The small shopping developments that dot the roads around Lake Norman are certainly convenient. But they can feel a little sterile.
How can a restaurant stand out in that kind of setting? Get personal.
Choplin’s, off West Catawba Avenue just west of I-77 in Cornelius, manages to do that just fine in a strip-mall development between a Blockbuster and a Thai restaurant. A cheerful “Eat Drink and Be Merry” sign hangs outside, and the slogan “Live Well/Love Much/Laugh Often” is painted over one door in the dining room.
It’s a comfortable place that’s nice but not stuffy, with both white tableclothes and brown paper topping the tables, plenty of customers who appear to be regulars, and a quiet birthday party going on in a private room on a weeknight.
The menu runs heavily to red meat and fish, with lots of beef and a little pork in the first category and shrimp, lobster and tuna in the second. Prices in the entree section can be a bit steep, especially in the steak-heavy grill section, which ranges from $17 to $27. But New York strips and filets usually don’t come cheap, my friends.
You can go more in the budget direction with sandwiches – the Angus cheeseburger, crispy chicken with house pickles or blackened-catfish “reuben” run $8.50 to $9.75 with a side. Or salads can be turned into meals with chicken, salmon, shrimp or pecan-maple chicken salad.A nice touch: If you order a salad with dinner, you can opt for a smaller portion.
We started with Crispy Lobster Rolls, which were a super-sized version of fried spring rolls. The $8 order came with two, each cut in half, and they were monsters, filled with lobster bits and a sweet mixture of cabbage, greens and carrots.
Baked “Sweet Onion” Soup arrives as molten-hot as expected, with plenty of cheese melted over the top and a fresh-tasting, beefy base.
One of the most popular dishes on the entree list is the Slow-Cooked Baby Back Ribs with a thick, sweet glaze of coffee and brown sugar barbecue sauce. It’s almost too sweet, but the hint of coffee pulls it back. The best part, though, was the Parmesan-layered Potatoes that came on the side. They were essentially scalloped potatoes with a crispy brown crust, tender slices of potato and a velvety sauce. Talk about comfort food.
Sauteed Shrimp and Garlic in Chipotle-Scallion Cream Sauce was a hit, with a half-dozen large but perfectly cooked shrimp. The sauce wasn’t too spicy or smoky, but the shrimp had plenty of garlic and a touch of that seared flavor the Chinese call “the breath of the wok,” the distinct flavor of meat that hit hot iron just before it hit your plate. The shrimp came with a simple rice and black bean mixture that was good for soaking up the sauce and crisply sauted mixed vegetables.
Desserts are generally slices of several kinds of cake from the popular La Patisserie in Mooresville, but the Red Velvet Cake is made in-house. The slice was big enough to share, with very moist cake and a white buttercream frosting.
The dining room theme is warm, with earthy colors and plenty of art on the walls. On the wall facing the kitchen, where customers only see it on the way back from the restroom, is a large painting of a rooster. Consider it a reference to chef/owner Wes Choplin, who is certainly cock of the walk here.
He’s frequently out of the kitchen and around the dining room, greeting regulars or grabbing a bottle opener and a glass to share a sip with a couple who brought in a special bottle of wine.
Choplin is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a veteran of several local restaurants, including Fusion, the Harris Grill and Jeffrey’s. But this is definitely his place and his expression of Southern-tinged food.
And that’s really what it takes to stand out in a strip mall.