Café Chinois

05 Jan 2022

Where Crepes Meet Culture: French-Inspired Asian Cuisine

By Fanny Slater  »  Photos by G. Frank Hart

As I nestled into a warm booth inside the still, peaceful dining room at Indochine (habitually buzzing with hungry patrons), I took in the rare scene. My gaze drifted from one ornamental artifact to the next. It was the calm midday period between lunch and dinner service, and I sat across from owner Solange “Niki” Thompson. She sipped an iced tea and thoughtfully answered my questions regarding her newest endeavor, Café Chinois, as the rain puddled in the gravel parking lot outside.

In a sea of ever-changing eateries in Wilmington, Indochine has been a reliable staple; a well-oiled machine running smoothly for over two decades. And in a time when the service industry has been in survival mode, this woman mustered up the courage and energy to not only keep going — but expand.

Along came a Carrie Bradshaw moment when I couldn’t help but wonder…

What was her secret?

“I was just daring, I guess,” Thompson remarked with a humble eyebrow raise as she looked up from her drink.

Café Chinois emerged in a former Thai restaurant this past April. Tucked into a strip mall in Fulton Station, the exterior boasts quite the unassuming façade. One step through the entrance, however, and you’re certain you’ve wandered out of Wilmington and into another country. A makeover fully equipped with a vibrant color scheme of lime green, teal, and purple gave the space new life. Ornate art, vintage Japanese dolls, and family relics adorn the walls in a manner synonymous to Thompson’s style. She describes Café Chinois as "a place where food meets art and art meets food,” and that couldn’t be more accurate. I asked how the eclectic ambience enhanced the dining experience, and if it was just as crucial as the cuisine itself.

“People recognize my stories, my family background, and what makes me who I am today. I want to honor my parents and my children for helping me. The food is more important than the atmosphere, but I was just lucky that I had enough things to make it nice!”

Enough things may be the understatement of the year.

Thompson (also an avid art collector) once ran an antique store on Front Street, and the downtown shop was riddled with treasures she had shipped from all over South-East Asia. “It’s enlightening to travel,” she says, “and my original dream was to create a museum for the children of Wilmington that offered a global cultural experience.” Instead, the gems she’s acquired have helped to trademark Indochine with its signature flair, and Café Chinois has followed suit.

So with both places having a similar aura, I posed the million dollar question: What does Thompson hope to showcase at Chinois that will set it apart from the golden child?

I had read that diners are already branding Café Chinois the quieter, more elegant “little sister” to Indochine—a regularly busy, bustling destination famed for its packed parking lot and lines out the door—and Thompson agreed.

“I didn’t have that in mind, but it turned out to be that way. Ladies can come for lunch, have tea during ‘tea time’, or get a glass of wine since we’re open all day.”

Speaking of — Indochine’s tiki bar vibes have certainly carried over to Café Chinois as the cocktail program’s attention to detail is consistent with the high-quality of the fare. With its rich crimson hue and tart notes of hibiscus, the Rangoon Ruby is a marriage of citrus and gin garnished with a candied blossom. In my past, I would have slugged a Singha or three to wash down the Thai dumplings I spotted on the menu, but with almost a year of sobriety behind me — I enquired if Thompson was doing anything to support the rising trend of drinking less. Don’t worry, she’s got a couple of non-alcoholic beers and mocktails on deck.

Though it’s not as all-encompassing as Indochine’s lineup, Café Chinois has an assortment of familiar favorites like deep-fried cream cheese and crab rangoons, Chinese orange beef, and of course — classic Pad Thai. As we both jokingly agreed that people are creatures of habit, find something they like to eat, and stick with it — I pressed on about the focus of Thai, Korean, Vietnamese-French and Chinese flavors and asked which dishes have come to be the top choices.

“We do a Vietnamese bouillabaisse and a fettucine with green curry clams that’s very popular. And we brought back the crepes,” she exclaimed.

In the distance, locals rejoiced.

Her bouillabaisse, a hearty Provençal-inspired seafood stew, swaps out the traditional tomato-saffron broth for a fiery red curry version loaded with garlic and lemongrass. As for the crepes (also known as Bánh xèo), the savory pancakes were a dish that once graced the menu of Indochine, but were removed for being too labor-intensive. The turmeric-spiked specialties have resurfaced at Café Chinois, and needless to say, the crowds have gone wild. Once the fragrant, rice powder-infused batter has been sizzled in oil, stuffed, and folded — the crepes are served with lettuce, fresh mint and basil, and a sweet and sour fish sauce-based dip.

“They’re fried until crispy on the outside,” Thompson tells me with a grin, “and the secret is that it has to be crunchy. They come with different herbs and are very light.”

I was suddenly starving. Lucky for me, I happened into Indochine the same day several tuna rolls were sprawled onto a table — posing for one of our photographers in the newly renovated sushi bar. But just before I was invited to sneak to the back for a bite, Thompson’s husband Bob pulled up a chair and began sharing his interpretation of his wife’s pioneering of the Wilmington food scene. Before I knew it, the conversation drifted and I became the one-woman audience of a slideshow that consisted solely of adorable grandchildren.

Part of Thompson’s quest is that her restaurants be a salute to her stories and background. But this doesn’t just come through in the vibrant curries and the whimsical chandeliers. Family flows through her like the coconut milk in those famous crepes. And as I sat there relishing the parallel between the paintings on the walls and the images on the cell phone screens, I thought to myself: thank goodness for those who dare to be daring.

3710 S. College Rd.
Unit 123
Wilmington, NC

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