Two years ago, ChoLon, the modern Asian bistro in LoDo opened its doors and brought a new approach to Asian-fusion food to the Denver scene. Today, the restaurant celebrates its anniversary with a new fall menu and harvest dinner, and its chef, Lon Symensma talks about his two year ride at ChoLon.
What is your most lasting memory of opening day two years ago?
I guess a big part was that both of my business partners were out that day having a baby. I was pretty much all by myself. I was running the front of the house, the back of the house, running over to the bar to make sure the cocktails were being made properly. There were actually a couple of days before we opened when I actually spent the night here. I had a change of clothes and some deodorant. I also remember working on a cassoulet for the opening menu and I was so tired and exhausted that I just added a massive handful of salt to the pot and, with beans, you can't add salt cause they get tough. The beans never got tender and I remember thinking I can't believe I am opening a restaurant and I can't even cook beans. That was when I was most panicked.
How did you expect Denver to receive ChoLon?
You know, Denver is a tightknit community, people are brought through the local ranks. They open a restaurant and say "I am a Frank Bonanno guy, or I am a Kevin Taylor guy." Me coming from New York - it was important to me to be super friendly, very inviting and with open arms to all the new chefs. The chefs here have been incredibly friendly. I remember Alex Seidel actually going out of his way to connect while on a trip to New York because he heard that a chef from Buddakan was opening a place in Denver. Jeff Osaka has also been incredibly supportive.
What has been successful for ChoLon?
I think we've maintained distinction in the market with our concept; showcasing traditional regional dishes from across Asia- highlighting indigenous flavors and ingredients- but applying a modern approach to the preparation. We've also taken notice of our guests' appreciation for flavors and ingredients that are familiar, but presented in unexpected ways - like the soup dumplings. Individually each component is kind of ordinary, but I think our guests welcome being surprised with creative composition.
What were your biggest challenges? Being an outsider coming into a new market was a tough, but a very exciting challenge. It took some extra time to get to know the expectations and vernacular to which the local community was accustomed. We had to re-name dishes several times to properly highlight and communicate our menu in a desirable and approachable way. I feel now that I'm very in synch with Denver after being here for two years and immersing myself into the community. People in general have been so welcoming from the start. I was truly impressed with the warm reception I received from within the culinary community.
What was the biggest lesson you have learned so far at ChoLon?
I think people begin to believe in you and begin to enjoy your food no matter what it is but with food, every dish needs to start with a point of familiarity. Like if I call a dish Kung Pao chicken - it can have a few ingredients that resemble Kung Pao chicken but it can be work with more abstract ingredients and techniques that you are introducing. Every dish has to start with that familiar point.
What was a dish that you put on the menu and surprised you in popularity?
The soup dumplings. I never knew that the dumplings would be such a hit. I thought they would be a cool thing on the menu. The Brussel sprouts were similar. We thought it was a fall thing- we were opening in the fall and it made sense to have them on there.
If there was one thing you can turn back time on and change at ChoLon, what would it be?
Isn't that a Cher song? You know what - there is a part of me, this is weird, that wonders if the restaurant is ...it is just so beautiful. So much thought went into every chair and every material and every detail. I wonder if sometimes people walk by and think this place is too fancy. I wish the baseball game--
What is one thing diners don't and should know about ChoLon?
We're more casual than our exterior suggests. The SugarCube building is very polished, and our windows are more tinted than we wanted! I wish you could see into the restaurant and get a sense of our energy from the outside. While our food is certainly refined, we're very playful here. We want a welcoming and fun vibe to shine through in what we're doing, from our cocktails, to our share plates. Our happy hour starts at 2pm every day. It's all about having fun. Also, of note, we recognize at lunch people may not want family style dining to be the only option. So we serve sandwiches, soups, salads during this daypart in individual plates. I'm not sure everyone knows there is a distinction in service style from one day part to the next.
· All ChoLon Coverage [EDen]