More Than a Place for Craft Beer and Dim Sum, Raleigh’s Brewery Bhavana Shows Us How Soul Food Can Transcend Cultures
During the start of the Saturday lunch rush at Brewery Bhavana, chef Chun Si scurries from the kitchen back out to the dining room where we’ve been sitting. “I just asked for some mooncakes. You have to try them!”
A small statue of the female Buddha Guan Yin stands in a regal pose on the windowsill above our heads, where warm winter sun dances upon our teacups in golden flecks of light. The mooncakes arrive, four of them, served on a plate that’s lined with a verdant sliver of banana leaf. Unlike the restaurant’s bao or dumplings, the mooncakes aren’t steamed. Instead they are baked and lightly seared, stuffed with a fragrant, warm ground beef mixture. The round shape celebrates the full moon, each tightly coiled in a dough laminated in a French-Chinese tradition—a process that Si demonstrates later in the kitchen. She pockets a small ball of dough into another flattened-out disc of dough, rolls it over with a pastry dowel, folds, and repeats the steps at least four times. Pads of butter laminate the dough. This Chinese celebration food is even more buttery than a biscuit. It feels Southern.
Details and similarities like these are constantly illuminated at Brewery Bhavana, which is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a restaurant, for one, known for an inventive dim sum menu helmed by Si. It’s a bar—a very grand bar that’s packed on the weekends, with a row of forty beer taps and an impressive cocktail menu. And it’s also a flower shop and bookstore, two tiny welcome posts that anchor the center of the restaurant.
Bhavana transports you to an imagined place come to life, one that sprang up organically when a few friends shared their dreams of a perfect community space. It’s the second venture for siblings Vansana (Van) and Vanvisa Nolintha, whose first restaurant next door, Bida Manda, opened to a lot of fanfare as the first restaurant in the South to elevate Laotian food to a level familiar to Laotians, but in a way the rest of us could understand and appreciate. Van planted the idea of Bhavana, inspired by his upbringing in Southeast Asia where, he says, even cafes built in tiny enclaves made space for books. The bookstore and flower shop idea came from a shared love for both of those things among his friends and employees at Bida Manda, who eventually helped shape the concept at Bhavana. And, of course, the 9,000 square feet provided ample room to build a dream. “Food is a leading element in how we define ourselves as people and communities,” Van says. Brewery Bhavana opened in March 2017 and success followed suit. That summer, Bon Appétit named it the number 10 restaurant in America. In December, Forbes included it on a list of the “10 coolest places to eat in 2018.”
On the surface, this has a lot to do with an ambiance that aesthetically elevates the Raleigh dining experience to a level fit for destination cities like New York and San Francisco. Or even farther, like Barcelona, where Van took a trip and brought back with him ideas for the multi-functional space that’s carefully curated to feel open, not crowded. It’s hard to imagine the Irish pub that formerly occupied the space, suffocated by dark wooden details and dim light. Bhavana is instead airy and light, with lively surprises anchoring the interior—a fig tree growing toward a skylight, a small dish of water as an offering to Buddha, and rows of books touting local, rec-ognizable authors, to name a few.
Van arrived to North Carolina from Laos in 1998. He was 12 years old and came alone, without his parents. As a kid, he had heard about pizza and watched Titanic, which played at a theatre near his home. But he didn’t know much else about America. A year later, his younger sister Vanvisa joined him in Greensboro. The siblings stayed with family friends to begin a new life with bigger opportunities.
Their family had survived a brutal civil war in Laos. “To be from Laos here in the United States isn’t necessarily a proud thing,” Van says. During the Vietnam War, the US enlisted a covert operation in Laos’s own civil war. The CIA backed the royalists and the Hmong against the communists. Later, when the communists won, the Hmong and others were hunted down as American collaborators. When it was over, the US had dropped more than two million tons of bombs on the small country.
The Nolintha siblings studied at local universities—Van won awards for design, and Vanvisa excelled in hospitality and tourism. Vanvisa planned to return to Laos to practice what she learned and work with her parents at their hotel. Van went off to Trinity College in Dublin to complete a degree in international peace and conflict. He wanted to return to Raleigh, but the job market didn’t offer him what he wanted. Somehow, food did. He began meeting with local restaurateurs and caught the entrepreneurial spirit, one he knew he could fold into all of his interests—with the help of his sister, and through the foods of home. They opened Bida Manda in 2012 and put down roots in the City of Oaks.
Van, who is often the mouthpiece for the restaurants, has thought a lot about what it means to be a restaurateur and immigrant when the American social fabric at times seems to be unraveling at the seams. Food is a way to mend and thread together a community grasping for beauty and comfort. “It is the one space where all of these cultures are somehow able to dance even in times of conflict,” he says.
It would do Bhavana an injustice to call it part of a new South. This is a South that has been here all along. But it’s been hidden on Americanized menus. As Si puts it, when she decided to go back to school in her forties to become a chef, she did it partly to uplift her Chinese culture. “At every Chinese restaurant, the menu is the same,” she says. “I thought, ‘this is not authentic Chinese food.’ When Americans think of Chinese food, they think of cheap food.”
Only now has food become a focal point in our negotiation of cultural influence and allowed us to peel back the layers of a South we’ve long cultivated. And, as Van puts it, “the identity of what it means to be a Southern chef is changing. Immigrants’ dreams and memories are integrating into the Southern culture of what it means to cook home food.”
With that comes a vulnerability that the Nolinthas and their restaurant chefs—head chef Lon Bounsanga, from Laos, and dim sum chef Si, from Shanghai—encounter every day. It’s evident on a menu that spans from Si’s curated dim sum to the Nolinthas’ rice congee, a comfort food that Van made for his sister when they were kids so that she wouldn’t forget home. The menu is memory, both real and reimagined. Van describes it as a way to “honor thousands of years of cooking” in a contemporary venue. That leaves an openness on the plates, food left for us to interpret. It’s a generous form of hospitality, one that begins with an offer to consume by passing shared platters around the table, to a moment when we rest our chopsticks in gratitude.
That’s how Patrick Woodson, co-owner and head brewer, describes the experience—a way to contemplate, he says, the history on your plate or in a pint of beer. “Subtlety and nuance are important to me,” he says. “Certain beers are actually made for you to sip, sit, and contemplate.” Woodson, an Indiana native, traveled parts of Asia, including Laos, with his wife, and also worked in Africa on renewable energy projects. His fondest memories of that time, he says, are “triggered by aromatics” in the beer he concocts. The sour mango saison he finished bottling this past fall carries the stories of his first year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda, where “for three months of the year, the rain comes. And all of a sudden, these mangos are blooming. The first one is so tart, but it’s the first fruit you’ve had all year. So you savor it.”
The brewery, a six-minute drive from the restaurant, is a laboratory where he and fellow brewer Brent Steffen experiment. Woodson has a degree in food science and is meticulous in the process. But a room to the side filled with oak barrels is what he calls his playground. The two brewers have inoculated bourbon and Sangiovese wine oak barrels with various active cultures collected from nearby environs: back-yard pomegranate trees, downtown beehives, and the like. “It becomes a living, breathing thing,” Woodson says. “All the cultures live in this wood. Anything that lives in there develops more culture from it.”
This wild experimentation parlays into everything that happens at the restaurant. Bhavana is constantly alive with activity and an amalgam of cultures, of living and breathing realities constantly reinvented. Take chef Si. She arrived as a young woman from Shanghai on a scholarship to get her master’s degree at George Washington University. On study breaks, she’d poke around DC’s Chinatown for grocery ingredients, quickly becoming the resident cook for homesick students like her. To fuel them, she often whipped up scallion pancakes, now a menu staple at Bhavana. (Ask Woodson about his thoughts on that dish: “All day, every day.”)
When it was all said and done, Si had worked an almost two-decade career as a computer engineer in China and in the States. It wasn’t until she was well into her forties when, at the urging of her American husband, also an engineer, Si went back to school to do something she actually liked. She worked a full year straight through a program at Johnson and Wales in Charlotte. Even though she doesn’t drink, she set up a bar in her apartment to practice making cocktails. Her diligence served her well—she immediately earned an internship that led to a sous chef gig at An, a fine dining restaurant inspired by Asian cuisine in Cary. When An closed nine years later, Si had already begun talking to Van about working at his new venture. “It’s like God had arranged it all for me,” she bemuses.
She took a major pay cut for hours that are much longer than any job at a desk. But, she says, becoming a chef in an age where chefs gain respect gives her a pride that fuels her work. “It’s a gift,” says Si. “I’m a self-taught dim sum chef, and it’s cooking a memory of your culture, of your home. The last time she went to China was twelve years ago. She’ll try to go this year, and visit Taiwan to learn about its varied cuisine. “I feel like I need to study,” Si says.
Back at Saturday lunch, a team of almost forty cooks bustles in the back kitchen. They are from different parts of the world: China, Laos, Mexico, Honduras, North Carolina. Maria Perez swiftly works through towers of bamboo baskets taller than her, at least forty-five of them filled with bao and ready to be steamed for service. Si leads a team at a steel prep table where the dough is balled up and smacked and flattened and pinched with care. Hundreds of tiny treats are made every day: triangles of shrimp and corn cakes, the beefy, buttery mooncakes, and the scallion pancake that’s a favorite for homesick Chinese students and brewers alike.
Diners are invited to peruse through Bhavana’s bookstore and flower shop, illumi-nated by the building’s giant skylight. The small space allows for every selection made by bookstore manager Monica Jon and her team to feel especially intimate, curated in batches that nod to literary themes or current events. This allows for some bold choices. “There’s this book that actually received a lot of attention called White Rage,” says Jon. “People pick it up and have a certain visible response to it. The Color of Law, which is about the zoning and districting of neighborhoods, is another one. Raleigh is actually featured in one of the chapters. I tell people to pay close attention to that, because affordable housing is a big subject for Raleigh.” Jon gets a lot of foot traffic from downtown passersby during lunch hour. “During the day is when the shop really shines,” she says. “It turns into a lounge area. That’s when Deana is in [the flower shop], so to see someone making things in the shop is also a treat.” Deana Nguyen uses seasonal flowers, tropical exports, and edible herbs and fruit to make aesthetically nuanced and fragrant arrangements that Bhavana sells—even if you’d like to purchase one on the spot for your dinner table.
For the Nolinthas, Bhavana has morphed into a reality they could have never imagined. And while the whole thing feels serendipitous, it’s a dream also rooted in intention. “Everything is an intentional choice,” says Van. “It’s our soul, and people can taste it. And there’s something about soul food that transcends cultures. It becomes an invitation for mindfulness and empathy.”