Mile Chen came with his family from China in 2000. Starting as a to-go packer in a Virginia restaurant, he worked his way in and around all aspects of the business, ending up with his new wife in Asheville working for her sister, who owns several eateries. Deciding it was time to branch out on their own, Chen’s goal in creating Champa was for people to “try and open their minds and tongues with something new and fresh.”
Such a beautiful jewel box! Champa Sushi & Thai Cuisine in Hendersonville is one of the prettiest restaurants I’ve seen in a long time. Completely renovated from its previous lives as the Park Deli and the Double Olive, Champa is a red-lacquered feast for the eyes.
On a recent evening, a great friend and I were looking for a quiet place for conversation and good food. We were seated in a cozy booth and began the night with a bottle of “Southern Beauty” sake. Our waitress delivered it and said, “Southern Beauty for two Southern Beauties.” Blatant flattery will get you everywhere with me. The sake was cold and smooth…and packed a lethal punch.
Having heard good things about Champa’s sushi, we shared the “Sushi Appetizer,” which was four pieces of the sushi chef’s choice. Thin slices of tuna, white tuna, salmon and mackerel, all wrapped around rice, came to the table with soy, wasabi and thin shavings of an incredible pickled ginger. We also ordered Por-Pea Sod (fresh basil roll), two rice paper bundles filled with steamed shrimp, glass noodles, basil, snow peas and carrots. Spicy peanut and sweet chili sauce come for dipping. The fresh basil roll really wowed me…the vegetables were crunchy and a delicious contrast to the soft rice paper wrap. I felt virtuous and healthy and devoured every mouthful.
The menu at Champa is enormous…one can go from a southern beauty to an ancient sea hag before reading through the whole thing. What jumped out at me was the range of dishes and the extremely reasonable pricing. My friend took the easy way out and ordered the special that was described by our server. I had been told by my friend Chef Mark Starr to order the crispy red snapper, which he deemed “amazing.” Unfortunately, I was too slow on the draw and the guy at the next table beat me to the last snapper. Undaunted, I decided to try the yellow chicken curry with brown rice. An excellent choice, as it turns out — the dish was superb.
The wine list at Champa holds many familiar names, but we tried an unfamiliar bottle, Hardy’s Oomoo Shiraz from South Africa. Dark and inky, it was a beautiful wine with our dinners. The special turned out to be, indeed, very special. Lots of beautiful seafood in a silky sauce over a bed of crispy noodles was a fabulous choice. My curry was mild and tasty. I learned later in talking with the owner that you can ask to bump the heat factor up, which I would definitely do on my next visit.
With sushi having gained such a following in recent years, Chen took pains to find just the right sushi chef and recruited a friend from New York. Fresh fish is delivered almost every day and you can sit at the softly lit bar and watch these edible works of art being created. “People have fun watching the fancy sushi being made,” says Chen.
With a private dining room that seats up to 35, there is a place for everyone at Champa. And with prices ranging from well below $10 in most categories of the menu, there is something for every pocketbook as well. We chatted with a foursome who make it a point to come on a weekly basis, mainly because of the variety of dishes and the welcoming staff. Chen says, “We hope people will feel like part of the family,” and he has often offered to make a dish that isn’t on the menu if a diner requests it.
Champa, like the Asian flower it was named for, is a lovely space with an appealing menu and beautifully plated wide-ranging Asian cuisine.