few days can be as tea-rich as my visit this past weekend to san francisco. my hosts chris and helen, entertaining me in princely style, humored my every whim. looking back at the journey, i'm already astounded at how much we saw and did [and tasted] on saturday alone. the central movement in this symphony of tea, the opportunity to attend the US premiere of the film ALL IN THIS TEA, was framed by visits to two landmark tea-houses -- the IMPERIAL TEA COURTS in san francisco and in berkeley. we set off for the first one mid-morning, leaving the inner sunset district [where i lounged in sybaritic comfort] for downtown. along the way we meandered down clement, which chris called 'the real chinatown' -- meaning that this is not so much a tourist destination as a residential neighborhood, in which actual chinese/americans are born and reside and live their lives. [to pronounce 'clement' properly, i learned, you must stress not the first but the second syllable.] along the way, we passed 6th street, the location of AROMA TEA SHOP, which an anonymous commenter on this blog has praised amply. a visit to AROMA will have to wait, however, for another visit.
herewith, then, a tea symphony in three movements.
:: 1 :: THE FERRY BUILDING: IMPERIAL TEA COURT [SAN FRANCISCO]
there are still actual ferry boats that ply the waves from the wharf outside this massive building. lined along its spacious concourses with cunning shops and boutiques of every sort, it is, of course, one of the major tourist attractions in the city, but on a saturday, many of those in the crowded halls are SF locals who have come to sample the wares and shop the weekend farmers' market. here, under one [very large] roof, one can shop top-echelon bakers like acme bread; high-end chocolatiers like recchiuti; and, if the fancy takes you, the premium china teas of imperial tea court. the irrepressible dog ma has already vividly evoked his recent visit there for you, but as i had my trusty camera with me on saturday, i was able to capture some graphic images for you. you will see that the place is just as dog ma described it [except that this time, all the personnel were women].
the space, though smaller than some tea-houses i've frequented, was larger than many others in the ferry building; what it must cost to lease retail space there boggles the imagination. it was pleasingly laid out, with a few tables in dark wood. a stationary screen discreetly concealed the nuts-and-bolts aspects of water preparation. the ceiling was festooned with tasselled electric lanterns. the shelves that lined the walls were stocked in no desultory fashion: they are set up for very serious tea-ware sales here. the one type of tea that was prominently set out within customer reach was pu'er -- whether because of the current vogue for this tea, or because the compressed cakes with their decorated wrappers just make for an impressive display. they also had on offer a small but very well-selected set of books on tea, including [i was delighted to see] beatrice hohenegger's splendid recent publication, LIQUID JADE.
i did not sit down for tea in this shop, for reasons that will shortly become clear, but i did have a very pleasant conversation with shirley, who was at the counter. i learned that roy fong was in china at the moment, sourcing teas, and that he would be home next week with the new spring oolongs.
on this day there was no lingering in the ferry building, however, as we had to check on the parking meter [parking is not easy in SF, and especially not around this part of town], and in any case, it was time to move on to the next and central portion of our saturday.
:: 2 :: A U.S. MOVIE PREMIERE: 'ALL IN THIS TEA'
i have already documented this experience fully, perhaps too fully, in my previous blog entry, so without further ado, i will say that as soon as the film Q&A were concluded, we hopped in the car and drove to the corner of shattuck and vine. here commenced the third movement of our tea symphony.
:: 3 :: CHEZ LU YU: IMPERIAL TEA COURT [BERKELEY]
it had been virtually impossible to find a parking spot near the ferry building, and irritatingly difficult to do so near the pacific film archive, where the film was shown. but guanyin the merciful intervened when we embarked on our post-film libations, and we easily found a spot right near BLACK OAK BOOKS -- a landmark in itself, which it took all my self-restraint not to dive into.
the imperial tea court [ITC] in berkeley is just two doors down from CHEZ PANISSE, another of the truly iconic restaurants of american culture, which [as early as 1981] had the good sense to engage the services of helen gustafson as their 'tea buyer.' but whereas the fetching white wisterias of chez panisse hang practically right over the sidewalk, the ITC is tucked back behind some other food establishments. to enter it, one must pass through a large keyhole arch of polished metal and up a darkened corridor. at the end of this is a ramp that leads through a beautiful [if miniature] chinese garden, complete with burbling fountain, up to the outdoor terrace where the open-air tea tables are set up. from here another large keyhole doorway leads to the indoor tea-room itself, although with its double doors flung open wide, the gentle berkeley climate somewhat blurred the distinction between inside and outside.
we opted to sit inside, so as to be able to take in the appointments of the room. a large rosewood table was waiting for us, and the shelves behind it were chock-a-block with tea equipage. more equipage was set out on shelves behind the tea counter, and while there was plenty of splendor on offer here, the stacked cardboard boxes to one side gave this space a slightly less tony atmosphere than the ferry building location. this would probably have been more or less inevitable in any case, as one large portion of the space is devoted to an open kitchen, where the menu items are prepared. in any case, it was a sunny, lazy saturday afternoon, and our minds' eyes had been filled to overflowing with the images off les blank's new tea film, which we had just seen. so all was well -- except that we were in the mood to drink some serious tea.
this was chris's first exposure to the glories of fine china teas, so i am afraid we proceeded to pack rather more tea-drinking into the rest of the afternoon than one ordinarily would. rather than dine from the inviting menu offered by ITC at this location -- and one could, n.b., eat an entire chinese meal here -- we spent our time in gongfu infusions of two very different teas: the 'superior puerh,' which is a serviceable if not a transcendent loose-leaf shu pu'er, and then a mid-range wen shan baozhong. we made half-a-dozen infusions of each, and were completely chazui by the end of it.
the two teas were useful foils for one another -- snow white and rose red, as it were. chris was startled by the deep, coffee-like color of the pu'er, the more so since virtually every tea poured in the film we had just seen was a green or a delicate oolong. as we put our teas through their paces, they each performed beautifully, changing flavor and aroma noticeably at almost every new infusion. the pu'er, in particular, morphed dramatically beginning at about the fifth infusion. chris's palate was astute enough to notice all of this, which made the pouring an especial pleasure. the oolong was completely delicious from the first infusion on, and the aftertaste stayed with us for a good half-hour after we left the tea-house.
while the teas were not the most spectacular i have ever tasted, they were both very good. and the service itself was both extremely attentive and completely self-effacing: the ideal combination. the gongfu setup consisted of a metal tray with raised slatted insert; a zisha pot; a low ceramic bowl to set it in; a gong dao bei; aroma and tasting cups for both of us; a wooden cha dao set [tongs etc]; and the tea itself, presented in a cha he. in general, i prefer my teapots of zisha, and the other ceramics in porcelain; here, everything was zisha, and the cups were lined in porcelain. but it was all completely serviceable. and, of course, each tea came with a separate complete setup. the server asked at what temperature i wanted the water for each tea [extra points for this!], and discreetly replaced the kettle several times over the few hours we spent sitting there. this was good too, as one can be quite profligate with hot water when one is rinsing cups repeatedly and making multiple infusions.
it was a great pleasure, particularly after seeing the les blank film, to be able to expand our sensory experiences of the tea beyond the visual and the auditory. at ITC we were able not only to see and hear the tea in our cups, but to touch, smell, and taste it as well -- and to experience the satisfaction of time spent in good company over this remarkable beverage. several tables filled and emptied and re-filled while we were there; the sunlight on the terrace changed as the afternoon waned into evening; and we knew it was time to go. all the way back to SF we talked about tea -- what we had seen in the film, and experienced in our cups.