Dear server whose name I didn’t catch, I guess I owe you an apology.

I may have seemed a bit standoffish as you launched into your spiel about the wonders of small-plate dining, basically ignoring you to survey the wine list instead. (At least my charming companion was graciously all ears.) It’s just that it began with that dreaded query, “Have you dined with us before?”, from which my eaterly ego instantly recoils: even though I hadn’t, I’m perfectly familiar with the ins & outs of family-style meal-sharing; it’s nothing new, & to imply otherwise always strikes me as a tad precious.

But it’s not your fault that you’re required to spout twaddle like “Things will matriculate out of the kitchen in a sushi-esque fashion.” Your service was more than competent—indeed quite polished—& you personally proved a genuinely kind sir. And the meal itself? Damn. Amid the spate of Asian Fusion peddlers popping up these days (somewhat inexplicably, really, post-heyday—see: Se7en, Japoix), I was expecting good things of Jean-Georges Vongerichten protégé Lon Symensma especially; henceforth I’ll be counting on great things.

This being my 1st real review since going public with my identity, I should make a brief digression to admit that I’m somewhat ambivalent about the whole affair. On the one hand, I’m proud of my work & want to showcase it as best I can. On the other hand, I’m not so proud of myself to imagine that any chef with a lick of sense is scanning his dining room hourly to determine whether I’ve graced it with my presence. On the 3rd hand (food writers have 3, you know—1 to gobble with, 1 to guzzle with, 1 to think with), discretion really is the better part of professional valor. I can only say that so far I’ve not noticed being noticed, explicitly or implicitly, based on my treatment; if & when I do, I’ll state as much up front (as I do when I go to press events). And I can only add that you, possessed of the knowledge that my ugly mug is out there for all to gawk at, should take my opinion with as many grains of salt as you see fit. (Granted, that was always the case. My humble hope is that regular readers know my voice & can vouch for my intention to do them an honest service by now.)

The kitchen takes pride in exquisite presentation, as is clear with the arrival, in lieu of a bread basket, of this veritable sculpture of puffed rice & black sesame seeds,

more a textural vehicle for zesty, smoky tomato-chili jam

than a flavor conveyor in its own right (perhaps a little more salt would remedy that; perhaps not—texture is a pleasure in its own right.)

But no amount of artfulness can compensate for culinary mediocrity; I didn’t rest assured, for all his acclaim, that Symensma’s palate was on a par with his palette until our first dish, an elegant take on Vietnamese green papaya salad.

What makes the dish is that exhilirating scoop of tamarind sorbet; the contrast of textures (smooth, slick, crunchy) itself contrasts the ultra-refreshing profile of complementary flavors, tart on sour on downright acidic.

More subtly deviating from the classic is the beef tartare,

coarse-chopped rather than minced, nearly dripping with egg yolk, threaded with a chiffonade of fresh basil instead of parsley—a notable switcheroo—& flanked by buttons of Chinese-style hot mustard where the standard is mixed with Dijon. Pretty but paltry, they didn’t cut the you-know-what for me, so I requested extra on the side. Like the puffed rice cracker, the tapioca puffs served as all-but-flavorless scoops for the meat, which was no problemo—after all, the usual slices of baguette don’t carry much flavor-weight either.

That said, the baguette used for the Vietnamese French dip—basically a bánh mì—was excellent, fresh & chewy with a satisfying crust; enjoyably rich (though kept in check with “pho jus” rather than mayo), it didn’t quite carry the punch of more rustic versions, where fish sauce, cilantro & chilies give, say, head cheese a swift kick. It’s an admirable rendition; I’d have it again. But I wouldn’t give it the edge over its hardcore counterpart.

By comparison, I can’t recommend highly enough the Kaya toast with coconut jam & “egg cloud.” Nor can I fathom what I could possibly eat between now & Sunday that will trump this for the Dish of the Week. Not even diamond-encrusted haggis stuffed with foie gras & lutefisk. What an extraordinary dish.

You dip the chunks of brioche, slathered with the creamy jam, into a savory custard froth—made, I was told, by putting eggs, butter, & skim milk under a foam gun, then misting them with soy to give it a touch of funk. And then you go insane with glee for such lusciousness.

I’ve said before that, lacking much of a sweet tooth, I only order dessert when I’m too disappointed in a meal to end it on a sour note or too delighted with a meal to want it to end at all; the latter was our motivation to split the molten chocolate cake with salted peanut ice cream & toasted marshmallows.

Mind you, it was the ice cream we were after; the cake did nothing to change my opinion that the ubiquity of this dessert some 10 years after its heyday is head-scratching. But that quenelle was all we hoped for, peanut buttery & so soothing.

In short, dear server, you done good; Mr. Symensma, you done stellar. Four-&-a-half-soon-to-be-5-I’m sure stars stellar.

ChoLon Bistro on Urbanspoon