CORNELIUS – Set amidst a strip mall in transition, Choplins has the feel of entering a cozy secret space.

Leaving behind the vast parking lot, it transforms into a restaurant that would not be out of place in, say, Brooklyn or Plaza Midwood in Charlotte.

The majority of furnishings, lights and tables have been upcycled to give the place a vintage feel. The lights are kept low over the intimate setting but customers can see various wine bottles jauntily sticking out of the handmade structures. A couch and love seat set directly in front of the hostess stand further lend to the feeling of warmth and relaxation.

And then there’s the food. The amazing, glorious, high-quality food being put out by Chef Wesley Choplin.

Choplin, who grew up in Winston-Salem, was supposed to be a nurse.

“I was two years into school and was cooking at a restaurant to pay the bills,” he said. “Then I realized that I liked the cooking part way better than the nursing part.”

So he quit nursing school and entered in the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. He began dating his best friend’s sister, Adrianne. The two eventually married and moved back to North Carolina.

Choplin has been the head chef at several fine dining restaurants, including Fusion Cafè; Jeffrey’s and Harris Grill. His dream, however, was to open up his own restaurant. In March 2010, he made that dream a reality.

Choplin chose the area due to the excellent deal he could get on rent.

“Listen, I know Exit 28 is a little quirky,” he said, grinning. “But I figure if you make excellent, fresh food then people will follow you anywhere!”

And Choplin knows his food. The lunch and dinner menus are New American cuisine; meaning he puts personal twists on some old favorites.

Take the shrimp and grits, for example. He uses a honey chili sauce to amp up the flavors and add some light spice. Or his flatbread appetizer, which uses a cracker-thin crust perfectly loaded with fresh toppings.

“We’ve taken a lot of the carbs out of it,” Choplin said. “So you can really taste the roasted red peppers or fresh spinach.”

In addition to the regular menu, he serves six specials daily. These specials are often seafood and are usually caught the day before.

“I’ve got this guy who gets me the best, most fresh seafood,” he said. “This is what becomes the daily specials.”

He also tries to get as much produce and meat from local vendors as possible.

“We really are mostly farm fresh,” he said. “It is just another way to give the customers a really great dining experience. And if I run out of my collard greens? There is about a riot!”

Helen Braun, of South Florida, was eating at the restaurant for the first time and could not stop talking about the food.

“I was so pleasantly surprised,” she said. “Everything was just so fresh. My prime rib sandwich was amazing and the vegetables were clearly just picked.”

Choplins has many regulars, too.

“Many times I’ll be serving someone at lunch and they’ll tell me what they want for dinner!”

The little touches are what elevate Choplins to a special occasion place at everyday prices. There are specials every day of the week such as: $29 dinner for two every Monday or 1 1/2 pounds of large snow crab legs done in brown butter for $22.

Choplins is a true hidden gem with one heck of a chef (Choplin does 90 percent of the cooking); fresh, high-quality meat, fish and produce; a varied menu; and excellent pricing. It is well worth the time to discover this bistro-type restaurant and enjoy the friendly, intimate atmosphere while tucking into some superior cuisine.

Want to go? Choplins Restaurant, 19700 1 Norman Blvd., Cornelius, 704-892-4800.