Sydney drinking has left its awkward adolescence behind and is basking in a swan moment where you can now get a half decent Negroni in a pub. But there are many steps to ascend between that three-part aperitif and the degree of cocktail finesse on display at Bancho Bar, a refined Japanese whisky and fine drinking establishment in a Chinatown alley from the people who brought you Tokyo Bird in Surry Hills.
‘Alley’ is a fair term here, given that headlights from cars leaving the garage opposite shine into the bar giving everything a slightly upmarket Blade Runner glow. The space used to be a conference room belonging to the Ultimo Hotel, but it’s far better as a sleek whisky bar in muted tones, where they have installed whisky lockers if you’re fancy enough to spring for a whole bottle that you’ll slowly drink on concurrent visits.
Much like before a shopping spree, it’s good to determine how much you’re willing to spend on whisky before you arrive, otherwise the urge to know what a 44-year-old Speyside sherry cask for $150 may overcome you. You can also dabble in living large with many, many drams more expensive than a house pour but a lot less than what leather shoes cost.
You should also drink cocktails here. They are precise exercises in temporal beauty, like origami. The word ‘sour’ in the name of the Constellation Sour is fundamentally misleading: this drink is far too refined to elicit anything so unbecoming as a pucker face. Instead, white rum’s sweetness is softly enveloped by pear juice, with anise syrup for a heady perfume and enough lime to sharpen the focus on each flavour.
For something that’s as crisp and clean as a freshly ironed shirt, order a Bamboo (touted as Japan’s first cocktail, invented at the Grand Hotel in Yokohama), which mixes dry sherry, dry vermouth and two kinds of bitters. Revivers don’t come more gentle and immediately likeable as the Eastside Maiden, where plum wine is tamed by cucumber, a herbal shiso syrup and lime juice.
While you choose from six pages of cocktails you need crunchy noodles. Imagine something akin to an extra-thin Pocky, but instead of matcha chocolate these long, deep-fried strands are covered in a prawn salt that makes chicken salt look like a slacker. If you need something with more booze-sopping ability, there are nori salted fries, but our vote goes to a pair of soft bao with soft-shell crab and a spicy citrus mayo and lettuce – kind of like a very upmarket fillet-o-fish.
There is also a menu of crumbed fried things on sticks, starting at prawns and running the full crunchy gamut past scallops, pork (imagine high quality nuggets), sweet potato croquettes, lotus root and cherry tomatoes.
They’ve got their priorities right at Bancho: a bankruptcy-inducing whisky collection, killer cocktails and enough snacks on sticks to get you through if you don’t want to break for dinner. It’s the bar Chinatown has always deserved, but had to wait until 2018 to get.