When Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha opened Bida Manda five years ago, they didn’t just give the Triangle its first Laotian restaurant. Offering an ambitious mix of meticulously authentic Laotian fare and respectful contemporary riffs on the cuisine in a chic cosmopolitan setting, the brother-and-sister team joined a small band of pioneering restaurateurs in elevating downtown Raleigh’s reputation as a serious dining destination.
Turns out they were just getting warmed up. Brewery Bhavana, which the Nolinthas opened in late March next door to Bida Manda in partnership with local brewer Patrick Woodson, pushes the envelope in ways that defy easy categorization. In addition to being a restaurant and brewery (or more precisely a tap room, as the actual brewing facility is at a nearby offsite location), Bhavana is also a flower shop and a small bookstore.
If, like me, you find yourself struggling to grasp the concept on paper, rest assured that it will make sense the minute you walk in the door. The combination makes for such an inviting gathering place, in fact, that you may even be asking yourself why no one has ever thought of it before.
Bon Appetit agrees. This week, it named Bhavana as one of America’s 10 Best New Restaurants.
The owners have utterly transformed the former home of the Irish pub Tir na nOg into an airy space that is at once cosmopolitan and casual, with pale woods, stone floors, and walls painted in muted shades of dove gray and ivory. Gauzy floor-to-ceiling drapes divide the space into three loosely defined “rooms” that flow organically into one another.
To the left as you enter is the bar, where a long row of bent cane barstools face a wall of 40 taps set into a granite back bar. These dispense a core selection of 10 brews and an evolving list (currently, 10 of these, too) of “provisional beers.” The offering is especially strong in Belgian ales, but can be counted on to deliver a satisfying quaff for every taste, from classic pilsner to chocolate rye stout to chamomile IPA.
The room to the right, with a single fresh flower on each table, is the main dining room. Some of those tables spill over into the middle room, where the flower shop and bookstore are located. With its high gabled glass ceiling, potted trees, and clear view into the dining room and bar, the space has an almost magical feel of greenhouse, library and watering hole all rolled into one. It’s my favorite spot – and, for all the restaurant’s other attractions, it’s what makes Bhavana a one-of-a-kind place.
For their second restaurant, the Nolinthas have ventured into Chinese territory. The menu is divided into two roughly equal categories, labeled “A Little Something” (dumplings, buns and other small plates of the sort typically served on dim sum carts, though carts aren’t used here); and “A Bit Larger” (entree portions, for the most part).
Dim sum chef Chun Shi, a Shanghai native who most recently worked at the late, lamented An in Cary, gives an impressive accounting of her assigned specialty. She raises the ante on scallion pancakes by pairing them with a roasted marrow bone topped with braised oxtail, subtly sweetened with coconut-soy jam. Her two renditions of bao – steamed buns filled with char siu, or delicately pan-browned with a filling of braised pork and black mushrooms – are both so good that they leave you no option but to order both.
Dumplings – chicken with ginger and bok choy, or mixed seafood – are on point, too. Soup dumplings (xiao long bao) come oh-so-close to the mark with beautifully crimped wrappers and a savory filling of steamed crab and ground pork. Only a lack of the defining soup in the filling sends them slightly wide of the mark.
Shrimp and corn “dumplings,” one of Shi’s contemporary riffs on the dim sum theme, might be more accurately called pies, as their flaky crust resembles that of her lamb-filled Xian Bing pies. The shrimp and corn version is so successful, though (it was the consensus hit among our party of four one night) that I’d say the chef can call them whatever she likes.
Bida Manda fans won’t be surprised to learn that the Laotian restaurant’s longtime executive chef, Lon Bounsanga, is equally adept at delivering the Chinese goods. His Peking duck’s crisp lacquered skin and succulent flesh are fully deserving of the “textbook perfect” praise.
Steamed whole fish (frequently a variety of snapper) is likewise memorable. Irreproachably fresh and expertly steamed in a banana leaf, the fish is served with ginger-soy sauce and scallion relish on the side, allowing you to add just enough to complement its delicate flavor without overpowering it.
At the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, beef stir-fried with longhorn peppers in a Shaoxing wine sauce delivers a solid one-two punch of umami and spice. So does pork belly with rice cakes in a sauce punctuated with Szechwan peppercorns.
The menu offers two variations on the fried rice theme: Nasi Goring, a Malaysian-Chinese variation loaded with crabmeat and topped with an egg crêpe; and Lap Cheung fried rice, with Chinese sausage and asparagus, topped with a fried egg. Either will spoil you for whatever fried rice had previously been your favorite.
Chinese vegetables – pea shoots are a must when they come into season; in the meantime, wok-seared green beans or stir-fried Chinese broccoli – can be faulted only in their portion size, which is considerably less than the family-size servings you might expect.
Disappointments of any kind are rare, though, and not always the fault of the kitchen — like the duck egg rolls whose wrappers had gone somewhat soft by the time they got to our table. To be fair, the dining room was absolutely full that night (reservations are a good idea), and the wait staff are among the most accommodating around, and exceptionally well-trained for a new restaurant.
Even on those rare occasions when the kitchen serves up a clunker, it’s quickly forgotten. A few minutes after you’re served a too-dense slice of coconut cake, you might open a fortune cookie and read, “It is better to travel well than to arrive.” And you know without a doubt that your travels will take you back to Brewery Bhavana.
218 S. Blount St., Raleigh
Atmosphere: airy cosmopolitan restaurant and bar with flower shop and bookstore
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: exceptionally welcoming and well-trained
Recommended: bao, scallion pancakes, shrimp and corn “dumplings,” fried rice, steamed whole fish, Peking duck
Open: Lunch Tuesday-Saturday, dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking on street and in the Moore Square Public Parking deck behind the restaurant.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.