.
Our “from the wok” dish of brussel sprouts came up next. I was initially interested in ordering the brussel sprouts because I had read good things about them, but I wasn’t sure if anyone else would want it. But, when we went through the menu, our waiter had mentioned that the brussel sprouts were a house specialty, so I think that convinced everyone that we should give it a try. According to the menu, the brussel sprouts came with ground pork and mint. But let me tell you, the menu description didn’t do the dish justice whatsoever. Besides the soup dumplings, the brussel sprouts may have been the most surprising and eye-opening of dishes. I think that when you think of brussel sprouts, you assume that they are either steamed or roasted, but in this case, they were fried! It was incredible. The texture of the crispy and fried brussel sprouts was amazing and it really brought out some sweetness in the brussel sprouts. Not only was the dish served with ground pork, and mint, but a whole other world of flavor and ingredients that had to include puffed crispy rice, sweet chili sauce, and fish sauce, and perhaps Thai basil and some sort of citrus either in the form of lime juice or perhaps kaffir leaves among other items. You could certainly taste the mint, but it wasn’t strong and overpowering, but rather a background note of flavor. All of the ingredients in the dish melded well together and combined to create a perfect combination of sweet, sour, salty and spicy. This dish, to me, epitomized ChoLon’s concept of featuring “inspired interpretations of traditional Asian dishes.” Using a familiar North American green of brussel sprouts and treating it with Asian flavors to create something so unique and different and incredibly flavorful. I know my sister-in-law said this was her most favorite dish of the night.
The entrée plate we ordered arrived next. We all agreed to try the diver scallops with spring vegetable “pad Thai” and cashew gremolata. The dish, again, came to the table looking like a work of art. Though, we were confused about the fact that everything else we had ordered had come out perfectly for a party of 4 to split – 4 soup dumplings, 4 pork belly buns, 4 potstickers, etc. – but the diver scallops came out to the table with 5 diver scallops! How would we possible split a diver scallop 4 ways? And it became a problem because we all loved the scallops! The dish was incredibly flavorful and rich and vibrant. The diver scallops were cooked perfectly and tasted heavenly. The spring vegetables were flavorful and delicious with a nice mix of bean sprouts, and shredded carrots and diced bell peppers. And the cashew gremolata was amazing as well as it provided nice texture and crunch to the dish and the sweetness complimented the flavor of the scallops perfectly. It was a beautifully prepared dish, and even more delicious to eat.
The mark of a terrific restaurant is when they do their best to make up for a mistake that wasn’t even their mistaken to begin with. When we ordered the diver scallops, our party had also agreed to the seared salmon entrée. Our waiter had told us that he would quickly put the order in as they only had enough salmon for one order, so he told us to cross our fingers that our order would get in there. A few minutes later, he came back to tell us that even though their system said they had enough salmon for one order, they didn’t actually have the salmon in the kitchen so therefore, no salmon for us. At the time, we weren’t that bummed, we just went ahead and ordered another serving of the soup dumplings! However, as our meal came out to our table, the manager actually brought out to our table the seared salmon dish. He explained that he knew we had ordered it and he was sorry that the restaurant couldn’t provide it to us as they didn’t have a whole order of salmon left, but they did have a couple of salmon pieces and they wanted us to have a little taste of their salmon dish. The dish was given to us compliments of the kitchen staff with apologies that they couldn’t give us a whole dish, but they hoped we enjoyed the little sample we received. How terrific is that? The restaurant cared enough to try to make a wrong a right, when the wrong wasn’t their fault in the first place. The seared salmon came over miso-buttered corn and shitake vinaigrette. The corn was actually a mixture of corn and diced green beans, which all of the veggie lovers in the group loved. The salmon was flavorful and perfectly seared on one side to a nice crisp golden brown, with the other side being warmed through. The flavors of the dish were delicious and inviting.
Finally, our last plate arrived at the table. I don’t know who thought 7 dishes, plus a dish that was compliments of the house wasn’t enough?!?! We ordered one more dish from the wok, it was hakka-style eggplant stir-fry, with cauliflower, and sugar snap peas. This was served over a bed of white rice. Luckily, our waiter told us that as we were intending to order a side of white rice to go with our food. Unfortunately, we were all so taken with the food that I forget to snap a photo of it before we pretty much devoured the whole thing! The Japanese eggplant was delicious and the whole dish had some wonderful flavor to it – a little sweet, a little sour, and a little spicy with some chili. There was also shredded carrots and sweet corn mixed into the veggies, and the stir-fried cauliflower was wonderful. The dish was robust, and healthy and so full of flavor. On the one hand, we were so full from this dinner, but on the other hand, it was so good that we could have kept going!
However, you know me. Even if I was full to bursting, I couldn’t pass up dessert! After looking over the menu, we settled on a couple of desserts. My husband went with the coconut chiboust cake, with mango and passion fruit sorbet. We had no idea what chiboust was, but all my husband saw was coconut cake and that was enough for him. What came to the table wasn’t really a coconut cake in the sense of the word cake, it was more like a coconut panna cotta. It turns out that chiboust cream is a type of pastry cream that is lightened with stiffly beaten egg whites and is commonly used a millefeuille cream. That explains the lightness and airiness in the texture of this “cake.” However, one bite into it and you could taste the sweet and light coconut. The dessert was fantastic. The texture of the coconut cake was rich and smooth, and it was perfectly balanced with the mango sauce spread out over the plate with the tang of mango. Then the cool and creamy passion fruit sorbet which actually sat on top of small diced pieces of passion fruit. This was such a light and airy dessert with lots of wow factor, and bold flavors and tastes.
My brother-in-law and I decided to go with the spiced doughnuts with Vietnamese coffee ice cream and condensed milk. This has to be one of the more popular desserts in the restaurant as I saw it brought out to numerous tables. Four beautiful and delicious doughnuts, more like balls of deep-fried dough, are rolled in a spice mixture similar to cinnamon sugar, and then piled onto a plate with some sort of condensed milk/coffee sauce and then a canal of Vietnamese coffee ice cream was placed on the other end of the plate. The Vietnamese coffee ice cream was outstanding! Such terrific and strong coffee flavor in the homemade ice cream. And the ice cream and the spiced doughnuts paired perfectly together. It was like having breakfast for dinner!
Overall, this might have been one of the most fun, and unique dining experiences I’ve ever had. Fun in the sense that we had really good company, I loved being able to spend time with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, and the atmosphere of the restaurant was just open and vibrant and fun. Also, fun in the sense that all of the dishes were playful and interactive and hands-on, which made it that much more enjoyable. And unique in the quality, creativity and level of food that was served. Each dish was immaculately conceived, created and presented. All of the dishes were full of bold, wonderful flavor and everything was fantastic. It’s probably a good thing I don’t live in Denver, because I might find myself eating at ChoLon all of the time. Literally! This is a place not to be missed if you’re ever in Denver!