As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to feel differently about gift-giving. Or maybe it’s because…
Canberra’s food scene has matured a lot over the past few years.
But is it ready for a different take on Chinese food? This was the question JJ Chen asked herself before deciding to open Sanya Bar, Lonsdale Street’s newest resident.
Like many of us, JJ was a public servant for a number of years. But wanting a new challenge, she moved to Beijing. While she was there she discovered its hutong bars, and that was her inspiration for opening Sanya Bar when she returned. “A lot of the Chinese food in Canberra is Cantonese,” JJ said. “I wanted to introduce people to a different kind of Chinese food.”
Another reason for Sanya Bar’s existence, and a significant one, is that JJ’s mum, Nancy Gui, always wanted to have her own restaurant. Now Sanya Bar’s head cook, Nancy has an impressive CV, having been a cook at Parliament House (including cooking for Bob Hawke and Paul Keating), the Royal Canberra Golf Club, and the Hyatt. And the cooking genes go way back—Nancy’s grandfather was a cook in China’s Imperial Palace. He passed his recipes down to her and taught her how to cook.
Sanya Bar’s menu is a mix of Nancy and JJ’s ideas. Some items are traditional, like the lotus beef patties, which JJ enjoyed eating as a child, and others, like the crispy banana chicken wings and blue cheese, pear and walnut wontons, are new creations.
As for the name, JJ said she originally thought ‘Hutong’, but didn’t want it confused with the hutong eateries in Melbourne and Sydney. She initially chose Sanya because it’s a beautiful beach on Hainan Island in China that she likes; but while researching, she found that ‘Sanya’ in other languages is a girl’s name meaning, amongst other things, brilliant, radiant, and defender—strong female representations. “After that,” JJ said, “I thought it was even more appropriate since it’s mum’s and my place”.
This theme can be seen in the artwork at the back of the bar, a picture of Marilyn Monroe singing to communists, by renowned Chinese-Australian artist Guo Jian. JJ met Guo Jian when they were both in Beijing, and another of his pieces features prominently at the front, with some personalised additions.
There are other personal touches, including the metal work of the bar, the black and white photos lining one wall, and the gold grout between the tiles on the bar (I didn’t even know you could get gold grout). There are also plans to create a hutong-style feel on the outside, with some special decorations still to come. JJ explained that a lot of their friends helped get Sanya Bar ready, and that she was really thankful for their support, as well as the support of neighbouring businesses.
But you’re probably keen to hear about the food and drinks. My friends and I started with cocktails (mocktail for me), a Beijing Haze, a Revolution, and a non-alcoholic lychee Moscow Mule. The cocktails are all JJ’s creations, inspired by China and her experiences in Beijing, and in one case, just because she likes anything with milk, coffee and hazelnut. The drinks were good—my friend said her Beijing Haze was reminiscent of childhood (as it’s essentially an alcoholic spider) and was really yum, though a bit too easy to drink! Our other friend said her Revolution had a good chilli warmth, and I loved my mocktail.
JJ also explained that the beer on offer is Zierholz because “I knew right away I wanted a local German-style beer, as the Germans are the ones who brought beer to China and founded the Tsingtao Brewery.” This was just another example of how much thought JJ has put into every aspect of Sanya Bar.
Trusting her judgment, we let JJ pick dishes for us. We started with the Peking duck pancakes, which were beautifully presented, had a good flavour, and whetted our appetites for what else was to come.
Next was the crispy banana chicken wings. These were a Nancy-creation, and JJ said she was sceptical about them—because it’s a weird combination—until she tried them. We took a bite and understood what she meant. They were like a combination of banana fritter and fried chicken, but somehow they worked. And the sauce that went with them was delicious.
We were presented with some dim sum next, prettily wrapped and matched with a sauce. These were also tasty.
The lotus beef patties followed, which one of my friends and I particularly liked.
One of the larger ‘Sexy Legs’ dishes was next, the five spiced lamb shank. We all really enjoyed this.
Our last savoury dish was the Szechuan scallops with coconut flakes. This was one of my friend’s favourites, which I could tell even before she said anything—the expression on her face when she ate hers said it all. This was then followed by an exclamation of “this is amazing!” and finished with her using her fork to get every last bit of sauce off the shell.
We ended with dessert, the blue cheese, pear, and walnut wontons. I don’t normally like blue cheese, but we all loved these. So much so we asked for another serve. Yum.
So, in answer to JJ’s question about whether Canberra is ready for Sanya Bar’s style of Chinese food? Absolutely yes—and I can’t wait to try more.
The author and her friends dined courtesy of Sanya Bar, but all opinions remain their own.
The place: Sanya Bar
Where: 5 Lonsdale Street, Braddon
When: Lunch and dinner, Monday-Sunday (open late Fri-Sat)
Food: Beijing hutong bar inspired, with a few twists!
Drink: Wine, cocktails, beer, soft drinks
Contact: Visit their website or Facebook page