Hot Stuff

Despite my heritage, I don’t consume gallons of tea on a daily basis (although my Russian pedigree shows up in my weakness for fine Japanese and British china :-)). There are three things that invariably make me reach for a tea cup: cold weather, (nasal) congestion, and company. The recent blustery weather activated the Russian spirit in me, and thus the old romance with tea was rekindled. It provided me with a perfect reason to revisit a few tea shops in my general neighborhood, – the greater Dupont Circle area.

Teaism

Teaism was the location of my first DC lunch ever, when we moved to DC some 6 years ago; I suspect I will always have a special relationship with that place. According to their site, it was originally intended as “an alternative to the obfuscation, over-formalization, and xenophobia of traditional Asian and English tea houses”. Their belief is that drinking good-quality loose-leaf tea should not be a luxury, and that substance should always triumph over style. Their shtick food-wise is simple offerings from the cuisines of tea, such as bento boxes from Japan, curries from Thailand, and tandoor breads from India. The tea selection is pretty limited, with a few solid offerings in each category (tisane, green, oolong, black, white).

Teaism is fast and efficient: no frills, no pomp, no circumstance. You pick up your food and tea on a plastic tray when they call your number at the expo counter. It is cheap and tasty: for $15, you can get a full meal AND a pot of tea. And it feels very comfortable like an old shoe, and does not push one in scary directions, away from the cozy comfort zone.

My personal favorites are: ginger scones, tea-smoked salmon, tasty bento boxes featuring dishes like sweet potato salad, cucumber-ginger salad, etc. with Genmaicha or a nice oolong. The cute Asian garden upfront is an added benefit in nice weather.

All in all, I would call it a social venue and lunch place first, and tea shop second; a kind of a coffeeless coffee shop. It is a very casual and egalitarian place with a young vibe (I was easily the oldest person there :-)) that seems to be always crowded and buzzy, especially on the weekends. It is very DC.

Ching Ching Cha

The catchy, alliterative name has an explanation: CHA is the Chinese word for tea, and Ching Ching is the name of the founder. It is a traditional Chinese teahouse: a tranquil, lovely space with an authentic setting (beautiful rosewood tables and chairs, platform seating with fluffy cushions, etc). Ching Ching spends a few months each year visiting different tea regions of China, Taiwan and Japan, searching for new unique teas and teaware to bring back. It is a place steeped in tradition.

It is not a very appropriate lunch spot, unless you have a couple of hours to linger and enjoy the classic tea ritual; it feels much more otherworldly and eclectic than Teaism. Everything here is an accessory or afterthought to the tea; tea is the focal point, and the lengthy tea selection is further proof of that. Food offerings are reasonably limited; they are primarily light lunch Items. My personal explanation for that fact is that they don’t want you to come in very hungry, as you would be unable to focus properly on the tea. So, if you have a big appetite, come “primed”.

We enjoyed sitting in the shoe-free platform seating area where you can show off your freshly manicured toes, or cute socks, or alternatively, hide your feet under the table 🙂

The staff is very knowledgeable and passionate about tea, and is there to help you enjoy your tea the way it was intended, using the proper brewing and serving technique. It gives one a nice feeling of being initiated into the art of tea.

My personal favorites: five spice peanuts, marble tea egg (egg cooked with star anise, peppercorns, soy sauce, and tea leaves), Mongolian dumplings, and the coconut tart with any of the recommendations of the staff.This time, we decided on a beautiful Dong Ding Oolong served kung-fu style, and a Golden Blossom artisan flowering tea.

Ching Ching Cha is truly a House of Tea, not just another Georgetown lunch spot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tea Cellar at Park Hyatt

The Tea Cellar located next to Blue Duck Tavern at the Hyatt (at 24th and M street) features more than 50 rare and limited production, single-estate teas from remote regions of China, Japan, Sri Lanka and the Himalayas.

The language on their website – “fine art of tea”, “exclusive and sophisticated”, “subtle nuances”, “gourmet teas”, “at the level of flavor and complexity of fine wines” can be considered off-putting by some, and a class marker by others. The actual experience is different from what one might expect: the place itself is more relaxed, and the staff – courteous and approachable. Of course, the prices for individual teas can be steep…

The slick, spacious modern interior (glass, stainless steel, natural wood) allows for a more intimate experience. The tea expert on duty is available to assist in the tea selection process.

There is a different tea drinking format available on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, from 2:30 to 4:30 pm, for $30 per person: it is the traditional British afternoon tea, where tea selections can be enjoyed with the various sweet and savory finger foods, such as cucumber sandwiches, cakes, scones, etc.

It is funny how much more comfortable and familiar a “Western” tea ceremony feels, regardless of how many Japanese and Chinese ceremonies you have attended before…

One easily forgets how much caffeine tea can have, and we arrived at the Tea Cellar already hopped-up on the Ching Ching Cha selections. Thus, we took it easy, and went the aromatic, mellow route with a magnolia oolong and a lemongrass/wild rose tisane…

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As a result, we have got three very different aesthetics, three very different tea drinking experiences to choose from, within a mile radius. Next time, give quality loose-leaf tea a try, and discover the experience that works for you.

The Mother of All Inns

I am not always a contrarian. I do like puppies, ice cream, and sunshine. But sometimes I certainly zig, while others zag. Holidays often prove a good example of that: instead of staying up till 6am on New Years Eve, and spending New Year’s Day in a daze watching old movies, we went to bed at a reasonable time, got up at a reasonable time, and went hiking in the Shenandoah National Park.

The location of our first lunch of 2012: Hawksbill Summit:

Most importantly, zigging on New Year’s Day provided us with an opportunity to snag and leisurely enjoy a not-so-easy dinner reservation at the Inn at Little Washington (I must admit the reservation thought came first, and the hiking plans followed :-)). Besides, we are not “real” hikers; we are the kind that bring along an IKEA lunch bag, an umbrella, and a Blackberry for taking pictures.

The town of Washington, VA turned out to be an enclave of comfort and pampering,  – something one can get used to very, very quickly. All the individuals we encountered were committed to lavishing attention and making our stay just a little bit nicer: from chef Patrick O’Connell (whom we met during the kitchen tour at the Inn), to wine director Master Sommelier Jennifer Knowles (who was determined to find that perfectly aged bottle of Chambolle-Musigny to capture the mood of the evening), to Kevin & Jay, the gracious hosts of Gay Street Inn where we spent the night (who offered such nice touches as port & chocolates by the fireplace in the library during our late night game of food trivia).

Our dinner at the Inn at Little Washington was well overdue, as I believe many foodies would place it in the top three restaurants in the greater DC area (alongside Komi and Restaurant Eve which we visited last year). I do not like ranking restaurants, as dining is a subjective, in-the-moment experience, but I will venture that, based on the overall pampering and individual attention of the fabulous staff criterion, I would personally rank them number 1, and based on depth of flavors, textural interplay, and general food excitement-worthiness – number 2. Oh, and they have a killer cellar, full of Burgundies and other wonderful things 🙂

The standouts for me were: the phenomenal flavor of one of the amuse-bouches (Bloody Mary gelee), the texture and elegance of my entree of Bitter Chocolate-Dusted Border Springs Lamb Loin with Salsify Puree on Autumn Ratatouille (served rare as requested), the surprising Tortelli of Spinach with Bambino Eggplant Puree and Chanterelle Mushrooms, and the addictive caraway seed/sea salt/walnut bread (and my lovely Burgundy, of course!):

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeff’s Beet Fantasia takes the cake as the most photogenic dish of the evening:

All in all, we could not have wished for a better start of 2012, – ours was full of natural and man-made beauty. Happy New Year!

Pig Seeks Duck (and Chocolate)

On Saturday morning we woke up to cold rain which soon turned into a nasty, relentless combination of sleet and high winds. “Lovely weather for duck”, I thought to myself and could almost taste the intense, earthy and rich broth of a duck soup.

For me, a big part of eating pleasure is the anticipation, which is both craving the known and preparing your mind and senses “to be surprised”. I am always excited about the prospect of going to Present, an “imperial Vietnamese cuisine” restaurant in Falls Church. Present’s extensive menu is full of such great whimsical names like Warm Heart Piglet, Silken Shawl Imperial Autumn Roll, and Adventurous Bull. The soup I could almost taste that morning was Sleeping Duck on the Golden Pond, which, according to Present, is a “special egg noodle soup with roast duck simmered with herbs and exotic mushroom served in a delightfully enriched broth”. And it features Chinese broccoli, one of my very favorite vegetables!

Sleeping Duck on the Golden Pond

 I feel that soups are their real forte; it is obvious that their soup bases are made from bones, not bouillon cubes or other gimmicks; and as far as I know, the kitchen does not use any frozen ingredients.

Besides the soups, l always look forward to little things like shaved young lotus root as palate cleanser; lightly salted lemonade (a delicious crushed Vietnamese preserved lemon (Chanh Muối) drink, – a nice counterpoint to a number of dishes, especially lemongrass-infused ones); a “simple” appetizer called Smokey Petals (baby clams sautéed with special herbs and spices, and served on exquisite sesame rice crackers), etc.

 

Completely satisfied with savory offerings, we skipped dessert. Besides, a leisurely but cold and wet afternoon, like no other, inspires unhurried tasting of single origin chocolate in the privacy of one’s home. We live in fortuitous proximity to Biagio Fine Chocolate located on 18th street in Adams Morgan, – easily the best chocolate shop I have ever been to. Chances are, if there is a chocolate product worth getting excited about, Biagio has it, or has every intention of getting it in. It represents close to a hundred names, most of whom are bean-to-bar artisanal chocolate makers. What that means is that those producers “make chocolate” in the true sense of the word: import cacao beans from plantations, roast and husk them, and then grind the cacao nibs into a fine paste. After they add sugar and grind some more, they swirl the mixture in conches, in order to smooth the texture, and blow off acids and other unwanted flavors. Making chocolate the right way is complicated and demanding work; we do our part in supporting artisanal chocolate makers and do not settle for mass-produced stuff. Besides, I am pretty sure Jeff is allergic to lesser quality chocolate  🙂

Here are just a few of our 2011 favorites:

  • Artisan du Chocolat (Kent, UK) Vietnam  Origin Dark Bar (72% cocoa, made with Vietnamese ground Trinitario cocoa beans)
  • SOMA Chocolatemaker (Toronto, Canada) Green Tangerine (microbatch 66% cocoa Madagascar chocolate bar infused with the essence of green tangerine)
  • Pralus (France) Cuba (single origin 75% Trinitario cocoa)
  • Fresco (Lynden, WA) 209 Prototype Jamaica 70% cocoa (subtle conching)
  • Amano Chocolate (Orem, Utah) Dos Rios 70% cocoa from the Dominican Republic.