The idea of a bistro runs counter to the popular notion of a Chinese restaurant. Mention bistro and most imaginations conjure a small, intimate, dimly lighted caf serving continental favorites. Mention Chinese restaurant and most folks imagine a hustling, bustling eatery with packed tables, rushing waiters and a menu of a couple-hundred items.
Chopsticks, the elegant eatery settled into the corner of a tidy southwest Colorado Springs strip mall, defies both categories. Yes, it's a bistro; it's small and intimate. And yes, it's primarily a Chinese restaurant, although there are a few Thai dishes on the menu.
But Chopsticks, with its unusual food combinations and its sparely decorated dining room, is a creature unto itself, unlike anything we've seen in the Springs until now.
Husband-wife team Dave Bless and Kiyon Kim opened Chopsticks in February and have found a loyal following for their hybrid dishes and slightly upscale atmosphere. Following the lead of Kim's sister, Suzi Lee of Austin, Texas -- owner of Suzi's China Grill and Suzi's China Kitchen, both award-winning Asian fusion restaurants -- Dave and Kiyon offer some classic Chinese dishes, offset by what they call "new Asian" cuisine.
"We took Suzi's menu and brought it up here," said Bless. "We're very lucky ... Suzi's husband, who is the chef at Suzi's China Grill, came up here and taught our people how to make the signature dishes, making sure they got the sauces right."
The result is a very tightly run dining room and an efficient kitchen that churns out interesting dishes to a growing number of loyal diners.
Do not forgo appetizers at Chopsticks; they are among the best reasons to eat here. The Chicken Lettuce Wrap ($5.95) is a huge serving of sauted spiced, finely chopped chicken with whole lettuce leaves for wrapping, mild and refreshing. (The Lettuce Wrap also comes vegetarian style.) Traditional half-moon shaped dumplings, either pan-fried or steamed, are dubbed Peking Raviolis ($5.95) on the menu. Filled with delicately seasoned ground pork and vegetables, and served with a sweet-sour soy dipping sauce, they come beautifully plated with carved radishes and ample scallions, and one serving is plenty for two to share. The wontons, dumplings and spring rolls are all handmade here and it shows. The crowd favorite appetizer, says Bless, is the Spicy Tangy Dumpling, ground pork enveloped in a soft wonton skin, served with a spicy peanut sauce.
When my son bit into the Golden Sesame Chicken ($9.95) at Chopsticks, he said: "Hey, it's real chicken." I concurred. These were moist little nuggets, battered amply and fried at a hot enough temperature to cook the outer shell without eviscerating the soft meat inside. But I preferred the more exotic entrees, especially Beef Mimosa ($10.95), tender beef slices in a very light breading, sauted and smothered in a tangy, sherry wine sauce enhanced with dried zest of sun-dried tangerines and dried red chili pods. The flavors balance nicely -- a little bitter, a little sweet, a little hot, very rich and fragrant.
Suzi's Tex-Asian influence can be seen in a few dishes, notably the Jalapeno Chicken ($9.95). Lightly breaded chicken strips are cooked with sliced jalapenos, fermented black beans and garlic. The dish is mild if you don't bite into the jalapenos, colorful and tasty. The Thai Curry Shrimp ($12.95) is mild too, classically prepared in a green curry, coconut cream sauce, but the Firecracker Prawns ($12.95) are hot and spicy and look like they came from another planet with their neon orange-red sauce.
This was the only dish I tried at Chopsticks that really delivered on its promise of heat. The menu suggests that hot and spicy food can be altered to your taste. I'd recommend asking for more heat if you like your food notably spicy.
Grand Marnier Prawns ($14.95) is the signature "new Asian" dish (jumbo prawns, coated in lotus flour and sauted, are dressed with a Grand Marnier fruit sauce and served with a creamy mayonnaise dressing), but to my taste, the best seafood dish on the menu is the Shrimp with Sweet Basil and Lemongrass ($12.95), a beautifully balanced and clean-flavored dish. The prawns and shrimp are uniformly plump and well prepared -- springy to the bite and not overcooked.
It would be an oversight not to mention the dcor at Chopsticks. Light wood mixes with creamy hues to produce a clean, understated refinement. Two splashes of color -- red lacquered, stacked boxes behind the cash register and a bright green stand of bamboo in the room divider just in front of the kitchen -- offset the otherwise neutral palette, and simple paper wall sconces produce a not-too-bright, soft light across the dining areas. The atmosphere is quiet and comfortable, warmed by the flashing presence of Kiyon Kim, greeting customers, filling water glasses and generally keeping an eye on everyone and everything.
She, too, qualifies as Asian fusion. With a huge laugh she describes herself as a "very Americanized Korean woman, a cross between Johnny Carson and David Letterman." Classic but modern, eclectic but elegant, Chopsticks is new, exciting and welcome in our traditional burg, not quite Austin but gettin' there.
Chopsticks Asian Bistro
120 E. Cheyenne Mountain Boulevard (in Country Club Corners, just west of Hwy. 115)
Open Mon.Fri., 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch, 5-9 p.m. for dinner; Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday
579-9111 (phone), 579-9161 (fax) for takeout orders