I always get a little thrill when I find the doorway to a hidden bar. It’s that rewarding feeling of solving the puzzle of where the bar entrance is, and of knowing something that’s maybe a little bit secret.
That’s how I felt when we walked into the Hotel Coronation, a dingy looking pub on Park Street that I’ve walked past hundreds of times. We knew there was a small bar around here somewhere but it certainly didn’t look like there was one when we entered the pub. We wandered upstairs to what I think was the actual hotel guest rooms (yep, definitely no small bar there), back down the stairs again, and up another flight of stairs where we began to see the fluorescent glow of pink neon lights of The Smoking Panda.
There’s an old skool Chinese takeaway restaurant feel in the decor, with booth seating and Chinese restaurant-style chairs and tables, but we wander past these and the lanterns straight over to the bar, where we fix ourselves up with a cocktail or two.
Interestingly, the drinks list deviates from the Chinese theme, with an American slant on the cocktails and a big focus on bourbon – there’s more than 50 types of bourbon available from the bar! Our first cocktail of the night, the bourbon-based Blackberry & Sage Smash is fruity but not too sweet, with the tart blackberry and lemon flavours layered over the bourbon.
The Georgia Peach is also a bourbon-based cocktail with fresh peach and mint over crushed ice, making for a refreshing drink.
We spy someone order the Blue Lagoon, a lurid blue drink that by all accounts was actually quite tasty. That blue stuff? That’s blue curaçao, gin, vodka, lychee and dragonfruit which is topped with a lemonade foam and popping candy. We got a little taste of the lemonade foam which tasted kind of like a Sprite creaming soda.
The Chinese theme returns with the food menu, which is a mixture of snacks and dim sum. We kick things off with a braised short rib san choy bao. The meat has been pulled off the bone and piled up in the middle of a circular piece of iceberg lettuce. The pulled beef is a bit different to the usual finely chopped filling and is rather saucy, so it makes for messy eating but is tasty nonetheless.
Prawn toast isn’t something I’ve had in years, but one bite and I remember why it’s so good. The bread and prawn mince is deep fried to a golden brown hue, and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It’s a little greasy but the tangy “special sauce” that it comes with helps cut through the oily toast, and I can’t help but grab another one.
Our next drink is an off-the-menu special that the bartender whipped up for us – a deceptively simple mix of gin and lime that is so well-balanced that the alcohol taste is barely discernible, with only the citrus flavours from lime juice and the unique, pine-y taste of gin remaining.
The Blood and Sand cocktail is a mixture of gin, campari, spiced syrup and orange juice, making a fruity, fragrant drink with a hint of bitterness.
The Chinese theme continues with the pork and vegetable pot stickers, which come with a vinegar dipping sauce and are quite substantial. The dumpling skin is on the thicker side but the flavours meld together well, and we happily go back for seconds of these.
One of my favourite snacks of the night is the soft shell crab slider. The bun itself is a pure white, soft and sweet steamed bao, while sandwiched between the two halves of the bao is a crispy fried soft shell crab with a creamy Asian slaw. I don’t detect any XO but it really doesn’t need it, as there’s enough flavour from the crab and creamy slaw already.
Duck spring rolls are batons of crispy pastry encasing some shredded duck meat and vegetables inside. These are a little greasy for my liking and don’t have much flavour, though the plum sauce does help with that.
The occasional American twist pops up with the corn dogs and onions rings, presumably as a bar snack to reflect the American-themed drinks menu. These are pretty much what you’d expect – miniature corn dogs (a.k.a pluto pups, a.k.a. dagwood dogs) with a cocktail sausage encased in a thick batter on a stick, and crispy onion rings sprinkled with five spice, all served in a paper basket.
Three prawn har gow sit in a steamer basket, the fat dumplings sprinkled with sesame seeds. Unfortunately the dumpling wrapper is thick and extremely sticky, and the prawn filling inside is a bit mushy and lacks the usual crunch of the prawns that you find at yum cha.
Negronis are far cry from the pink, girly drinks that I’m used to drinking, but they’re starting to grow on me. There’s a sharp bitterness to the drink which is very much present in the Panda Negroni, though it’s tempered by the spiced Campari syrup and cinnamon. Be warned that the Panda Negroni is made with tequila here and is quite a strong drink – it really hit us in the senses and we had to wait for the ice to dilute it a bit to make it a little more drinkable!
The Panda Colada is served in a fun tiki mug, complete with cocktail umbrella and a sprig of mint sticking out the top. It’s a sweet, pineapple and coconut drink spiked with rum that makes me feel like I’m on vacation on a tropical island, especially the coconut foam floating on the top of the drink which tastes like sweet coconut pudding!
There’s a few dessert items on the menu as well, including a tea and coffee dessert with fried green tea ice cream and an espresso martini.
I try the black sesame pannacotta which comes with a sesame tuile. The pannacotta is a little grainy in texture and I think it could do with more sesame flavour, as it’s hard to tell what the flavour is.
Overall, we’re pretty happy with our experience at this new small bar. There’s a cool, casual vibe and it’s a great place to stop and chill with a drink in hand. The cocktails are pretty top notch and the bartenders are more than happy to have a chat and make your favourite drink. We’ve already been back and will be back again!
Penguin says Feed Me visited The Smoking Panda courtesy of Wasamedia
The Smoking Panda
5-7 Park Street (level 1 of the Hotel Coronation)
Sydney NSW 2000
Ph: +61 2 9264 4618
Open Wednesday to Saturday, 4pm to late (open from midday on Fridays)