Brewery Bhavana

Homegrown abundance

by Liza Roberts
photographs by Keith Isaacs

A first-time visitor to the new Brewery Bhavana on Moore Square might think they’ve entered an unusually atmospheric independent bookstore. Skylit shelves offer titles by local and world-renowned authors and poets like Dorianne Laux and Dave Eggers; cookbooks by Raleigh stars like Kaitlyn Goalen and national ones like Jeremy Fox make pretty pyramids beneath soaring potted fig trees. A library wall offers up another 3,000 titles.

If that same visitor takes a few steps to the right, though, she might decide she’s actually found herself in a contemporary flower shop, simultaneously spare and bountiful, with unusual blooms displayed like art.

But if this visitor picks up her head, and takes in everything around her, she’ll see that she is in the middle of a busy, buzzy, 9,000 square-foot restaurant with a massive bar, and that a fluent exchange is underway – between books, beer, blooms, and food. She’ll notice that folks busy reading are also drinking pints of Bhavana-brewed beer; that bamboo baskets of dim sum fill tables; that dinner patrons are getting up between courses to choose flowers to bring home. All in gorgeously appointed surroundings created by Raleigh architecture firm Clearscapes.

It’s a lot.

“I was gobsmacked by Brewery Bhavana,” says noted Southern food writer John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. He was in town recently to promote his new book, The Potlikker Papers, A Food History of the Modern South, and dined with a large group of Raleigh friends at Bhavana’s giant Lotus table, which is spotlit with a handmade wooden chandelier from Barcelona. “Van’s singularity of vision shines through in that profoundly democratic and beautiful space.”

“Van” is Vansana Nolintha, the restaurant’s co-founder, who created Bhavana with his sister, Vanvisa Nolintha, and brewer Patrick Woodson.

Sanskrit for “cultivating,” Bhavana aims to embrace many diverse things equally, to celebrate beauty, and to nurture creation and contentment, says Van Nolintha. “All of these different elements come with their own culture and community,” he says. “It’s fluid.”

Central to its ethos, he says, is the cuisine of dim sum, Cantonese for “touch the heart.” He and Vanvisa grew up eating these bite-sized dishes for breakfast in Laos, a country whose French, Thai, and Chinese-influenced cuisine forms the backbone of Bida Manda, the critically acclaimed restaurant they founded next-door together five years ago.

For its part, dim sum “was created to welcome travelers,” Van Nolintha says, “it’s a meal that encapsulates a culture.” They chose to celebrate it at Bhavana because it’s delicious, but also because “it’s about people from different perspectives traveling and hosting and giving.”

Beer brewed in the Belgian tradition, rooted in the work of self-supporting monks, shares a similar origin and purpose: to sustain and welcome. The idea to combine a Raleigh-brewed Belgian style beer with a dim sum restaurant came about when the Nolinthas began talking to Woodson, a close friend and bioengineer-turned-brewer, about a joint project.

When they decided to add flowers and books – because they loved them, and because they believed in people who could bring them to the mix – it required some salesmanship. “It seemed so crazy when we announced we were going to do all of these things in a former Irish pub,” says Woodson. “It’s wonderful now when people come in and you could see it suddenly make sense: Oh. It’s a living room. This is Raleigh.”

Patrick Woodson, co-founder, head brewer

The immense slab of granite that covers the wall behind the Bhavana bar is seamless, spotless, wordless. No signs or logos or information of any kind distracts from 40 silver taps that dispense 20 kinds of beer brewed a mile south in Bhavana’s pristine, brand-new brewery on Bloodworth Street.

On a recent morning at the brewery, the stereo is pumping out jazz as Patrick Woodson turns a medieval-looking crank to open a porthole in a massive oak barrel that recently held 1,360 gallons of Napa Valley cabernet. He encourages a visitor to put her head inside.

The smell is overpowering. When 1,360 gallons of freshly brewed Bhavana beer is poured in, that beer, too, will breathe the barrel’s winey aroma and absorb its culture; six months or a year later, it will be ready to drink.

Wine-aged beer is one of Brewery Bhavana’s specialties, and there are many variations, including a sauvignon blanc barrel-aged saison combined with apricots, mango, and passionfruit. “Each barrel has a culture,” Woodson says, “you get this lovely hybrid.”

The Belgian-style beer he brews relies on carefully, even obsessively, cultivated yeast drawn from the local natural environment. Woodson and his fellow head brewer, Brent Steffen, a biochemist (“we love to play around in the science realm”), harvest it around Raleigh – in pomegranate trees, honeysuckle vines, and fig trees, aiming to bring to their beer the kind of “terroir” common to wine. “Yeast is everywhere, flowing through the air,” Woodson says. “All it wants is a source of sugar.” The proprietary strains that result become the basis for Bhavana’s distinct brews.

When they’re not cultivating yeast, fermenting beer, or preparing wine barrels 12 hours a day, Woodson and Steffen spend a lot of time keeping things shipshape at their brewery. “Ninety percent of it all is janitorial work,” Woodson jokes.

Actually, to hear him tell it, most of the work at the brewery is done not by Woodson or Steffen, but by the yeast itself, which is referred to in the feminine: “Yeast is beautiful. We feed her, and she makes beer for us,” Woodson says. It’s an ongoing experiment that never gets old to these two scientist-brewers. “It’s no different than biofuel,” Woodson says. “I just decided that beer tastes a lot better than biofuel.”

Chun Shi, chef

Chef Chun Shi, who prepares the hundreds of dim sum dishes that roll out of the Bhavana kitchen every day, grew up in Shanghai and worked for years as a computer programmer and electrical engineer before finding her life’s purpose as a chef.

She was studying for her masters in computer engineering at George Washington University when she began cooking the food she missed from home. Word got out among her Chinese classmates. “Can you make me scallion pancakes?” they asked. “I finished exams, and I made scallion pancakes,” she recalls. “Now, when I look back, I realize the food carries the memory, carries the culture.”

She loved to cook it, eat it, and share it, but she continued on her engineering career path, cooking only on the weekends. Her husband’s job then brought them to North Carolina, and he encouraged her to “do something you love.”

It was an American mindset she happily embraced, sending herself to culinary school in Charlotte to learn foundational skills before getting a job at An, the award-winning former Asian restaurant in Cary. She worked there for nine years, rising in the ranks until it closed in January.

She met Van Nolintha two years ago, when her mentor, An head chef Steven Greene, told Nolintha that Shi was the restaurant’s “secret ingredient.”

Today, Nolintha says, she fills that role at Bhavana, and not only for her skill in the kitchen. “It’s so rare to find people who you feel like are family all along,” he says. Shi “has a greater understanding of culture and food, with a cuisine that feels so honest. There’s no ornamentation. You bite into a bao (steamed bun), and you taste not just the flavors, but you taste your memory.”

John T. Edge has high compliments for Shi’s “great” dim sum. Plus, he says, “I’m a fool for (the) nasi goring.” Shi gives a humble smile and touts the purpose of the place: “This restaurant is not just selling food and making money, it’s introducing the culture. That’s why I like to work here.”

Deana Nguyen, creative director, flower shop

Deana Nguyen brings an artist’s perspective to her floral designs at Bhavana flower shop. After years of ceramics, painting, metalworking, and jewelry-making, Nguyen says she finally found her medium when she discovered flowers.

“Flowers have such a strong hold on me because they’re so fleeting, and changing all the time,” Nguyen says. When a favorite like a zinnia comes back into season, for instance, “it’s like seeing an old friend again.”

Eager to learn more about floral design, Nguyen took a leave from her job as a server at Bida Manda (where she was one of the restaurant’s first hires) to apprentice to Jaclyn Nesbitt, a florist in Sonoma, California who had attended the design school at N.C. State with Van Nolintha.

There, Nguyen soaked up a free-form, field-to-vase, seasonally driven style of design that she first turned into a multimedia art show at Raleigh’s former The Pink Building community of artists, and now employs at Bhavana.

She says she wants her arrangements to be “thought-provoking, expressive, reverential, and inviting, to honor my gratitude for the natural world.”

With fresh local flowers she buys every Thursday at Piedmont Wholesale Flowers (a new flower farmers’ market in Durham), plus a weekly shipment from Holland, Nguyen creates centerpieces for Bhavana’s tables and arrangements for the shop, which generally range in price from $15 to $45.

Nguyen says that she – and her assistant, Audrey Holland – are excited for what’s next. They expect the flower shop’s business to grow now that Bhavana is open for lunch, and plan to go outside the shop to participate in summer markets. They’re also working on a monthly subscription business that would include an arrangement and a book or magazine every month.

“When people buy flowers for a celebration or a death, it’s always a positive impulse,” she says. “It’s nice to live vicariously through flowers.”

Monica Jon, shop manager                 

When the Nolinthas told Monica Jon they wanted to create a bookstore and library at their new restaurant, she and colleague Laura White got to work.

They sat down with friends and acquaintances of all kinds: N.C. State professors, architects, artists, community leaders. They asked each what his or her favorite books were, and why. They looked for books that “carried a message, and can be given to someone, to show them what you care about, what you’re thinking about.” And they searched out magazines and periodicals that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the area. Then they asked everyone they knew to donate a favorite book for a Bhavana library, and to jot a short inscription inside explaining why they’d chosen it.

Soon, they had a diverse bookshop inventory of roughly 350 titles – carrying only one or two copies of each, to keep offerings fresh – plus a nearly 3,000-book library. Raleigh’s Rodney Oakley, for one, donated Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids. Susan Woodson (whose son, Patrick, is co-founder and head brewer) donated Keith Richard’s memoir, Life.

Magazines not available elsewhere in the Triangle like Brutal, a food and fashion publication; The Plant, a monthly journal that focuses on one plant at a time; and Brownbook, a Middle Eastern travel and culture magazine published in Dubai, quickly filled the shelves.

“A lot of times people are lingering in the bookstore while they’re waiting for a table,” Jon says, “but we do have a fair amount of people just coming in for the books.”