A city of tremendous contrasts, Denver has officially entered the big leagues of dining cities. Colorado’s capital resides physically at the intersection of the Midwest and the eastern slope of the great Rockies and its personality reflects that meeting point of being an old cowtown and a cosmopolitan major city with the highest population between Chicago and the West Coast. As Denver natives like to remind television broadcasters, there is indeed a mountain time zone that exists. Two things are for certain when I visited the end of 2011 version of Denver, Colorado: the city is certainly not just the major airport on the way to skiing paradise in the mountains and this is not just a meat and potatoes town.
In fact it’s hard to say whether TebowMania could even compete with the region’s obsession with its newfound wealth of destination worthy restaurants and microbreweries. It seems walking the streets of Denver there are as many microbreweries to sample as Tebow (or maybe soon Peyton Manning?) jerseys to be found.
I have been fortunate enough to visit Colorado at least a hundred times in my life since much of my family lives on the Felch ranch in the foothills west of Denver. Through my childhood Denver was nothing except the airport and where we’d go sometimes to see a Rockies game. In fact, the transformation of Denver into a more sophisticated urban city may very well be credited to the 1995 opening of Coors Field, home of the Rockies. The ballpark brought people downtown, a trend Denver pioneered with Baltimore and Cleveland, that has revitalized previously desolate warehouse areas. In Denver, that area is Lower Downtown. Post 1995, “LoDo” has seen an incredible transformation that has now crossed the entire city and the Platte River across from Downtown.
The dining scene in Denver certainly started transforming as well from beyond the steak, lamb, and elk world, though still many of those old establishments are still deservedly thriving. My family has celebrated nearly every special occasion dinner at Morrison’s famed “The Fort,” where you can feast on rattlesnake, buffalo, and elk in an adobe hacienda setting that takes you back to before Colorado was a state. The Buckhorn Exchange, home of liquor license #1 in Colorado, does the same in Denver, and you can’t get much more classic Colorado than the 63 year old Bud’s Bar in Sedalia where the choice is hamburger with or without cheese, and Coors or Coors Lite. Fries? Not here.
Kevin Taylor’s formal dining room made waves during the Clinton years, long before the dot com bust fizzled out formal dining. The new millennium brought Frank Bonanno’s excellent cooking at Mizuna, home of the lobster mac n cheese, a dish that represents haute comfort food if I’ve ever seen one. His mini empire including Luca d’Italia, Osteria Marco, Bones, Lou’s, Wednesday’s Pie, and the speakeasy Green Russell single handedly made Denver a dining destination. Jennifer Jasinski’s Italian cooking at Panzano caught nationwide attention and now she’s on fire with her more contemporary Mediterranean style at Rioja in Larimer Square. A few years ago at Rioja my Dad, a lamb afficionado, enjoyed the greatest lamb dish of his life. Nobody remembers what the preparation was sadly, but he has had lamb dishes at Michelin 3 star temples in France, and still says about every lamb dish, “It’s great, but not Rioja lamb.” Rioja is now an adjective in the family for describing high caliber meat preparations instead of the inside temperature of the meat.
2007 brought the Rockies to their first World Series ever (who were swept by my beloved Red Sox), Carmelo Anthony brought the Nuggets to relevance for the first time in decades, and of course a year later in the summer of 2008 Barack Obama made his famous outdoor acceptance speech at Invesco Field at Mile High, home of the Broncos, for his nomination at the Democratic National Convention. Denver had made it into the national spotlight. Despite the ever present existence of Aspen and Vail, the emergence of Boulder in the culinary community thanks to numerous revolutionary craft breweries, Frasca Food and Wine and The Kitchen, Denver was a major player finally in American cities for business, travel, and of course dining.
2010 was a magical year bringing Alex Seidel’s Fruition, where the pasta carbonara trumps any version I’ve had in Italy or the U.S., and several gastropubs in this city of premier beer including Ms. Jasinski’s Euclid Hall and Colt & Gray on the other side of the Platte River from Downtown. Yet, 2010 brought also the restaurant, that after a recent dinner a little over a year into its existence, represents the true arrival of big city sophistication to Denver. Of course that arrival had to come from the much bigger city of New York, courtesy of the exotic, refined new wave Asian cuisine cooking by Lon Symensma, formerly of the Jean Georges Vongerichten Asian-French cuisine empire and Manhattan’s gigantic part sushi, part new style Asian cuisine palace Buddakan. His sleek bistro ChoLon at the corner of Blake and 16th Street could easily fit in and win rave reviews in New York, London, or Paris, yet it is a perfect representation of its spot in Denver. The location is right in between the more microbrew-baseball centric nightlife of LoDo and the more nightlife-nightlife centric Larimer Square. Right by the 16th Street Mall, Denver’s pedestrian only street with a complimentary tram-bus, ChoLon and the 16th Street Mall reflects Denver’s new sophistication. Not to mention that Blake Street is maybe the greatest culinary street in the city and the namesake of the “Blake Street Bombers” with Coors Field residing on the street 8 blocks from ChoLon. ChoLon’s sophistication carries inside with a handsome, almost sexy bar, and an airy, warehouse meets nightclub interior with an open kitchen and a striking row of bamboo-like plants in the center that makes the inside feel 80 degrees even when it’s 5 degrees outside in December. The tall wrap-around windows give the restaurant an open feel looking at the critical intersection of Blake and 16th, but the tinted black color lends an exclusive air and the candles everywhere makes this a perfect date spot. This is not the Denver I remember when growing up…this is the big city.
And the flavors from Mr. Symensma’s kitchen dazzle. Start to finish, not one dish or cocktail was short of a hall of fame contender. Symensma’s imagination and execution is best represented by the soup dumplings filled with sweet onions and gruyere. Here, Shanghai’s iconic dish meets Paris (interesting concept considering the major French quarter of Shanghai), with xiao long bao dumplings made famous by Din Tai Fung, a chain based in Taiwan that has branched out to L.A. and Seattle, and are usually stuffed with a pork broth filling, this time are replaced by what is essentially the greatest French onion soup you’ll ever have. Diners must swallow everything in one bite for a sensation that numbs the body. No diner should be forced to share an order of four of these.
Paris met Shanghai via Denver there, perhaps Malaysia and Mexico come into play with the excellent chile crab rolls along with a charred corn salad and an addictive sriracha mayo. Pork belly is indeed so 2010 but should remain on every menu if served in the potstickers with a ginger mustard like done here. Even the mandatory beet salad becomes special, spiked by lemongrass, and so does the bread plate, which actually is an enormous black sesame rice crisp with a sneakily spicy salsa.
Small plates are the soul of the menu but the larger dishes and sides are not to be missed. The second best dish, if possible to rank, is mint heavy stir fried brussel sprouts with almost a pound of diced ground pork amidst them. The black pepper marinated short rib could be tournedos rossini by Escoffier, except here with house made chow fun (imagine Escoffier making chow fun!) and Chinese broccoli. Colorado may not be near an ocean, but the Australian sea bass is blessed with a perfect flaky texture and spice from spicy wok tossed bok choy and the funk of water chestnuts.
The hits keep coming at dessert, in particular spiced doughnuts with a Vietnamese coffee ice cream so vivid of flavor there’s no need to get an espresso afterwards. The chocolate cake remains moist and rewarding, especially with the addictive salted peanut ice cream. Symensma really should open an ice cream parlor too. The bland toasted marshmallow with the chocolate cake was the only missed note of any dish for the evening. And that’s being really picky.
Did I mention that ChoLon happens to do that other favorite urban thing, a bonafide bar program, extremely well? As in some of the best cocktails I’ve ever tried, period, not kidding? To make an outstanding margarita even better, ChoLon’s Full Moon Margarita adds smoked tamarind and mezcal to the party. The Zen Master puts everyone at peace with its cucumber, sake, mint trio, accented by gin from Denver’s own Leopold Bros. The best, however? Ginger and beets mingle with vodka in the Royal Garden, a drink deserving of royalty. Even the wine list is long and thorough, and shockingly reasonably priced. Yes, bottles of high caliber wine, can be purchased for less than twice the retail price, under 50 dollars a bottle. Imagine that! Dessert wines should especially not be missed, stage a tasting session like our table to debate the merits of port vs sauterne vs moscato d’asti (sauternes wins).
Service follows suit with excellent recommendations and a vibe that makes you feel like they know this is a special place. Indeed it is, with nothing over the high 20’s in prices and many small plates under 10 dollars. I keep using the buzzwords of urban sophistication and big city dining, but there certainly aren’t big city prices for this caliber of a dining experience
This is a destination restaurant in what is now a destination dining city. Lon Symensma has taken the Mile High by storm and stands in the center of this new gastronomic excitement gripping Denver.