We slurp soup dumplings between bookshelves and fig trees. It's Thursday, just past six. Through a skylight, the sun can be glimpsed, making its way toward sleep. It shimmers around the room, casting its light onto tulip vases and chili oil jars, beer glasses and bamboo steamers, and fingers dancing with chopsticks, slowly and closely, like a waltz.
Will you be near the fig trees, too? Or over there, past the sheer, ceiling-to-floor curtains, at one of the bar's twenty-two seats? Maybe the other direction, at the family-reunion-size round table, beneath the chandelier-sculpture that sort of knocks the wind out of you. Maybe somewhere I never even saw. Brewery Bhavana is that big, both in its footprint and concept: a brewery, restaurant, bookstore, and flower shop.
Follow everyone inside and you might end up drinking fig beer next to that fig tree, or eating shrimp shumai with a borrowed copy of Goldfinger, or having a Tiki Old Fashioned or two and wondering, Wait, what fig tree? What books? It all depends on where you sit.
And that makes sense. Location tells a lot about Bhavana.
Take, for instance, its site in Raleigh—by Moore Square Park, beside Bhavana co-founders Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha's first venture, Bida Manda, a Laotian restaurant that opened almost five years ago.
Bhavana opened five months ago and is already collecting accolades. Bon Appétit magazine just named it one of its fifty best new restaurants of the year, and it was the only restaurant in the state to make the list.
From the start, the most significant aspect of the Nolinthas' approach was intimacy. Stop in for a bowl of pad Thai and you couldn't swing a noodle without hitting Vansana or Vanvisa. And their staff, many of whom have graduated into leaders at Bhavana, treated the place as if it were their own.
By expanding next door, the Nolinthas made it possible, somehow, to be in two places at once. On my second visit, Vansana floated by to refill water and said hello. (We have met via work, though this meal's nature was undisclosed.) When I began to introduce him to my partner, Vansana remembered not only who he was, but also where we sat and what we ate at Bida Manda almost two years ago. To the Nolinthas, this attention to detail is just basic hospitality. As they wander through the space, they seem to know everyone. And by the time everyone leaves, they usually do.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- The space at Brewery Bhavana is a mix of light and dark, with a bar, bookstore, flower shop, and dining room.
You won't find them behind the stove or bar. Bhavana's third cofounder, Patrick Woodson, serves as head brewer, while beverage director Jordan Hester continues to bring the creativity he showed at Bida Manda. Executive chef Lon Bounsanga holds the same position at both places. And Chun Shi joined the team as executive dim sum chef.
Bhavana's menu is dim-sum-driven. There are sixteen items under "A Little Something," slightly fewer under "Something Larger." Dim sum is often reduced to "Chinese tapas," but this is comparable to calling tacos "Mexican sandwiches." It's more complicated than that.
Dim sum started along the Silk Road in China, where teahouses served small plates for travelers. Today, it's a vital component of the vast cuisine. Visit any Chinatown across the States and you'll find a dim sum restaurant where servers wheel carts around the dining room, inviting you to try this or that. The recipe canon is boundless. This is why certain Chinese chefs, like Shi, specialize in it.
There are no carts here, so the menu will guide you. Between the dim sum, beer, cocktails, and flowers—you can order them right to your table—plus annotations from the staff, it's almost twenty pages long. It includes a range of dumplings, buns, and egg rolls, as well as some stand-alones like crispy pig ears, steamed spareribs, and turnip cakes. You would be remiss (or vegetarian) to forgo the scallion pancakes, which double as blankets to bundle up marrow-fatty oxtail.
Xiao long bao are especially cherished among dumpling lovers. Also known as soup dumplings, they're filled with gelatinous broth and crimped like beggars' purses. I'm told the number of crimps says a lot about the crimper. I counted almost twenty on each. Another steamed dumpling—less famous but as good—is the char siu bao. They're little buns, light and fluffy as marshmallows, stuffed with Cantonese-style barbecue pork.
All are served with a pitcher of dumpling sauce, but ask for chili oil, too. It is studded with Szechuan peppercorns, peanuts, and fermented bean curd, the sort of condiment you want to put on everything: dumplings and pork buns, scrambled eggs and spaghetti, bruises and bad days.
One way to make Bhavana's initially overwhelming menu more approachable is to get one small plate and one large, say dumplings to start and fried rice as a main. The larger plates offer standard Western fare: fried rice, lo mein, Peking duck, steamed fish, and General Tso's.
The execution exceeds expectations. Fried rice is crammed with crab meat and shrouded in an egg crepe. The duck takes three days to prepare. Black bass arrives whole and wide-eyed, like you, served with a gingery scallion relish. And the General Tso's achieves its signature rusty color from, of all things, hibiscus.
This isn't the only menu item to borrow inspiration from the flower shop. The core beers evoke the earth in name (Sow, Sprout, Wilt) and flavor. Chamomile IPA is the first of a series, subtly floral and citrusy, like a lemon tree just beginning to bloom.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
The menu currently includes ten core and ten provisional beers. You'll find a lot of IPAs, which makes sense with the food offerings. Hoppy, bitter beers flock to spicy, rich, umami-laden foods like a Leo to Sagittarius. And if bitter isn't your thing, there's a wide range of other options, including several saisons, fundamentals like American-style pale ale and summery, low-alcohol sour, and novelties like a mango peppercorn saison and chocolate rye stout. If twenty beers is intimidating to you—as it was, at first, to me—ask to sample any variety.
Indeed, Bhavana calls itself a brewery, but it is as much a restaurant, a bookstore, and a flower shop. Or Bhavana is none of those things—just as beer is and is not grain, hops, yeast, and water. Bhavana means cultivating in Sanskrit, which can only make me wonder, What exactly Bhavana and its patrons are cultivating?
It seems like more than egg rolls and IPAs, cookbooks and carnations, Bhavana wants to cultivate community, to grow our ideas of what gathering spaces could be. Like a tulip that you plant, water, and tend to, only to cut from the ground, transplant to a vase, and place on a table, so someone who sits there with some soup dumplings pauses, if only for a second, to say, "How beautiful."