Some cultures have been embracing tea for as long as they’ve had a written history. Others are just now discovering it. Tea has long been one of the world’s favorite beverages, but now it’s beginning to receive wide attention and acclaim in the American consumer marketplace. Tea suppliers are vying for a place at the top of the industry, competing to offer the best, the rarest, and the most flavorful varieties. The scientific and medical communities are hitting the laboratories at full force, making new discoveries everyday about the health benefits of this ancient brew.
So, too, an increasing number of entrepreneurs are setting up shop. Whereas the 1990s marked a decade of coffee obsession, at least within the U.S. market, the new millennium seems to be all about tea. As consumer interest continues to grow, more and more Americans are seeing teahouses pop up on their corners and in their neighborhoods.
The StarChefs editors conducted a bit of fieldwork to track down some of New York City’s finest and most authentic offerings, with a focus on English and Japanese-inspired tea. Check out our reviews of the following tea salons and shops.
The folks at Ito En take their tea seriously. “We consider it like a vegetable,” says Rona Tison, Vice President of Retail Services. Indeed, the tea is shipped with as much care as the most fragile of perishable goods, and is stored in special lacquered tea boxes. Plus, the store employs a professional tea taster, as well as an in-house tea specialist who is always on-hand to answer questions and give pairing advice. Perhaps this is why Ito En is so well respected. Or it could even be the design – this small teashop is lined with glass vials, each holding a different type of tea leaf (for your sniffing and viewing pleasure). With its chic minimalist interior and wall of test tube-like bottles, the shop resembles a designer laboratory.
Ito En is located underneath a restaurant called Kai, which serves contemporary Japanese cuisine inspired by the food that traditionally accompanies tea ceremonies. Though partnered with Kai, Ito En does not sell exclusively Japanese products – a wide selection of loose leaf tea from around the world is available, as well as Kai’s popular almonds covered in chocolate and matcha (powdered green tea), and its Earl Grey-flavored candied grapefruit.
Kai sits atop the stylish Ito En retail store, Japan’s largest tea purveyor, on Madison Avenue. In addition to afternoon tea service, the restaurant offers lunch and dinner, including kaiseki, a traditional Japanese meal comprised of as many as fifty small courses. They come out one after the other in an elaborate parade of treats, each as tasty as the next. Think of it as something like Japanese tapas.
Kaiseki was born in the teahouses of Kyoto, where Buddhist monks were said to have served food with tea to enhance the flavor of the beverage. Kai adds a French twist to this most traditional of pairings, reflecting the world’s recent fascination with fusion cuisine.
Fresh, seasonal ingredients are the hallmark of traditional kaiseki - and of Chef Hitoshi Kagawa’s cuisine. The fish is as fresh as could be, and the tea is in an entirely different league from its distant cousin, the stale teabag. Attention to detail is the other standout feature of Kai, from the décor down to the serving dishes. Each course is placed just so on one of Kai’s selection of elegant, handmade ceramic plates.
The food at Kai conveys a feeling of balance, the kind achieved by a few choice ingredients, a skilled hand, and an eye for design. The ambience mirrors the cuisine in its elegance and chic minimalism. The eight-course meal begins with a cup of White Peony tea, thoughtfully served at the start of the meal so that its delicate flavor can be appreciated without the distraction of other flavors.
The quality of the food is consistently high for the remaining courses. An abundance of fresh seafood is served next, followed by two traditional soups (kenchin and ochazuke), toro that is fit for the gods, and grilled black cod. The dining experience comes to a close with a creamy white sesame mousse. Smooth as could be and not overly sweet, it is a fitting end to an elegant, well-executed meal.
Poised, teacup in hand, the scene unfolds around you like a dream. The room’s mahogany molding is illuminated by the dim glow of candlelight, and the abundant array of flowers rounds out the pink and white color scheme. The generous spread of baked goods, stacks of fine china and silver, and genteel service befit a 19th century tearoom in England. Yet this isn’t a scene out of a Victorian novel – this is Lady Mendl’s, a tea salon in modern day New York City.
Lady Mendl’s is picture perfect. Ideal for a romantic pot of tea or an afternoon with the ladies, this tea spot is a well-kept secret. It is discretely housed on the second floor of a brownstone on an otherwise residential block. The only indication of its presence is a little plaque on the exterior of the building with a teacup. Lady Mendl’s feels like a getaway – a welcome respite from the frenzied pace of the city.
If not just for escape, then check out Lady Mendl’s for their scones, which are perfectly crumbly and served with real clotted cream (not easy to find). The tea selection is fairly traditional, offering English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Ceylon, and Darjeeling, as well as several varieties of Chinese green and black teas. The five-course tea service menu ($30) is decidedly British, à la afternoon tea.
From salad to dessert, the quality is consistently high. The finger sandwiches are appropriately dainty, lacking crusts like the best of them. The cucumber, mint, and crème fraîche sandwich, in particular, is a lovely departure from the usual cucumber and cream cheese combination. The sandwiches are followed by not one, but three dessert courses, including a 25-layer crepe cake -an original addition to the otherwise traditional menu. It consists of 25 layers of crepes, with French cream in between each one. The dessert strikes the perfect balance between light and rich, achieving moistness without sogginess. But poise and equilibrium seem to be Lady Mendl’s’ strong suits, judging from the interior, the food, and the tea itself.
The Rotunda is the perfect destination for those seeking the classic British afternoon tea experience. This is tea at its grandest, not your living room variety. The amazingly attentive tuxedoed waiters do everything short of hand-feeding you, refilling your teacup after every few sips and even making sure that your tea cozy is properly positioned on the teapot.
The three-tiered platter of food has the usual cast of characters: finger sandwiches sans crust, scones served with Devonshire Cream and jam, and a dizzying array of bite-sized tarts, cookies, and cakes. The cranberry scones were a favorite: satisfyingly buttery, though the consistency was closer to a biscuit than the traditional Scottish treat. The Rotunda’s tea selection is decent, with the typical range of black and green teas, plus a handful of tisanes and a few house blends. The Royal Rotunda is noteworthy; it consists of a blend of flavored black teas (vanilla, black currant and Earl Grey), which impart a sweet nose and a full, rounded flavor.
The Rotunda is known, more than anything, for the room itself, whose fame is owed to the domed ceiling and meticulously painted pastoral scenes on the walls. The ambiance is soothing, with piped in classical music and large bouquets of flowers. The idea is to dine in comfort (on the couches and plush chairs) while gazing at the splendors of the room: marble surfaces, Greco-Roman columns, cherubic statues, and the sky blue ceiling with clouds.
Tourists are drawn to The Rotunda, but a variety of locals frequent it as well: businesspeople, well-heeled ladies, and families with children. For afternoon tea service, the most decadent option is Royal Tea, which consists of tea, sandwiches, scones, sweets, and sparkling wine or port for $45. Full Tea ($35) includes everything but the alcohol, and Light Afternoon Tea is tea and scones with either finger sandwiches or teacakes ($28).
For homesick Brits or anglophiles with a tea habit, Carry On Tea and Sympathy is a must. This quaint little shop consists of shelves upon shelves of British products: tea, candy, biscuits, syrups, jam, soda, and non-edibles like tea cozies, videos, books, and even bath salts. Close your eyes and imagine you’re in England - everyone who works there seems to be an import, and most of the customers have an accent as well. Next door is the popular Tea and Sympathy, the small but cozy tearoom with the same owner. In true British style, it serves an impressive roster of tea along with food like beans on toast, shepherd’s pie, and sherry trifle. You can get many of these items in Carry On’s take-out line, and you won’t have to wait in the tearoom’s notoriously long line.
Who would think that nestled in the heart of an unremarkable block on the Upper East Side is a door to another universe? Walk inside the Urasenke Chanoyu Center and you’ll immediately notice that the air has a different quality. It’s dramatically quieter than the outside world, and astonishingly calm. Walk past the waiting area and library, through a mazelike series of hallways, and emerge in the heart of the operation, a tree-filled courtyard and Japanese rock garden surrounded by a ring of small bamboo rooms. Rumor has it that if you’re still enough, the garden fills with crickets on certain summer evenings.
The Chanoyu Center is New York’s premier tea master training ground. It is part of a global network of teahouses, Urasenke being one of the largest schools of tea in the world. The school is highly regarded, so students often have to sit on a waiting list for several years in order to enroll. Once you’re in, you can literally be a student for life, taking an endless series of courses in which they learn every aspect of how to host a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. But you don’t have to take lessons to experience a ceremony – the center offers a monthly tea lecture and demonstration, consisting of a brief talk, a tea ceremony, and a question and answer session.
The demonstration is as much about learning the prescribed movements and etiquette of serving tea than it is about tasting matcha (powdered green tea) or checking out the architecture for which Japanese teahouses are so famous. The center aims to present as genuine an experience as possible, but the ceremony is inauthentic in one respect: the lecturer gives a running commentary, explaining each of the host’s movements in great detail. The host, meanwhile, serves tea in what feels like a dance of precision and grace, etiquette and concentration. The props consist of a wrought-iron teakettle, ceramic teacups, various trays and utensils, and of course, the tea itself. Your host is both star performer and director, and your lecturer is your guide, like program notes personified. You are a member of the cast, taking part in a tradition that goes back for centuries.
According to legend, the genkan, or doorway to the tearoom area, is a gateway to another world, one in which the “world of delusion” is abandoned for the “enlightenment” that awaits you on the other side. Whether or not you subscribe to this belief, the Urasenke Chanoyu Center offers a respite from the craziness that is New York City, and a rare opportunity to learn about the time-honored tradition of Japanese tea.