Paris transplant: White Orchid blooms on Main

Why write fiction? Consider the following true story.

American man meets Vietnamese woman at her popular Parisian restaurant. A year later, they meet again in Paris, start dating (he waits in the double-parked car while she gathers provisions between lunch and dinner shifts). Vietnamese woman leaves Paris with her siblings to move to Charlottesville, where the American man lives and works at a major university. Together, they open a Vietnamese restaurant on West Main Street in the former home of Station. Charlottesville diners live happily ever after. Or something like that.

Yes, the tale of White Orchid, which opened on Saturday, September 3, is romantic. The male protagonist is Leonard Mirman, professor of economics at UVA and now also a restaurant owner. Mirman took over the lease of 420 West Main (owned by Gabe Silverman and Allan Cadgene) about three months ago, having purchased the business from long-time owner Barbara Shifflett.

Mirman and his partner Duyen Nguyen­ a native of Vietnam who fled to Paris with her family 25 years ago­ ran the restaurant as Station for a while. But it quickly became clear that going with a 100 percent Vietnamese menu was their recipe for success.

Nguyen, who holds two Le Cordon Bleu degrees (cuisine and patisserie), owned and operated Pivoine ("poppy"), a successful Vietnamese restaurant near Paris' Place d'Italie, for five years. It took Mirman three nights just to get a table! His chances are better now that he's the owner of Nguyen's new venture, White Orchid.

Creating the restaurant involved a few changes to the former gas station's modern-industrial décor– pots of orchids scattered here and there, a few well-placed pieces of Chinese furniture, framed color photographs of Vietnam-­ and a complete transformation of the menu. Nguyen, who runs the show with her sister and brother, is also assisted by chef Nhim Tran, whom she found by placing an ad in a Vietnamese newspaper in D.C.

As you might imagine, very little English is spoken in White Orchid's kitchen-­ which makes it challenging for the restaurant's American servers ("Parlez-vous francais?" I overheard one asking the chef), but bodes well for diners.

Known for its freshness (lettuce, lime wedges, and cilantro garnish most plates) and simple complexity, Vietnamese cuisine creates a craving that's difficult to satisfy with Thai or Chinese. Charlottesville has other jolts of Vietnamese cuisine (C-ville Coffee's noodle bowls and Saigon Café come immediately to mind).

I've only just begun to sample White Orchid's comprehensive menu­ skewers of grilled lemongrass beef, shrimp mousse on sugar cane, a mango salad topped with fresh shrimp and bean sprouts, a potful of grilled Hanoi-style pork and another of lemongrass chicken (both soaked in slurpable sauces), fried snapper with ginger sauce ­ which is why I'm glad that, starting this week, they'll be serving lunch as well as dinner. White Orchid's planned opening hours are 11:30-2pm and 5:30-10pm, Tuesday-Sunday.


Aroma's on the horizon

 Many of you have already discovered the wonders of Aroma's Café, Hassan Kaisoum's Mediterranean lunch hotspot tucked away in a cafeteria in the Fontaine Research Park.

Though it's well worth the hunt, you might be glad to know that­ as Dish previously promised­ a more centrally located Aroma's #2 is now looming on the imminent horizon. Kaisoum tells Dish he's planning to open Aroma's Café and Bistro in the Millmont Plaza (behind Harris-Teeter) by mid-November.

"I wanted a location that would be more central to everybody and be nice and convenient for students and families," he says. Though details will be coming soon, we can expect a menu similar to that of the original Aroma's with its many Moroccan elements, but in addition to lunch, the Millmont location will also serve breakfast starting at 7am (espresso drinks, pastries) and dinner ( a more elaborate menu, beer and wine).

White Orchid's creators Duyen Nguyen and Leonard Mirman