Dining: Tea Time
"Full-bodied," "fruity," and "smoky" are descriptions that once belonged solely to the lexicon of wine, but another centuries-old beverage is inspiring converts to praise its pleasures in oenological terms. Tea has captured the interest of Americans like never before, thanks to a number of tea companies, hotels, and restaurants that are showing their patrons the drink can be as complex and sensual as a first-growth Bordeaux.
India’s Darjeelings, mainland China’s black teas, Taiwan’s oolongs, and Japan’s fresh seasonal green teas are appearing at exclusive hotels and restaurants from New York to Portland, Ore. Guests make selections from tea lists, and tea sommeliers carefully brew and decant the teas into fine bone china or handmade ceramic vessels. Just as in viticulture, tea leaves are affected by terroir, the combination of soil, climate, altitude, sunlight, and other environmental factors. Leaves grown on the highest branches of the tea bush yield a delicate lemony flavor, and those grown in gardens lying from 4,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level make for bolder tea.
But gourmet leaves alone do not guarantee a superior cup. They must be united with pristine brewing water (spring water is best) that has reached the ideal temperature, which varies from 180 degrees Fahrenheit for delicate green and oolong teas to just below boiling for stronger black teas. Furthermore, the water and the leaves must mingle for the correct length of time, which ranges from 30 seconds for white teas to three to five minutes for a Chinese Yunnan black tea. "Tea requires the utmost care to bring out its noble qualities," says Dilmah Tea Marketing Director Dilhan Fernando. Indeed, the excellence of the tea depends on the excellence of the brewer.
Today, many American establishments have embraced the challenge of serving magnificent tea. New York’s Franchia restaurant pairs wild organic Korean tea with Asian-style dumplings and green tea pancakes. At the Mark hotel in New York, Chinese tea master Ringo Lo serves a Hong Kong–style tea ($24 per person) in which water is poured over the leaves to rinse them before the brewing occurs. "We use water that has been analyzed to have a pH of 7 to ensure the purity in the taste of the tea," says Lo.
The Adolphus Hotel in Dallas prefers a traditional setting, replete with marble-topped coffee tables, deep couches, dark paneling, and a pianist softly playing classical music on an 1893 Steinway. Queen Elizabeth II confirmed its status as the tea site for Dallas’ social elite when she relaxed with a cup here during a rare visit to Texas in 1991. Adolphus guests select a brew and enjoy a three-course tea ($30 per person) of sandwiches, scones, and pastries.
Gale Gand, co-owner of the Chicago restaurant Tru, ensures that tea "gets the respect that it deserves" at her establishment. "Part of the pleasure of enjoying premium whole-leaf tea is in the visuals," says Gand, who is also Tru’s pastry chef. "Seeing jasmine pearls, which are scented green tea [leaves] hand-rolled into pearl-shaped balls, is eye-opening. And the drinking isn’t half bad either." Tru’s tea flights ($12 per person) deliver a series of shots of tea that proceed from the ethereal to the robust, paired with Gand’s miniature sweet treats, which include gold leaf–dusted brownies, herb-studded lollipops, and mini ice-cream sandwiches. "Serving great tea demands the same kind of attention to detail that we accord to every other part of the meal," she enthuses. The efforts of Gand and other aficionados have helped awaken the public to the beauty of the brew.