Thursday, February 08, 2007

Steep Learning Curve

The Boston area is wonderful in all ways, from relaxed pace and intellectual humility to simplicity of street navigation and mild, predictable weather. Since that little event in 1773, however, we’re a little short on purveyors of Camellia sinensis leaf and brew. And while tea-shops are starting to compete with cafés, it’s not so easy to find a great restaurant that pairs fine food with fine... tea. We won’t even allude to stale bags floating on lukewarm dilute coffee, or lesser nightmares of the bereft aficionado. A delightful exception is Royal East, at 782 Main St. in Cambridge, MA. But you have to ask.

Royal East is situated between the original Necco Wafer plant and the place from which Bell made his first long-distance call (all the way to Boston). I've been enjoying their signature suan la chow show since doors opened twenty years ago, next door to a Polaroid R&D lab (previously the Perfection Brassiere factory) in the dynamic, multi-ethnic MIT neighborhood and convenient to Central and Kendall stops on the Red Line subway. Later, it became one of few venues mutually agreeable to the disparate tastes of my family during our occasional reunions. Inside it is quietly pleasant in setting and decor, and frequented by the good, the great and the rest of us. Lunching there recently with a British partner at an international consulting firm, I was treated to an exegesis on how this great company has prospered in applying the theories of a B-School luminary from up-river. As we made to leave, my friend noticed this same author chowing down two tables behind us. It’s that kind of place: where the Powers That Be can rest their mantles in subservience to company and cuisine.

Over these many years, I came to know owner/founder Otto Chang casually by name and face. But we never got into matters of religion until recently.

A few months back, dining there with a former classmate now teaching legitimate journalism in Iowa, I asked about the ranks of well-seasoned Yixing pots, metal leaf canisters, “tea oceans” and other implements of mass infusion arrayed about the bar. Otto said that he's equipped for serious tea tasting, but declines to put this offering on the menu. Americans get upset at having to pay for high-quality tea, people find the classic Chinese styles odd, etc. He apparently serves the good stuff regularly to a few knowledgeable customers, but won't push it. I offered one day to bring some of my own favorite leaves if he'd share a cup, and he accepted.

Soon after, I had the pleasure of visiting Royal East with our host Corax, classicist at a mid-western university, in town to convene on philology and commune over food. Otto kindly agreed to come in before the dinner rush to meet us. Corax and I arrived early and lunched on a very nice trio of spicy pork with peanuts, garlic beef and baby bok choy with whole fried garlic cloves. (This sort of meal requires consensus or an al-fresco setting.) Waving off the usual pitcher, we solicited a pot of hot water and threw in a chunk of 2001 YiWu Zhen Shan wild tree shu Pu-erh, which made a nice balance for the strong and varied food flavors. This decided me never to go to a Chinese restaurant again without my own tea—life's too short. (Shu Pu-erh is a “true black” tea quite distinct from the more familiar green, red and oolong. Native to Yunnan and ascended from the sweaty horse-load cakes of the Silk Road, it is double-fermented and with a live culture. For an insightful description, see

Otto arrived as we were plowing into this bounty. He complimented our tea with graciousness that evolved into a smile as sniff came to sip and swallow, then returned with a 20-year-old cake of his own. After a couple of steeps of this in a porcelain pot, we offered a new-season Long Jing. (In English, “Dragon Well”—one of the great named teas of China. A delicate green with a peak life of just weeks even when well handled, this was the real West Lake article, with the exquisite shape consequent to picking just one young leaf and bud—say, 10,000 plucks to the pound—and wok-firing with delicate massage to flatten each leaf. Just the whistle-wet for lark’s tongues in aspic.) He admired the tea's freshness and form, then produced a package of his own, just received from Hong Kong. The yellow nectar it yielded was a light, refreshing counter to the two black Pu-erhs.

At this point, we'd consumed most of the victuals, so Otto had the table cleared and brought out full Gong-fu regalia. (Same term as the martial art, renderable as “skillful means.” Gong-fu is a variably elaborate ritual which, with formality dropped, is the best possible way to summit the flavor potential of almost any tea. Easily understood, but best learned experientially from a practitioner. Since it’s based on a pot entirely filled with leaves, timing and temperature control are critical to keep nectar from devolving into paint-stripper.)

Since his own favorite tipple is Tie Kuan Yin (“Iron Goddess of Mercy”—another of the great names, this one a tightly balled oolong, appearing green but with a more flowery nose), we were offered a rarefied example that he'd just had sent from a family friend's plantation in the old country. With this he brought a couple of exquisite books on master tea pots and tea-making from his considerable collection. Over the next few steeps, we were treated to insight and humorous anecdotes on the China’s artisanal teapot production system, including an encounter with one master-turned-factory-manager who had interviewed Otto three times before deigning to sell his own pieces.

After that, we compared two very different Dan Cong (“Single Bush”) oolongs. Selectively picked, sometimes from ancient bushes, these tend to be rolled into long needles which yield an astonishingly floral aroma and honeyed taste. For a refreshingly bitter end, we then downed two chartreuse rounds of a powerful Drum Mountain Clouds & Mist. The latter term applies to high-rock plantings; because they are well drained yet consistently bathed in moist air, the tea develops a unique savor.

By this time, Otto was waxing peckish, so Corax and I were forced by politeness to endure a second exquisite lunch of braised pork and “hollow vegetable” plus steamed pea tendrils and cold chicken with an aromatic dressing of freshly chopped ginger and scallions. The fowl bears special mention: cold boiled chicken on a bare plate looked pretty dull. But one assumes that the boss of the best Chinese restaurant around gets OK treatment from his staff, and in fact the bird was extraordinary: cooked perfectly, and with about thrice the flavor of any other chicken I've tasted. Turns out that for this dish—like many wonders not on the menu (always worth asking a waiter about specials)—he sources unusual ingredients, here fowl of a rare French strain. (But to strain the rara avis metaphor yet further, he said that we should call ahead next time for double-steamed black chicken, an even more obscure subspecies with white feathers and shaded skin, like unto a polar bear. Who knew?)

While I covetously eyed the well-seasoned pots, Corax collected Chinese names with Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations for tea species, equipment, procedures and ethereal attitudes with the meticulous care of a gastronomic philologist. Then we made our goodbyes. Two lunches and seven varieties of tea in multiple steepings seemed a bit restrained for two gourmands aspiring to obesity, so we staggered down the block to make sure that Toscanini's still has the world's best cocoa-pudding ice cream. Corax, ever the traditionalist, is holding out for gelato at some little shop in Rome. So we'll just have to take the contest to the Colosseum, which has seen its share.

There may be two salient lessons here. One is that there is great tea, tea service and tea conversation available in (great) restaurants. But as the Tao Te Ching informs us, Those who serve don’t say, and the tea that can be spoken of is not always the true tea. The other is that despite a long relationship with this fine establishment and its owner, my reception and experience there have experienced a step-change upward as a result of asking about tea. A salutary event indeed. May such fortune be yours soon and often.



MarshalN said...

Well written, and makes me want to go -- thank you :)

one minor problem though -- predictable, mild weather in Cambridge, MA? Are we talking about the same town? I suppose it's all relative.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great article, it was a pleasure to read. I enjoyed the light touch!

Dao begets One
One begets Two
Two begets Three
and Three begets the ten thousand teas.

Tao Te[a] Ching, 42



Anonymous said...

I agree - well written and I too want to go. Maybe we can all meet there. I might be embarrassed at having no fancy teas to bring, but I'll be glad to drink everyone else's!