With a menu of fresh, authentic Vietnamese and Thai cuisine and a culturally rich atmosphere, Indochine delivers an off the map experience
By BRIDGET CALLAHAN Photos by ERIN WHITTLE
7 Wayne Dr., Wilmington
When Solange Thompson first stepped in the door of the space that would later become Indochine Restaurant, she had a vision.
“I thought there was a need in Wilmington for a nice place where you could get a good value for your food, at a reasonable price. But, you could also bring your family, your children, your friends, and eat in a beautiful environment that reminded you of Asia. I’ve been to many Asian restaurants in Wilmington that did not produce that feeling. When a person from Wilmington brings their friend in, they can say ‘Hey, we have as nice an Asian restaurant as you will find in San Francisco or New York,’” Thompson says.
Getting the space turned out a little tricky. After losing again and again to other tenants, Thompson finally befriended the owner of the building directly and put down a deposit to make sure she was first in line whenever the current tenant left, which tells you a lot about Thompson’s determination.
She was inspired by the beauty of restaurants from her hometown of Huế, Vietnam and by the houses of her father and her son. Her father was an archeologist, who filled their house with his collection of Southeast Asian art and artifacts. It inspired a love and appreciation of art in his daughter, who years later dreamed of opening up a Southeast Asian cultural museum in Wilmington to show off her own collection.
“Everything about my background with my parents inspired me,” Thompson says. “Food was a big deal because my mother was a very good chef. When she went to the market, she would come back with something different every time. In Vietnam, you cannot plan what you want to eat that day, because if you go to the market and they have fresh seafood, that’s what you buy. These people would call my mother and say ‘Hey, I have this fresh chicken that we just plucked,’ and that’s what she would get. So, there was always a sense of surprise. She married my father, who was French, so she would make these wonderful French pastries. We thought at the time she was the greatest chef there ever was.”
When she was twenty, Thompson moved to Thailand and married Bob, a military attache stationed there. The position came with a chef, who cooked for parties and events the couple hosted, and taught Thompson the art of Thai cuisine. Later, after moving with her husband to North Carolina, it was food that once again helped her connect to a place.
“We landed right in Wilmington and Bob told me, ‘We’re going to go to a town called Carolina Beach.’ We went in October, it was raining, and I think I was in a state of shock. Because forty years ago, Carolina Beach was a very small town. I lived in Vietnam where everything was international, and here was Carolina Beach. I thought I had fallen down off the planet,” she describes.
“I was pretty much in a state of shock for a few years, until I got my bearings and made friends. But, that first year, I didn’t know where I was. I’ve met some wonderful people who have taught me a lot, including southern cooking. When I first came, you know, we stir fry greens really quick and here you have to cook them for a few hours. I asked my husband, ‘Are you sure we can eat this?’ But now, southern-style greens are one of my favorite dishes,” Thompson says.
At Indochine, you’ll find a menu of Vietnamese and Thai dishes that are reflections of Thompson, in a gorgeous setting that itself is like a dream collage of all the places she’s been. It’s a blending of new and old art, beautiful corners full of history that backdrop busy tables where couples are making new histories. From first dates to graduations, friends catching up over lunch or a Friday night out, the restaurant seems grand and unique enough to fit any mood.
“It’s my own fusion of my travels and food I have tasted. I don’t like to be the same as everyone else,” she says. All of the sauces used are her own, and it’s a point of pride that she keeps MSG off the menu, and no shortcuts are taken with ingredients.
The most popular dishes on the extensive menu are the pad thai, a spicy sweet rice noodle dish with peanuts, the green curry with green chilis, kaffir lime and basil, and the red curry with roasted duck, served in an amazing sauce of coconut milk, pineapple, lychee, tomatoes and onions. The banana blossom salad features marinated shrimp and duck tossed with julienned banana blossoms, daikon, carrots, and cilantro, doused in homemade dressing. A favorite during monsoon season, her housemade phở is steaming with cinnamon, anise, and bone marrow. And Thompson makes special note of the in-house coconut cake.
With any dish that comes out, presentation is important to match the glamour of the dining room. For instance, the pineapple fried rice comes served in an actual pineapple. Artful cut vegetables, and perfectly arranged slices live on every plate. No matter where you sit, in the dining room or in the garden in one of the beautiful private huts, eating at Indochine is an experience. And one that is a first stop for ex-Wilmingtonians coming back to town.
“One customer told me, ‘Solange, you have got to the point where you’re not a restaurant anymore, you’re a destination,’” Thompson says. “When people come in from out of town, they come here. I hope to continue this tradition of good food and good service, so I will always make Wilmington proud.”