The Civic end of Lonsdale St is fast becoming a hub for new and innovative Asian restaurants. Perhaps it ought to be christened Canberra’s new China town. It is in this precinct, huddled across the road from Yat Bun Tong, near Lazy Su and Zaab, that Sanya Bar has made its hip new home. This is a place to come for the art and stay for the cocktails and food.
Australia has a long tradition of Chinese food. Nearly every country town has a Chinese restaurant, a place where people could go for a special night out. Yet reflecting the patterns of migration, most of the food in ‘Chinese’ restaurants has been influenced by southern Asian cuisines – Cantonese, Sichuan, Shanghainese and even Vietnamese and Thai. There is very little in the way of northern Chinese cuisine including the food from Beijing, which is disappointing given that Canberra and Beijing are sister cities.
Sanya Bar is based on the northern Chinese food that owner JJ Chen, of Beijing heritage, grew up on. But it is Beijing food with a twist – some traditional elements but most definitely fusion, reflecting the food that modern young people such as JJ herself like to eat. For example, the dumplings bowl ($15 BBQ pork or marinated tofu vegetarian) for instance come served with a dollop of sour cream (and bacon and spring onions for the BBQ pork ones).
Like many restaurateurs JJ is influenced by her mother. In this case her mother is the main cook in the restaurant kitchen. But this is not a traditional story about growing up on mum’s home cooking. Back in China, mum Nancy was a career woman – a Chief Financial Officer at one of China’s major insurance companies. But that changed when the family migrated to Australia and JJ’s mum found employment difficult because she did not speak English very well.
So JJ’s mum did what many migrants do, and accepted a working entry job. In this case, her mum ended up as a kitchen hand at The Australian Parliament House. She was later transferred to the Ministerial wing. One day, Bob Hawke popped into the kitchen and noticed there was someone Chinese working there. “Could you make me some dumplings?” he asked. “Sure,” she responded and thus she became one of his cooks. She also cooked for Paul Keating.
On the current Autumn menu is one of JJ’s childhood favourites – beef sandwiched between lotus root and deep fried ($9). I loved the crunchy texture. Also crunchy is the surprisingly good combination of chicken wing and banana wrapped in a wonton ($8). Deep fried wontons filled with blue vein cheese and pear drizzled with honey ($8) were sweeter and more like a dessert than I had expected – I would order them next time to conclude the meal. Of course you can’t dine in any self-respecting Beijing themed restaurant without Peking duck pancakes ($14), and here it is served in a plate of three. I was interested to see that, catering more to an Australian palate, the pieces chosen were rich duck breast rather than just the crispy skin.
The Beijing-fusion tapas washes down well with the Chinese influenced cocktails. My friend chose a vodka, ginger beer and chilli laced Revolution cocktail, served in a Cultural Revolution era style mug garnished with mint. I went for the elegant lychee style martini made with Chinese baijiu liqueur – the ? ‘Jing’ tini. Beware those who like me want to chomp on the lychee at the end as it has serious chilli fire power.
The food is good, but the art is brilliant. One of JJ’s friends just happens to be Chinese-Australian artist Guo Jian, whose works are collected by Lucy Turnbull, Sam Neill and others. Two walls are devoted to his murals. We sat at the back near one that depicted Chinese People’s Liberation Army troupes being entertained by a busty blonde Marilyn Monroe. That in itself was striking and Vietnam-era-on-the-other-side esque. But get up close and you can see how really interesting and subversive it is. The mural is really a mosaic, made up of tiny squares that contain miniature girly pictures. It is like a story, or multiple stories, within a story – almost like a joke that I am not altogether sure that I get. The other mural is a caricature like cartoon of people in Tian’anmen Square, a statement that you could only be allowed to just put in the wall of a restaurant in a democracy like Australia.
Sanya Bar’s grand opening is this Saturday 6 May from 12 noon. The event will feature a lion dance and fortune blessing by the Canberra Lion Dance Group, and the raising of the last metal lantern. Artist Guo Jian will also attend and sign his Tian’anmen wall art. Free tapas and cocktail tastings will be available.
What: Sanya Bar
Where: 5 Lonsdale St, Braddon
When: Public opening on Saturday 6 May from 12pm, $10 cocktails ever Thursday evening
What: Beijing influenced tapas and cocktails
Caption’s: Top, Jing martini (photo by Tamara Francis). Second, JJ Chen. Third, Chef nancy in the kitchen (photo Serina Huang). Fourth, Revolution Cocktail (photo by Tamara Francis). Fifth, Photos of Beijing (photo image by Serina Huang). Above, Artwork by Guo Jian (photo by Serina Huang).