Archive for the ‘Full Service’ Category

Smyth Chicago

Posted 25 Mar 2017 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Full Service

Tonight I visit Smyth in Chicago with wonderful anticipation after reflecting on how our stories converge. Back in the 1990’s and 2000’s when I wanted a great meal in Chicago I would visit Charlie Trotters and it was there that I first saw Karen Urie (now Shields) at work.  Charlie introduced Karen as she passed me in the kitchen while I was hovering after an incredible meal. Karen prospered at Trotters prior to moving on with her (now) husband John Shields and this speaks to her strength and character. When I heard that Karen and John Shields opened Smyth in Chicago it warmed my heart – a culinary duo with a fantastic lineage paying it forward and inspiring a new generation of cooks and chefs. I placed Smyth on the top of my list for my next visit to Chicago.

Unfortunately I had a very limited window of time to visit Smyth – it had to be upon arrival to Chicago. My flight in was delayed but I was able to make my reservation – bouncing up the stairs to the door to Smyth right on schedule. One foot in the door and I am warmly greeted: “you must be Mr. Griffin – welcome, thank you for joining us tonight.” I love it when the FOH crew is ready and organized. Though dining alone isn’t always my preference, the team at Smyth placed me at a fantastic table within easy view of the pass and kitchen. It took all of five minutes to relax, order a Manhattan (with Rye) and start my journey.

When I benchmark a great restaurant my goal is always to observe the details and to take what I learn back to my students. It is a challenge to remain fresh and current in a complex and constantly changing industry but evenings like the one I experienced at Smyth keep me inspired. Words fall short in expressing the warmth and hospitality that flows at Smyth. Their come-as-you-are philosophy, and casual but elegant dining room aesthetic rains with relaxation. You won’t find white linen or stuffy servers here but you will find gorgeous walnut tables, classic Hans Wegner Kennedy chairs, and curated tableware. This is dining built on years of experience, mastery, and complexity rendered with integrity and purity. Congratulations Karen and John – thank you for a wonderful evening and for the inspiration. Best and blessings to you and your team.

Maitake, Spruce, and Sassafras Tea

Salted & Frozen Radish, Oyster, and Seaweed

Dungeness Crab & Foie Gras with Scrambled Kani Miso

Shima Aji Seasoned With Its Fish Sauce and Spicy Plants

Shima Aji Ribs, Barbequed Over the Hearth

Uni Taco

Caramelized Potato & Sunchoke with Dried Scallop and Trout

Dried Corn Tartlet with Squab Liver Mousse

Roast Squab, Black Walnuts, Grains, and Apple

Brioche Doughnut with Aged Beef Au Jus, Ribeye of Beef, Wasabi, and Brussels Sprouts

Pickled Onions with Lamb, Black Allium, and Black Truffle

Milk Chocolate, Huckleberry, and Preserved Shiitake Mushroom

Egg Yolk Soaked in Salted Licorice with Frozen Yogurt Meringue

Carrot Sorbet, Pine Pollen, Honey, and Sour Quince Curd

Lovage Stem and Carrots Coaxed into Licorice

Smyth Restaurant

177 N Ada St #101,

Chicago, IL 60607


Pineapple and Pearls: “In the People Business”

Posted 18 Dec 2016 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Full Service

Chef Aaron Silverman’s team centered philosophy is primary cause for why I rearranged my schedule to include a dinner at his restaurant Pineapple and Pearls in the Barracks Row neighborhood just north of the Navy Yard in Washington DC. Though I did notice the two-star nod the Guide Michelin gave Pineapple and Pearls back in October, Silverman’s December 2015 TedEx talk 2015 is what really caught my attention. His heartfelt presentation centered on the connection between building and maintaining an outstanding team and achieving overall greatness. I couldn’t agree more with his perspective and I had to see for myself.

His first restaurant Rose’s Luxury won best new restaurant recognition by both Bon Appetit and GQ magazines in 2014. The restaurant was a game changer for the local restaurant scene and for the Silverman himself. Its customer centered casual feel paired with incredible – approachable food drew rave reviews and a steady stream of guests willing to cue up on the sidewalk in order to score a table upon opening. But behind the scenes Silverman focused on creating an environment and culture that would draw in the best talent. An environment where people want to work and that employees look forward to being part of.

My experience at Pineapple and Pearls provided deep evidence Silverman’s approach is working. It was illuminated by steady warmth and hospitality on a freezing December night. His team exceeded my expectation from start to finish and though the food was outstanding (the sturgeon rose was sublime) the service and beverage program was even better. Beverage director Jeff Faile has crafted an incredible program and one of the finest pairings I have had. We spent 20 minutes chatting in the kitchen after my experience (I sat at the bar for service). His approach is straight forward; he seeks great products that align perfectly with each dish on the tasting menu and he doesn’t leave non-alcoholic options as an afterthought. The non-alcoholic offerings were compelling, complex, and perfectly paired. Not an easy task. The Paliokerisio wine from Greece (grape varietals white Debina and red Vlahiko) was a favorite as was the alcohol free Jörg Geiger PriSecco sparkling cider made just east of Stuttgart in Germany. This is the kind of talent Silverman is attracting. What a great role model and example.

When a leader builds an authentic and engaging culture of excellence the impact of all involved is significantly amplified and Silverman has clearly figured this out. 2016 has been good to him – his recognition by Michelin was preceded by a Best Chef Mid Atlantic award by the James Beard Foundation. This is tangible evidence that leadership matters. Silverman ends his TedEx talk stating: “I’m in the people industry – it just so happens that I work at a restaurant.”  If people are his product – he should have three stars instead of two!

Fennel Absinthe Bonbon

Crispy Yuba, Cured Trout Roe, Garden Herbs

Beef Tar Tar, Caviar (retired dairy cow loin)

Sweet Shrimp, Ajo Blanco (almond gazpacho), Mixed Grapes, Cilantro

Sturgeon Rose, White Beets, Matsutake

Mustard Green Agnolotti, Parmesan, Greyson and Ricotta Cheese, Huitaloche, Mustard, Mushroom Kombocha Squash Gastrique

Atlantic Cod, Fall Vegetables, Pigs Head Terrine, Crispy Garlic, Garlic Fumet

Beef Loin Presentation –

Homage to DC Steakhouse – Dry Aged Rib Eye, Béarnaise, Truffle Pepper Cream, Popovers with Wild Mushrooms, Potato Onion Tart

Cheese Presentation

Warm Greyson Cheese, Purple Sweet Potato Brioche, Pawpaw Butter

Satsuma, Labneh Sorbet, Hibiscus & Whey Soda

Granny Smith Apple Crostata, Sundae Bar of Dark Chocolate, Tarragon, Olive Oil Sorbets, Lemon Glaze, Toasted Coconut

Cookies – Sesame Fortune Cookie, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough with Red Walnut, Snickerdoodle

Coffee and Pistachio Shortbread Afterwards

Pineapple and Pearls

715 8th Street SE, Washington, DC

The Lost Kitchen – Freedom, Maine

Posted 21 Aug 2016 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Full Service, Travel, Uncategorized, Warms My Heart

IMG_1339Tonight I was surprised – blown away actually – by my experience dining with Chef Erin French at her restaurant The Lost Kitchen way up in Freedom, Maine. This is a restaurant run by a team of women so dedicated to the cause that you can feel the restaurant’s heart the minute you enter. This is more than a dinner, it’s time spent in a family members home where the food and wine is incredible and the hospitality hangs on you like a warm blanket on a cold night. It’s a vibe so comforting and laden with hospitality that it’s hard to leave after dessert is served. Erin and her team of farmers, mothers, sisters, and friends has achieved the nearly impossible – an emotional connection with guests that strikes at your heart and palate. This place is incredible.IMG_1380

The restaurant is 200 miles north of Boston and just a half hour north west of Belfast in the rolling Maine hills some miles adjacent to the ocean. This is mid-coast Maine which remains a place suspended in time economically and one where people have learned to survive the hard way. Many spend the year working fingers to the bone while enduring summers that are all too short and winters that last too long. Freedom is typical – its small (very small) and has seen better days. We find our way down Pleasant Street and over the culvert to the parking lot on the other side of Sandy Stream. After parking the car and a quick walk back across a foot-bridge over the stream we enter the Mill at Freedom Falls.

Inside the warmly renovated post-and-beam dining room the welcome is deep and authentic – each barn-board table perfectly set. The menu is served banquet style and consists of four courses along with additional courses and amuse bouche.  The food is not precious or contrived – instead it dwells in the realm of elegant simplicity. French maintains a light touch and her dishes aren’t overly seasoned or salted. It almost feels like a certain level of restraint flows under each item – and I love her delicate touch. SheIMG_1407 serves 50+ guests a prix fixe menu with just one seating per night. During service she and two assistants prepare every item in a wide open kitchen – cooking on a 60 inch LaCanche range from France. There is no hiding in this kitchen – the kitchen and dining room are one. And French isn’t the type to hide. During the meal, often while foods are searing on the range, she personally visits each table in the restaurant offering warm greetings. She hauls ass – dressed in high heeled clogs, tailored jeans, a black blouse, and white kitchen apron. Her team exhibits care and great joy while floating through the restaurant during service. It’s easy to tell these folks truly appreciate those of us who make the trip deep into the woods for such a great meal. These women (the moms, sisters, aunts, cousins, friends, and farmers) are reviving the town of Freedom through sheer willpower and hard work and we are, in part, the beneficiaries. This is more than a restaurant, it’s a community movement of the best kind. Pure hospitality flows freely here and this is rare indeed. It’s now one of my favorite restaurants. Heartfelt congratulations Erin.



Local Cucumbers, Radish, Butter, Cheese, Gougères, Olives, Cornichon, Marcona Almond


Pemaquid Oysters with Blueberry Vinaigrette


Mussels, Rosemary, Lime


Cold Wild Blueberry Soup, Buttered Croutons, Cucumber & Dill


Heirloom Tomato Salad, Many Basils, Smoked Ricotta


Local Lamb Chop, Whipped Feta & Lemon Butter, Fingerlings, Fennel, Tarragon & Peach, Baby Arugula


Sweet Corn & Vanilla Pot de Cream, Really Ripe Blackberries, Husk Cherries


LaCanche Range in Full Force


Plating Heirloom Tomato Salad with Many Basils

The Lost Kitchen

22 Mill St, Freedom, ME 04941

(207) 382-3333


MIKLA Istanbul

Posted 21 Sep 2013 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends, Full Service, Travel

Dusk View of Istanbul from MKLA

ISTANBUL AT DUSK – MIKLA Restaurant Roof Deck

Mehmet Gurs is a cool cat in Istanbul. Born in Finland to a Turkish father and Scandinavian mother, Gurs himself personifies the fusion of Asia and Europe. When I catch up with him he is cruising in his Range Rover in downtown Istanbul, we chat a bit and agree to meet later at MIKLA his restaurant perched atop a high rise building near the Beyoğlu distric of Istanbul. I promise to meet him around 8:00 PM and arrive a bit late but in time to see the incredible sky above the Asian side of Istanbul at dusk. MIKLA has a large deck outside the main dining room so we step out into the cool air while Maghrib prayers gently ring from each Mosque across the Bosporus flowing from south to north in sequence.

MKLA Kitchen Window

After a few minutes we are guided to our table just across from Gurs’ glassed in production kitchen. Our server provides us with a ten course tasting menu to review and we sit back ready for a great night. Gurs has a deft way of weaving classic Turkish dishes like Manti with items more than gently pulled toward Scandinavia. He exercises Turkish farm-to-table and can explain in detail the origins of the raw ingredients used in his cuisine and, quite often, the history.


The meal leaves me in awe not in the same way as my first meal at Jean Louis at Watergate or Alinea two decades later – it’s a different sort of awe, one rooted in the history cemented into the streets and countryside below us and the metaphor Gurs’ cuisine presents on the rooftop of the Marmara Pera hotel so many floors above.  I feel bathed in the ancient and modern at the same time.


 1 Lakerda, cured Bonito, Cucumber, Red Onion, Buffalo Yogurt

Lakerda – Cured Bonito, cucumber, red onion buffalo yoghurt

 2. Zetinyagli ~ Vegetables Cooked in Olive Oil

Vegetables Zeytinyağlı

 3. Balik Ekmek Crispy Sardines, Olive Oil Bread, Lemon Mousse

Balik Ekmek – Crispy Sardines, Olive Oil Bread, Lemon Mousse

 4. Dried Beef Tenderloin & Hummus, Salted and Dried Beef Tenderloin, Humus, Antep Paste

Dried Tenderloin & Hummus –Salted and Dried Beef Tenderloin, Humus, Antep Paste

 5. Whole Wheat Vegetable Manti (dumpling), Yogurt, Tomato, Roasted Garlic, Sumac

Whole Wheat Vegetable Manti – Vegetable Manti, Yoghurt, Tomato, Roasted Garlic, Sumac

 6. Dentex (local Turkish Fish), Oven Roasted Tomatoes, Capers, Halhal Olives, Samphire, Chive-Fig Vinaigrette

Dentex – Cooked Dentex, Oven Roasted Tomatoes, Capers, Halhal Olives Samphire, Chive-Fig Vinaigrette

 7. Lamb Shank, Trakya Kivircik Lamb, Smoked Eggplant, Stew of Kayseri Sucuk, Peas and Chard

Lamb Shank – Trakya Kivircik Lamb Shank, Smoked Eggplant, Stew of Kayseri Sucuk, Peas and Chard

 8. Cheese & Honey, Anatolian Raw Milk Cheese & Honey

Cheese & Honey – Anatolian raw Milk Cheese & Honey

 9. Sutlac, Rice Pudding wiht Mastic, Sour Apple Sorbet, Crunchy Mulberry

Sütlaç – Rice Pudding with Mastic, Sour Apple Sorbet, Crunchy Mulberry

 10. Apricot & Bulghur, Ihsangazi Siyez Bulghur Ice Cream, Confit Malatya Apricots

Apricot & Bulghur – Ihsangazi Siyez Bulghur Ice Cream, Confit Malatya Apricots

 MKLA Istanbul

The Marmara Pera
Meşrutiyet Caddesi 15
34430, Beyoğlu, İstanbu

Hominy Grill ~ Charleston South Carolina

Posted 24 Jun 2012 — by S.E.
Category Full Service

Fine dining in major metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco has evolved to a point where, aside from certain local ingredients, there’s a common stylistic and technical thread that ties all these cities together. Great chefs are preparing “local foods” with sustainable sensibilities and fantastic technique in a casual and affordable setting in such a manner that it’s hard to distinguish restaurants in one city from the next based on food alone. This is great except for the fact that the advance of American cooking has also resulted in a gradual demise of the classic regional specialties that once defined these venerable cities. However, deep pockets of regional cuisine remain in the U.S. and my recent trip to Charleston in search of classic as well as modern low country cooking proves that both can exist and prosper.

Hominy Grill sits on the other end of the cuisine spectrum from McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina. Chef Robert Stehling is a master of southern cuisine served in a clean and attractive but classic style.  He’s a James Beard Best Chef Award winner (2008) just like Sean Brock and both deliver some of the best cooking in the country. Hominy Grill looks the part and is smack in the center of Charleston on Rutledge Avenue in a restored storefront and adjacent courtyard. Pulling into the parking lot, guests are greeted by a billboard sized “grits are good for you” painting on the side of the building including a 1950’s era waitress with grits in hand.

The interior is bright with large storefront windows and white paint. I reflect for a minute and consider how this cuisine, although similar to some of the foods served in the deep south including New Orleans, is so uniquely its own. The flavors and sensibilities are different, they’re not as complex as New Orleans nor are they so globally influenced. In a sense, they are lighter although the cuisine itself isn’t light at all. Looking around, the dining room is full and people are happy; low country cuisine couldn’t be more popular.  

Each table is adorned with a mason jar perforated on the top, filled with water and used as a bud vase. The lilies in the jar offer a splash of color against the white painted wooden paneling. Across the room, a set of three large black chalk boards listing menu specials sits on a shelf. Right off the bat I notice a fantastic selection of items including grits, collard greens, fried green tomatoes, mac and cheese, red rice, mashed sweet potatoes and okra with tomatoes. Enticing items include a pit roasted beef brisket sandwich but the shrimp bog with sautéed shrimp in a low country rice stew with ham, creole vegetables, cream and sherry has my name on it. This is where I get into trouble with my restaurant visits; I always order way too much. In addition to the shrimp bog, orders are placed for shrimp and grits and shrimp creole. Words can’t express how delicious Stehling’s cuisine is or how friendly and comfortable the setting and service are.

Main Dining Room

Hominy Grill Menu

Shrimp and Okra Beignets

Fried Green Tomatoes

Shrimp and Grits

Creole Shrimp

Shrimp Bog with Cream and Sherry

 Hominy Grill

207 Rutledge Avenue

Charleston, SC 29403

(843) 937-0930

Momofuku Saam Bar Revisited

Posted 28 May 2012 — by S.E.
Category Full Service

Saam Bar masters the art of the small plate within a deep rooted yet flexible Asian theme. David Chang and his crew keep the food fresh and delicious even after attaining star status and expanding globally. On this trip I notice a trend for the first time: the menu offers a hint of wild seasonal botanicals that are unusual even for New York.  Sweetflag (a wetland grass with edible leaves and rhizome) is served with Santa Barbara Uni and knotweed is used as a garnish over chicken liver mousse with olive berry and Maitake. The sweet flag probably found its way onto the Saam Bar menu from the Chinese medicine cabinet where its use is common. The knotweed is a large perennial plant considered invasive that is in season in spring. My guess is that the use of knotweed is connected to Japanese Sansai (traditional mountain foraging) although my first thought was Chang riffing on the Scandinavian foraging aesthetic so in vogue right now.

Perhaps Chang has taken the Redzepi foraging movement and turned it eastward to make it his own. His team of thinkers and culinary tinkerers continually earn their stripes by finding vague and obscure ingredients, innovating from broader trends, and drawing in inspiration from global travels all without losing focus on their purpose. These weeds aren’t added for simple effect, they fit a broader theme and philosophy. I am excited to sample!

Like most nights, the bar is packed, people are happy and the food and drink flows in simple rhythm. Elbow to elbow at the bar I am next to a young lady and her chatty sister on one side and a distinguished couple on the other. Seating is tight at the bar and personal space gives way to an intimacy among strangers that is pleasant and engaging if you are ready for it. Everyone is talking about and gawking at the food. With space this tight it’s hard not to hover over each other as servers drop off plates meant for sharing. The mood is expectant, jovial, and electric at the bar yet quieter and more reserved at the tables along the wall. There are more than a couple happy children seated at the tables with their parents.

Like WD50, Momofuku is not an architectural or design gem but it is beautiful. The restaurant is simple and sleek, a rectangle of solid wood walls and ceiling. The service crew is delightfully casual, well informed and attentive and the food arrives promptly and steadily. Everything is delicious.

Out the door now after a great meal headed to the next adventure. Just outside, I pass the graffiti tagged exterior Saam Bar wall along E. 13th street. It’s a splash of creative color (graffiti as high art) that is beautiful but deceptive to the uniformed. Further to the left there’s a huge tank of hissing liquid nitrogen adjacent to the side entrance of Booker and Dax, Chang’s experimental modern bar with mad scientist Dave Arnold. Chang is to be admired for continually sharpening the cutting edge.

Saam Bar Graffiti

Long Island Fluke, Kumquat, Cilantro, Green Peppercorn

 Santa Barbara Uni, Sweetflag, Sea Beans, Chawanmushi

Pickled Vegetables

Steamed Pork Bun, Pork Belly, Hoisin, Cucumbers, Scallions

Selection of Country Hams, Finchville Farms, Benton’s Smoky Mountain, Broadbent, Edwards Wigwam Ham

Dry Aged Sirloin Tar Tar, Watermelon Radish, Spinach, Nori

Chicken Liver Mousse, Olive Berry, Knotweed, Maitake

Spicy Honeycomb Tripe, Ginger Scallion, Celery, Pickled Tomato

Corn Ice Cream ,Mango, Thai Basil

Tri-Star Strawberry Sorbet, Celery Root, Ritz Crunch

Momofuku Saam Bar

207 2nd Avenue

New York, NY 10003

(212) 254-3500

The Macintosh: Charleston S.C. ~ Brunch

Posted 29 Apr 2012 — by S.E.
Category Full Service

It’s spring time in Charleston, South Carolina and the trees are turning green. The travel gods have smiled on me once again and I am here for a couple of days on business which in my case means several nights of excellent dining with exceptional company. Of the many cities in the south that I love, Charleston has to be near the top of the list. It is one of the best restaurant cities in the country with more high quality dining establishments per capita than many a city twice its size. My first stop upon arrival is brunch at The Macintosh, the newest addition to the highly acclaimed Indigo Road Restaurant Group and recent 2012 James Beard Awards nominee.

Antebellum Tree

Charleston is made for walking and my hotel is one block north of Market Street and the center of town. I quick step down to Market Street and head west toward King Street taking in the sights. The architecture is so lovely and well preserved that a true Antebellum aesthetic settles over me. It’s still early (10:30 am) and the streets are moving with people but not overly so. Along the way I click a few photos with my point-and-shoot and make a right hand turn to the north onto King Street toward The Macintosh. After a leisurely stroll down the far side of King Street I find myself in front of the old American Theater and notice The Macintosh directly across the street, its large plate-glass storefront clearly pained with the restaurant logo.

Confederate Museum Steps Detail

Once inside I meet General Manager Andrew Fallis, (a graduate of Johnson & Wales University) and congratulate him on the Beard nomination; he is elated. Fallis reminds me of a stylish Keith Urban, he is smooth and gentlemanly with the guests and floats us over to a power-table for brunch. Settled in, I gather my senses and take in the room. The interior is rustic and informal with exposed brick, ductwork and ceiling joists. You won’t find white linen here (no need to waste precious resources on a linen contract), instead hardwood tables are set with black woven placemats, black cloth napkins, stainless flatware and short stemmed glassware. Fallis and his team are managing their resources well.

View Toward King Street

The menu is a single printed legal-size sheet clamped onto a hardwood clip board. There are four starters, ten main dishes and six sides priced from $5 – $13. Although limited in scope and scale, the menu represents real value at these prices.

 The Macintosh Menu

Triggerfish Brandade, Alabama White Sauce

Eggs Over Easy, Sweet Potato Hash

Chicken & Waffles

“Mac Attack” Pork Belly, Bone Marrow Bread Pudding, Poached Eggs


The Macintosh

479-B King Street

Charleston, S.C. 29403


Table 52 ~ Chicago

Posted 27 Mar 2012 — by S.E.
Category Full Service

Art Smith is such a nice guy and Table 52 in Chicago radiates his warmth. It’s a true manifestation of his dream of a restaurant and serves the type of southern comfort food he was raised on. When I first met Art he had just dropped a ton of weight, was feeling spry and was about to open Table 52. He had the whole thing figured out in his head and spoke of it with pure energy and enthusiasm.

Every good chef that I have ever met dreams of opening his or her own place. A privileged few get the chance and an even smaller number actually find success and make a good living. It truly is a labor of love. Art was lucky, he had built his celebrity working as Oprah’s chef for a decade before striking out on his own in 2007. Table 52 became his obsession when he left Oprah.

While in the windy city last month I checked in at Table 52 for a snack and the place was thumping. The lower dining room was stuffed elbow to elbow with a line out the door. With low tin ceilings and a rustic white washed panel décor, the lower dining room is more of a southern style bistro with a great hearth oven anchoring the room. However, the upper dining room is a whole other affair.

With high ceilings, thick custom drapes, wide striped wall paper, and fine decorative molding the upper room feels like a fine antebellum parlor. Custom antique-like side stations and a high-boy filled with wine add warmth to the room. I imagine how much fun Art and his partner and designer Julie Latsko must have had designing this room; how fantastic to be living the dream.

Crab Cake, Salt & Pepper Chips, Tartar Sauce, Frisee Salad

Art’s team prepares food reminiscent of his southern heritage. Each dish offers hints of authenticity with flourishes of creativity. This isn’t the stick to your ribs shrimp and grits and corn bread of Charleston or Atlanta, it’s more of a Midwestern version of southern fare as locally sourced ingredients would dictate. The food is delicious and comfortable and the restaurant shines when it comes to service. Art’s dream is alive and well in Chicago.

Short Rib, Barley Risotto, Carrot Ginger Puree, Tobacco Shallots

Table 52

52 W. Elm Street



Cholon Modern Asian Bistro: Denver

Posted 21 Feb 2012 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends, Full Service

When I first met Lon Symensma he was headed to the Culinary Olympics in Berlin Germany as a member of the U.S. National Apprentice Team in 1996. Under the watchful eye of the gentle and gentlemanly uber-coach and former H.J. Heinz Corporate Chef Roland Schaeffer, Symensma and his team were shining stars that placed in the top ten in their division. Symensma was clean cut possessing great energy and a good foundation of culinary skills having completed his initial training at Scott Community College in Davenport Iowa.  Sixteen years later Symensma is owner of Cholon Bistro in Denver and, word has it, a soon-to-be nominee for a James Beard Award this year.

That Symensma pursued his dream of opening his own restaurant is what I admire most about him. Many of the other chefs I knew in the 1990’s who competed at the international level chose professional careers in higher education or at country clubs or hotels. Very few pursued sole proprietorship; the ratio of risks to rewards being too great. However, Symensma kept his head on straight, paid his dues internationally and, eventually, went on to run the kitchen at Buddakan in New York City, one of the highest grossing restaurants in the country.

When I caught up with Symensma in Denver recently, he laughed about his time at Buddakan and suggested the four years he spent there took a decade off of his life. Having dined a Buddakan back when he was there, there is probably some truth to his comment. Buddakan is a massive restaurant and one of the flagship stores for Stephen Starr Restaurants out of Philadelphia. When I visited  in 2007 the house was full and the kitchen was cranking. The volume of food produced was staggering, it was not a kitchen for the faint of heart.

Fast forward to 2011 and Symensma is in Denver having flown close to the flame in New York. Paired with former CIA classmate Alicia Pokoik Deters and her husband Jim, the three formed Flow Restaurant Group, opening Cholon as a first concept in 2010. Symensma crafted a menu that is approachable and aligned with the clientele in Denver while honoring his eclectic Asian style. The bistro itself is modern in décor with a massive custom wooden door, concrete floors, exposed ceiling and large informal dining room (no tablecloths here) with open kitchen along an interior wall. During service Symensma stands in starched whites at the kitchen counter, back to the crowd, expediting with customers seated to his left and right.

His food is better at Cholon than it was at Buddakan, probably due to smaller size and better attention to detail. However, the food is more rustic. His Kaya Toast with Egg Cloud is rich and creamy with tremendous flavor and the French Onion Soup Dumplings are a great contemporary take and a classic. My favorite dish is the Singapore Style Lobster with Sunny Side Egg and Bao Buns. This isn’t fine dining or modernist cuisine but it is great local food at a fair price with fantastic service. The restaurant is loud and full of energy and the city of Denver has embraced it but I estimate Cholon does the same volume in a week that Buddakan used to do in a day. Symensma has proven he has capacity for more. I predict that he is just starting what will become a regional restaurant empire as Cholon settles in and he gets back to his fighting weight.


Beef Tar Tar, Chinese Mustard, Tapioca Puffs

Soup Dumplings, Sweet Onion and Gruyere

Kaya Toast, Coconut Jam, Egg Cloud

Pork Belly Pot Stickers

Singapore Style Lobster, Sunny Side Egg, Bao Buns

Vegetable Fried Rice with Poached Egg

Cholon Modern Asian Bistro

155 Blake St.

Denver, CO


Chef Massimo Bottura Observed

Posted 21 Oct 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends, Full Service

Massimo Bottura is hustling back and forth in front of a draped stainless steel work table just minutes before his presentation is to begin.  The scheduled start time arrives and passes and, after another few minutes, he looks up. It’s obvious that Bottura is improvising and riffing in the kitchen and that he runs on his own schedule. My purpose is to spend the next 90 minutes with fifteen other participants observing Bottura’s mastery and getting into the head of one of the leading avant-garde chefs in all of Italy. This is the next best thing to dining at Bottura’s two Michelin star Osteria Francescana in Modena. Lucky for me his English is excellent.

There is no introduction on his part or any sort of overview of where we are headed. Instead he launches right into philosophy illuminating his emotional connection to Cotechino sausage with lentils, the traditional New Year’s Eve dish in Italy. His expression softens as he explains that lentils, according to tradition, represent the coins of wealth to be won in the coming year and how the dish triggers emotional memories of his youth and grandmother in particular. I am curious where he is headed with this. He turns, looks my way, stops and lets out his first nugget “you have to learn everything and then forget everything to create something incredible.” Bottura has one culinary hand connected to the past and one reaching toward the future.

He suggests that his dishes are an evolution rather than a revolution. They are drawn from many things including prior experiences in life, from his youth, from emotional events, from love. I connect the dots and realize that his passion for food started in his youth and that everything he envisions in rooted in this past. When you pair emotion and passion with mastery of fundamental and modern culinary technique the avante garde origin of Bottura’s cuisine is found. Evolution requires that you feed your heart, feed your soul and engage in tradition while redefining convention.

At this point Bottura lifts a small yellow ball between his thumb and index finger. It’s an immature egg found only in the visceral cavity of a dressed laying hen. When he was young, Bottura and his brothers would compete to secure the immature eggs inside hens being prepared for their family meal. He was fond of eating these little golden gems and today experiments with them as a receptacle for containing flavors. In a startling display of elegant simplicity Bottura’s assistant places an immature egg on a tiny white porcelain pedestal and draws out the liquid in the center using a large stainless steel syringe and replaces it with a fresh injection of Prosciutto di Parma ham broth ~ ham and eggs. They are delicious and representative of Bottura’s approach. Start with an item with deep significance, one that when eaten evokes memories and emotion, and innovate from there.

Next Bottura begins making ravioli with lentils and Cotechino while explaining that the ravioli is nothing more than a vessel for serving ideas.  He explains that questions are constantly flowing through his head “how can I make this, how can I do that?” He is constantly grinding and processing ideas and this is part of why Bottura is so different. He has mastered the techniques of critical reflection and problem solving and uses them both to create and innovate. Are these the skills of the modern chef?

Handing me ravioli, Bottura explains that his final point is leadership. A great two Michelin star restaurant like his runs on the backs of a large group of people committed to his vision. He is nothing without his team and assures that his success isn’t about him, it’s about his team. His point is sound; a great chef can’t do it alone. A chef must be able to lead and have followers willing to join or all the mastery of technique, professional experience and emotion are lost.  I suck down the ravioli and it is delicious. Bottura looks me in the eye, scans the rest of the people standing with me and explains that the ravioli reminds him of the ones he learned to make when he was a young boy.  Then he lets out his final snippet of philosophy:  “modern cuisine is about emotion as much as it is technique. For this I put my grandmother between meand Adria.” How cool is that.


Chef Massimo Bottura

Osteria Francescana

Via Stella 22, Modena 41100, Italy