palo alto, which is where i've been visiting, must be a tough market for the aspiring tea-house. in an area already enjoying a plethora of upscale shops and boutiques, a mass of drinkeries already in place -- from starbucks to the numerous one-off cafes -- and a highly sophisticated clientele, the competition is, i'm guessing, pretty fierce. it's certainly a buyer's market: even the least upscale restaurants have carefully designed interiors, and [as they are typically blessed with gorgeous weather] many such establishments capitalize on the abundant sunshine by incorporating skylights, light wells, or other connections to the outside. clean lines and simple elegance predominate in the appointments. retail prices tend to reflect the likely investment these vendors have made in their emporia. there's lots of creativity around here: google was invented in menlo park, just a stone's throw away.
so i didn't know what to expect when stepping out of my quaint hotel, the cardinal, on ramona -- just a stroll away from the edge of the stanford campus.
but 'imagine my surprise,' as they say, to discover not one, but two tea houses [not coffee houses that also offer teas: actual tea houses] within two minutes' walk of my hotel. and one of these, moreover, advertised in its very window that it specialized in 'premium chinese teas.' naturally, for you, dear reader, i had to investigate them both. herewith, a few notes, with accompanying pictures.
TEA TIME [www.tea-time.com]
'tea time' is an attractive little establishment -- a 'tea lounge,' to use their terminology -- in a row of shops on ramona, between university and hamilton [542 ramona street]. it has a couple of tables outside, to take advantage of the mild climate, and several more inside. there is free wi-fi inside and out -- a welcome draw in a college town where academics tend to travel with a laptop tucked under one arm, and want to park for awhile while they sip something hot and surf the web. the interior is an attractive creamy yellow color, and the airy quality of the skylight conspires with the height of the ceiling to create an inviting, comfortable atmosphere in which to sit and read or chat with friends.
the sandwich-board sign outside the shop, which was the first thing to draw my eye, advertises 'over 100 fine loose teas.' once indoors, one sees a whole wall full of shelves offering cups, saucers, mugs, kettles, teapots, and other tea equipage for sale. some of this is of quite fine quality. some -- a minority -- is of asiatic provenance, and would equip one to execute gongfu cha brewing.
the tea list, as promised, is an ambitious one. while it includes many teas from india and ceylon, it also has a reputable section of red, oolong, green, and white teas from china, taiwan, and japan. [the complete list takes up fifteen pages on their website.] my sense is that they are still focused more on the english tea experience, including tea sandwiches, scones, and such; but i also get the impression that they are aware of the increasing interest in china teas, and want to expand their offerings in this regard. for instance, the website feature labeled 'new information: feature of the month' for april lists three items: 'pu-erh superior'; 'yixing set "cycles of life"'; and 'chinese emperor greens.' what's new this month, in other words, is all from china. the pu'er is only of one type [apparently a loose-leaf shu] but it's a start.
i ordered a yunnan hong cha, to go. here again, they only offered one grade of the tea -- not the highest by any means; a lower-mid-grade with some tips -- but they put it together carefully [in a paper tea-sac, inside a tall paper cup] and gave me explicit instructions on how long to brew it. [i did not wait anywhere near their recommended five minutes, but that's just me.] it was quite potable, and the service was cheery and welcoming.
over on university, a minute or two away from 'tea time,' is neotte -- 'passionate about finding and bringing the best quality Chinese teas for you,' as their website proclaims [429 university avenue]. the art-nouveau facade of the building housing this 'tea bar' [as they call it] is nonetheless plain enough not to disrupt the minimalist limning of neotte's design concept: postmodern industrial, but not so aggressive as to be repellent: on the contrary, the overall feeling is one of cleanliness and simplicity.
the bar at neotte is equipped for serious business: the barista here will take your order for any of their teas -- excluding herbal infusions, they only post twelve, two of which are pu'er -- and will brew it for you in a specific yixing teapot, set up on a large stone tea sink, which will enable him or her to douse the pot repeatedly with hot water while the leaf is being infused. in my case, which involved a large yunnan to go, the procedure actually required two yixing teapots, which were done infusing at around the same time, and which were emptied simultaneously into my large paper cup.
neotte does not have a huge space for clientele, but it was bustling while i was there. several people arrived and departed, while others sat and wi-fi surfed on their laptops as they drank. i did not do a careful count, but it did seem as though at least some of these were drinking iced teas, or perhaps an 'iced neolatte' -- a chilled tea with milk. but while my own tea was being brewed, one patron came up and ordered a small pot of pu'er for his table, so at least some of this clientele is showing up specifically in order to drink traditional china teas.
whether by chance or design, the walls of neotte are painted in almost the same color as one finds at 'tea time' -- perhaps a bit greener. it may be that the color scheme here was suggested by a greenish oolong. it certainly evokes some of that floral freshness. again, the high ceilings provide a sense of airiness and space that is quite expansive and attractive. this is the kind of environment that encourages one to come often and stay long -- an option encouraged by their late opening hours [10.00 pm daily].
one of the most intriguing aspects of neotte is the very ambitious array of tea equipage for sale, virtually all of it sourced from china or taiwan. some of the prices here are quite high, but the porcelains were of uniformly high quality, and the yixing pots elegantly made. on the same shelves were canisters of the teas sold by neotte, each labeled with the house logo. again, prices for dry leaf are at the higher end.
another intriguing aspect -- of a very different sort -- is the fact that neotte does not hesitate to sell, alongside its china teas, an array of pastries that clearly come from the west-european and american tradition. in the year and a half since they opened their doors, they appear to have found that their clientele, while willing to sample teas that might be less familiar than those they grew up on, nonetheless want to be able to nosh on familiar baked goods. in that regard at least, neotte does not attempt to hew too closely to the hard-core chinese tea-house, and [in fact] could be said to be treading the same ground as its neighbor 'tea time,' although the latter advertises the fact more openly.
what both these tea-houses put me in mind of, more than anything else, is the current popularity of 'asian fusion' restaurants. westerners are growing increasingly aware of, and interested in, asian cultures -- not always with any clear sense of their multiplicity or diversity -- and by no means always with the kind of unqualified enthusiasm that signifies readiness for total immersion. mainstream america wants access to a well-defined, clearly-modulated experience of otherness -- to be sampled within carefully limited parameters and [above all] not too far from terra firma: we need to be able to scuttle back to familiarity whenever necessary. for precisely the same reasons, mainstream USA is much more likely to crave [e.g.] a trip to taco bell than to eat the way actual mexicans eat.
and that is natural enough. maybe some cultures are, overall, more adventurous than others, but traditions and styles of eating and drinking are an extraordinarily intimate part of what makes each culture what it is. it would be unfair to expect any of them -- including the north american -- to jettison its own customs and cherished favorite foods to embrace those of another.
in view of that, it would be unrealistic to expect that every new tea-house featuring china teas attempt the faithful and thoroughgoing recreation of the cha-guan of beijing or guangzhou. and indeed, it is not only not feasible, but also not even fully desirable: the real issue is that americans, living american lives in america, nonetheless broaden their perspective and worldview enough to realize that other peoples, in other lands, live lives very differently from our own; and that there is something rich and beautiful to be appreciated in each of these cultures. and maybe even, from time to time, to be borrowed into our own.