Monday, January 29, 2007

Comments on a few Bay Area tea establishments

I happened to find myself in the San Francisco area for a photonics conference (as one so often does), and managed to drop into a few tea spots between wavicles. There seems to be a proliferation of such, similar in style but very different in atmosphere. In case it's useful to anyone, here are a few sententious comments:

  • Imperial Tea Court, Chinatown and the Ferry Building.
    I prefer the original location for dimmer, quieter, more retreat-like atmosphere. The new location is separated from the (rather classy) Ferry Building mall by not much more than a partial lattice, and on this nasty January day was reasonably quiet but frigid. Have yet to meet Roy Fong, who seems ever to be in the warehouse or out buying; but Grace is a charming presence. They have a bunch of above-average pots and other useful teaware, though the best pots are NFS. Plenty of tea on offer in both locations, at high prices -- generally, however, commensurate with quality. Tastings are a bargain by comparison. Service by elegant young men. (Why so rarely women in this business?)

    The Ferry Building ITC location has a fair amount of food on offer; most people there seemed to be more dining than drinking. Combined with admittedly pleasant aromas from the center's other food and personal-care vendors, I found this to be somewhat distracting. Personally, were I in that neighborhood, I'd save my caloric quota for Yank Sing, an upscale dim sum house in the heart of the Rincon Center complex. Beyond the HK-class food, there's a kind of waterfall from the atrium ceiling that adds good feng shui or something. I can't speak for their tea, since I'd brought a very nice (code for "wanted it back right away") new Yixing pot and a bag of SRT's cheapest but IMO best-tasting fenghuang dan cong for my host.

    I was somewhat uncomfortable with the instructional style, which I did not experience directly (being a take-charge kinda guy) but repeatedly witnessed. My impression was that both server/teachers and customers were getting lost in mannered ritual at the expense of the tea. Watching people awkwardly slurp from gaiwans instead of decanting was vicariously embarrassing -- nothing wrong with the act, but it was clearly out of character for those partaking. Worse, they seem to use near-boiling water indiscriminately. When I asked for something much cooler for our long jing (a delicate green), I was politely asked what temperature I'd like -- a good response, but the wrong place to start. (I just asked for a pot of cold water to mix ad lib.) I'm wondering how many people who start the cha dao here (or in many other places) ever learn that green tea does not taste like spinach? Even many oolongs can't take this treatment. As long as I'm ranting, I'll also complain about the gaiwan we were given, much too large for the amount of leaf it contained. I dropped a broad hint, and was offered another a good 10% smaller.

  • Red Blossom Tea Company, Chinatown.
    This tiny, deep shop has just a couple of tasting tables between rows of paraphernalia, with most tea in the back. Pots and gaiwans fairly priced, though most a bit fancy to my taste. Not exactly a secluded experience, right on Grant St., but pleasant and informed service. And the staff seemed able to establish a quiet zone around each table.

  • Vital T-leaf, two Chinatown locations (head office in Seattle).
    The main store is a magnet for extroverts, open to Grant St. and with a riotous agglomeration of 20-something passersby enjoying free rounds at the bar with the friendly energy of a post-(winning) game beer crowd. Staff young as well, with Benihana-type cheerful showmanship blending with as much serious information as people seemed able to absorb. A very large range of teas, many flavored (not my cuppa) and flowers/herbs (even a couple types of kuding) in tins and open trays, which may be OK if turnover is high. Many Pu-erhs also on display, including presentation bing and zhuanchas of at least two kg and a 30-yo shu cake for $380. (Latter was plastic-wrapped, so the aroma was inaccessible. Looked authentic, though.) Many pots at fair prices, though again only a couple I'd want. My sense was that the staff was entirely prepared for a much more serious tasting experience during times quieter than a Saturday afternoon.

    A couple of blocks uphill is a more intimate satellite shop, with a representative stock (including the $380 shu bing) and less riotous atmosphere.

    After this pair of visits, I stoked the furnaces with a nice plate of gnow nam chow fun; being dangerously awash in cha zui at this juncture, only water else passed my lips.

  • Teance, Berkeley. Best for last.
    This was supposed to be the penultimate scene of a day's nostalgia tour of Berkeley, following a walk around the Vine St. Gourmet Ghetto-as-was (where I used to buy coffee in his one shop from Mr. Peet) and before trooping up Grizzly Peak for a characteristically stunning sunset. A careful drive along Solano failed to produce this establishment, even as an emergency call to Joe K. confirmed the location. Fortunately, my friend's Blackberry was web-enabled, so we were able to discover that they had just moved down to the Flats. The unprepossessing neighborhood prompted speculation about marketing mistakes, but their new (of two months) home proved to be in the middle of a cluster of assorted shops and restaurants fine enough to qualify the whole as a Destination.

    Teance offers a stylishly sparse ambience reminiscent of, but more elegant than, the late Wild Lily Tea Room. (In fact, it has much the pleasant ambiance of NYC's Tea Gallery.) The front is an open shop, with an appropriate number of teas and some nice teaware of diverse styles -- the celadon (per former establishment name) perhaps the best on offer; three exceptional Yixings were unfortunately NFS.

    The tasting area is a single circle of about a dozen seats in several nicely designed stations, so as to be serviceable by one or several people. Tasting are again a bargain for the quality. Our server, one Darius (I forbore the bibulous pun about one man's Mede being another's Persian) seemed quite well informed about the qualities of his stock, and helped us to a selection of interesting oolongs. Aware that we were not ignorant of technique, he also offered a broad range of pots and gaiwans, as well as mixing and serving gear.

    I was concerned at how empty the place was, given a sunny-Sunday mob in the environs. Perhaps they do mostly a take-out business. At least until it's (re-)discovered, though, I'd make it a top choice for area visitors with transportation.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    On a final note, I stopped into a number of Asian grocery stores, apothecaries and tchachke shops in the ongoing quest for cheap'n'cheerful shu Pu-erh to bring to Chinese restaurants. Every such place I looked had one, and only one, cheap bing on display: a 340g "black tea" from Hung Chong Tai in HK, of which maker Samarkand has written on RFDT. Is this a conspiracy? I did finally do the experiment of asking a back-alley TCM outfit for something better, but that's another story.


    MarshalN said...

    On the last bit of information -- Hung Chong Tai -- I have to say that Samarkand's post is incorrect.

    The Thailand company is named Hong Tai Chang, not Hong Chang Tai. I, too, wondered about the connection between Hung Chong Tai (Hong Chang Tai in pinyin) and Hong Tai Chang, and asked the folks at the Hong Kong store if they are in any way connected with the Thailand company. The answer was a simple yet resounding NO.

    Anonymous said...

    I find Vital Tea Leaf to be notorious in pricing. And while I'd be happy to pay Roy Fong of Imperial Tea Court's prices because he does have some decent teas, the quality of Vital's stock is sub-par (albeit at an above-par price).

    It seems more like a tourist hustle for me. Several examples:

    1) their dragonwell was stale and seemed a blend of fresher leaves with older leaves from last year.

    2) their 'one leaf bitter' - not a true tea but an herbal tea - is being sold for $90/lb. Roy carried it for around $40, Red Blossom Tea has it for around $30

    3) i question the quality of any teas stored in glass jars under bright flourescent lights

    4) the staff are inept in their ability to steep a proper cup of tea. boiling water is thrown into green tea, for example.

    5) making all sorts of ridiculous health claims. pu-erh to help me sleep, for instance.

    all in all, they are not tea people. the problem is, so many new tea lovers are flocking there because of their charisma and believing all misinformed 'expertise' on teas. it's a sad day for the tea world in general with these guys around.

    Anonymous said...

    There is actually a new player in town, Aroma Tea Shop on 6th and Clement. I've been a fan of Ray Fong for years at Imperial Tea Court, but I just can't help but appreciate the energy from Aroma Tea Shop's owner Haymen Da Luz, who is this twenty something year old with earings and bleached hair. By looking at him, he looks more like a Japanese soap opera idol then a tea store owner, but his approach is direct and unique.

    He makes tasting tea, which can be very serious stuff into a very fun presentation, and he is so passnionate about it. I went with a group of people and we must have tried around 10 different types of tea, while Ray Fong will charge you around $40.00 for a tasting of 5 teas.

    His teas are fresh, and moderately priced, and he carries one of the best Iron Goddess Tie Kwan Yin tea that I've ever tried, where the leaves or jade like and vibrant green and the aroma is so intoxicationg.

    Bottom line, its worth a try.

    Gary Soup said...

    I visited Aroma shortly after they opened but was put off by the fact that they kept their loose tea in glass apocothery jars. Has this changed?