Istanbul: Redefining Breakfast

It has been a week since we got back, and every day I find myself reminiscing about Istanbul. The trip was so satisfying that it was almost impossible for me to pick what to write about first. Finally, I decided to start from the beginning, as in Turkey, breakfast is definitely in the top 3 most important meals of the day.

We experienced a wide variety of breakfast menus, from a simple but satisfying simit (an iconic Turkish snack of circular bread with sesame seeds) and tea, to the ubiquitous traditional tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and feta plates (plus slices of watermelon in the summer), to the over-the-top lavish Van-style breakfast. One thing stayed the same: it was always made with local fresh ingredients, and it was often savory rather than just sweet.

Çay (tea) is what many Turks start the day with, and drink throughout the day. Contrary to what one might think, they do not just drink Turkish-style coffee; as a matter of fact, the quality of coffee available in Istanbul widely varies, and many settle for the weak, milky Nescafe. Some believe that the best coffee in the city can be found at Mandabatmaz in Beyoglu. I certainly thought that their rich, dense, and aromatic version was pretty close to the Platonic ideal of türk kahvesi :

Now back to Van-style breakfast (Van is a city in the Eastern part of Turkey). A Van-style Kurdish breakfast takes the traditional Turkish breakfast of feta, tomato, cucumber, olives, and bread, and turns it up more than a few notches.

At Van Kahvalti Evi, along with the standards, the breakfast plate comes with an assortment of local cheeses (including the wonderfully grassy otlu and orgu, and string cheese), cacik (thick yogurt), homemade butter, jam, olives, selection of bread, and tahini. Along with the breakfast plates, they also serve casserole-style dishes, such as my favorite sucuklu menemen (scrambled eggs cooked with sautéed onions, green peppers and tomato, with an addition of sucuk, a spicy Turkish sausage):

They also serve excellent gozleme, which are thin sheets of hand-rolled dough wrapped around cheese, beef, potato or spinach; kind of a cross between a quesadilla and a crepe:

One of the highlights of the Van breakfast was an amazing dish that could easily double as dessert: local honey with tiny bits of wax served alongside kaymak, the Turkish version of sweet clotted cream. (Besides the porcine gene, I believe I have always had the ursine gene, as am terribly fond of good honey).

The fabulous kaymak (besides being eaten with a spoon :-)) can also be tasted as a lokum (Turkish delight) filling, as well as in kaymakli baklava, where it gets baked into a luxurious layer, pushing the envelope on perfection just a bit further:

At a place like Van Kahvalti Evi, breakfast can be had throughout the day (one of the many things I loved about Istanbul restaurants is that they are open all day, – virtually any time I might feel hungry!).

Another notable breakfast example was served at Hotel Amira, which, among many, many other things included sheep’s milk yogurt with grape molasses, or rose jam (my favorite!), or dried fruit and nuts. They also offered the best freshly squeezed orange juice I had ever tasted in my entire life. Incidentally, my daily intake of nar (freshly squeezed pomegranate juice) was something one gets used to very quickly.

Whatever the source, after breakfast we would feel sufficiently fortified to go about our day, exploring the secrets of the Ottoman Empire, or just gazing over at the Bosphorus…

I Like a Good Beer Buzz Early in the Morning

Ok, I lied. Actually, it is entirely untrue: I have never even tasted beer early in the morning. But, on Friday night I came close to purchasing VIP tickets to Drink the District (Beer Edition) for 11am entry, if only to find out whether I did enjoy an early-morning buzz. In the end, I could not bring myself to spend the morning with hundreds of others in the 95-degree heat clamoring for unlimited 3-oz artisanal beer pours. But a good idea is a good idea, and we started our own search of refreshing ways to beat the hot weather (and taste craft beer).

The ever-refreshing Summit Lake

A cool 40 degrees, even with a ray of sunshine…

Certainly, the best escape from the heat would involve going back to Mt.Evans, the closest fourteener  to Denver where we spent our 4th of July holiday.

Yes, the white patches are snow…

On top of the world, with a bigger picture perspective…

By the way, that was a fantastic trip full of culinary delights, such as the amazing omakase from Sushi Den (one of the very best sushi restaurants I have ever been to), Paul Bara champagne, and a perfect sundried tomato risotto made from scratch by my dear friend The Blissful Adventurer.

courtesy of sushiden.net

However, Denver is not exactly stone’s throw from DC, and we had to get creative.

So, we hid in our apartment and had a picnic lunch on our cool granite floor (one can sit or lie on a sheepskin rug). We fortified ourselves with Watermelon & Feta salad and Fattoush, before heading to a local watering hole by the name of Churchkey, in order to taste through some stellar locally produced stuff.

Just in case the pictures are making you hungry, and you would like one of your own, the W & F salad features sheep’s milk Greek feta from Lesbos co-op, watermelon chunks, spearmint, salt-packed Sicilian capers from Il Mongetto, lemon juice, a splash of olive oil and red wine vinegar, and baby local red onions.

My version of Fattoush (a popular Lebanese peasant salad) is made with toasted pita strips, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, purslane, red onions, parsley, mint, green bell pepper, lots and lots of lemon juice, olive oil, and sumac.

After a couple of scoops of Talenti sea salt caramel gelato (highly recommended!), we finally embarked on our tasting adventure. Churchkey boasts a 555 unique label selection from 30 countries, including 5 authentic cast conditioned ales, and 50 draught beers, in different tasting formats. As I prefer variety, 4oz pours is my usual format of choice.

We tasted through some 10 microbrews (all on tap), ranging from summer ales and pilsners to American IPAs to Altbier and cask ale. All-in-all, nothing over 7% (so, no imperial stouts, tripels, double IPAs, etc).

Thus, our Top 5 list of local artisanal summery brews (from East Coast microbreweries) was born. The general criteria were aromatics, complexity, refreshing mouthfeel (must be appropriate for summer), and of course, the looks, such as a pretty head coupled with a beautiful translucent amber-hued body. (That doesn’t make me a shallow person, does it :-)?

Here is goes (in alphabetical order):

1. Dominion Hop Mountain by Coastal Brewing Company, DE. An American Pale Ale (authentic cask ale), dry-hopped in the cask with Chinook hops. Dangerously smooth and balanced. Piney, citrusy, hoppy, and moderately malty.

2. Prima Pils by Victory Brewing Company, PA. A German pilsner made with whole-flower Czech & German hops. (***Jeff’s strictly summertime favorite). Lemony, grassy, bitter, crisp, and earthy.

3. Smuttynose IPA “Finest Kind”, NH. An American IPA made with Amarillo, Simcoe, and Santiam hops. (***Jeff’s overall favorite). Floral, very grapefruity, pleasantly bitter, and balanced.

4. The Corruption by DC Brau, DC. It is an American IPA made with Tomahawk hops. (***my overall favorite, – perhaps, not surprisingly, as I am very familiar with the concept of corruption :-)). The most intense, aromatic, and complex of the bunch.

5. Victory Altbier by Victory Brewing Company, PA. A lively Altbier that is spicy, hoppy, earthy, and bready.

The efforts of these breweries are quite refreshing, although I am unsure if I would drink them first thing in the morning. I think maybe you have to warm up your body and mind first, to be able to cool down and fully appreciate what they have to offer. Those are not just some brainless blonde ales but, to borrow the wine world term, “birre da meditazione”, – beers that command contemplation.

Cheers!

Chicago: The Future Is Now

A mere two hours away from home, I have hit upon a place of confluence of futuristic trends. Architecture, cocktails, food, coffee, art, you name it. I am an impressionable type, and this was my first time in Chicago 🙂

 

 

 

Let’s face it: Chicago is home to some of the most exciting restaurants in this country, including Next, Schwa, Alinea, El Ideas, etc… Unfortunately I did not manage to get into all the restos I wanted to visit, – Chicago proved to be the hardest city for reservations that I have ever encountered. Silly me – I had thought reserving a month and a half in advance would get me everything I desire…

Still, I was pretty pleased with my weekend line-up: Topolobampo, the Art Institute of Chicago, L2O, Intelligentsia, futuristic landscapes of the city, the Girl and the Goat, the whimsical Aviary/The Office, Avec, Sable… I was fortunate to explore and experience the efforts of such restaurant moguls and weather-makers as Rick Bayless, Grant Achatz, and Paul Kahan.

 

 

Many of those experiences were light-years beyond your average resto experience. I could certainly delve into the imperfections of each place, but I think this time (for the most part), I will focus on their refreshing originality, innovation, and playfulness.

Chicago clearly packs a ton of food knowledge and passion, most of which is delivered with a very flat Midwestern accent. The general theme is subtlety and purity of ingredients (with the exception of Girl and the Goat, who made it their calling to cater to the American palate with in-your-face flavors, while encouraging their patrons to eat and drink more through use of loud music). Here are some comments on just a few places we visited:

Avec: Ironically enough, the decor makes it look like a sauna, except that it is actually quite chilly inside. If you show up in early afternoon, before the hordes descend upon the restaurant, you can enjoy delectable dishes such as their chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo-pepper tomato sauce in peace, and drink fun obscure stuff like the grassy, assertive biancolello from the island of Ischia and a mouthwatering pecorino from Abruzzo.

Aviary/the Office. One word: molecular mixology. I have heard it aptly described as one-fourth chemistry lab, one-fourth theatrics,  one-fourth “How the… and WTF?”, and one-fourth blur. The theatrics are certainly hokey, but all-in-all, this crazy cocktail is pretty balanced. If you have an occasional need to feel important (I do!), perhaps you can score an invitation to the Office, a VIP-style underground speakeasy, inaccessible to the uninitiated. There, one can quietly enjoy a well-crafted pre-Prohibition-style cocktail, such as a rum, green tea, blood orange, pu-erh, and lime concoction. Accoding to Chef Achatz, they have about 30 different syrups, 165 different tinctures, eight different fresh juices, and five different fresh herbs to complement their drinks, as well as house-made custom ice that is hand chipped and/or molded in Japanese press molds. Pretty cool stuff…

I will venture a few random personal predictions about the future (hopefully, this will catch on in the rest of the country):

  • stuffed morels are in; they are tasty little devils.
  • succulent and pure seafood (this time of the year, ceviche from Topo alone will make anyone happy, with choices like Ceviche Fronterizo (lime-marinated Hawaiian albacore with tomatoes, olives, cilantro, green chile), Ceviche Yucateco (steamed Mexican blue shrimp & calamari, lime, orange, habanero, avocado, jcama & cilantro), or Coctel de Atun Tropical (sashimi-grade Hawaiian yellowfin tuna, avocado-tomatillo guacamole, tangy mango-grapefruit).
  • cubed food is in 🙂
  • in the coffee realm, stunning springtime centrals have arrived. It is all about seasonal coffees, such as the gorgeous El Machete from Panama, or La Tortuga from Honduras. Another favorite: Ngogomo Burundi – funky and floral, bursting with flavors of cola, pecans, and dates; perfect as cafe solo.

I yet have to find a shop that would match Intelligentsia’s quality and skill level. They meticulously select the perfect method (V60 pour-over, cafe solo, chemex, espresso, etc.) for the best quality beans money can buy.

Lest anyone think of me as a person who only eats cube-shaped food, I wanted to mention that one of our culinary highlights in Chicago was lunch at Spoon Thai (we ordered from the unpriced Thai menu at the back, of course). Rustic and inelegant in its presentation, the food was to die for: Isaan-style lightly fermented rice and pork sausage, shrimp and lemongrass salad with scallion and lime juice, preserved egg salad with garlic, peanuts, ginger, and lime juice; and lightly sour fish soup with lime leaves and lemongrass (tom khlong plaa chawn).

And finally, our architectural tour on our last day in Chicago confirmed something for me that I already knew: I am a child of the postmodernist era.

The movement of Postmodernism began as a response to the perceived blandness and the perfectionism of the Modern movement, which was focused on the pursuit of an ideal, and attempted harmony of form and function, through dismissal of “frivolous ornament”.

My idea of postmodernist contextualism (check out the earrings purchased at the Art Institute of Chicago!)

Postmodernism openly challenged Modernism as antiquated and “totalitarian”, favoring personal preferences and variety over objective, ultimate truths or principles. This is how the modernist “Less is More” is replaced with the postmodernist “Less is a bore”, and I hope this trend really does catch on…

Food Porn: A 2-Michelin Star Restaurant L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel

Sometimes there is just nothing like eye candy… but rest assured it was as delicious and complex as it was beautiful.

And also inventive, fun, whimsical, and lighthearted… Enjoy!

 

 

“Creations” tasting menu at L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel.

April 7, 2012 in Arles, France (in no particular order). For French (and food&wine) buffs, here is the file with the line-up, including the wine pairings:

The Man Himself

 

 

Day 1: Butter, Bells, and Stolen Glass

We arrived in Paris on Sunday morning, at the very cold and quiet hour of 8am. First things first, and after dropping off the luggage at the hotel, we headed to Eric Kayser’s shop for breakfast. Even though the concept of the best Parisian baguette is heavily debated, and there are annual contests to that effect, Eric Kayser is considered by many to be the best artisanal baker in Paris. Proximity to his shop, as well as two markets, three artisanal cheese shops, etc, and several parks to eat those goodies in, is just one reason to stay in the Latin quarter (5th arrondissement). We already knew coffee in France was going to be unexciting, so our main focus of the breakfast was on the pastries and bread. Traditionally the French just have a croissant (or possibly pain au chocolat, brioche, etc.), or tartine (slice of a baguette with butter and jam). A tartine or any pastry at Eric Kayser is a very luxurious experience, although the weak, milky coffee did little to wake us up. But, since we were not planning on doing any differential equations that morning, we felt like we were off to a good start!

Sunday was a market day at Place Monge, and quite gingerly, we started getting our bearings for market shopping. We had a long first day of eating ahead of us, so there was no reason to get greedy. I drooled over the fresh spring peas, purple artichokes, radishes, sausages, oysters…but stopped myself, and only bought one basil-specked fresh and very, very goaty cheese. We also picked up a small rustic olive bread (fougasse), and had breakfast number 2 in a sunny spot nearby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Paris started waking up slowly after the debaucheries of Saturday night, we were making our way down the narrow, windy streets of St. Germain du Pres neighborhood, on our way to Musee D’Orsay. Upon arrival, we saw lines that we eyeballed to be a 2 hour wait just to get in. I did know about the fabulous Degas Nudes exhibition, however, I misjudged the effect of the free entry to the museum on the first Sunday of the month. We thought we would come back another day, and instead went for a long preprandial walk on the Right Bank, passing by what was easily a 4-hour line to get into the Louvre for free. We had been to the Louvre, and instead went to Mariage Freres, arguably the best tea purveyer and shop in the world. No pictures were allowed, so please feel free to visit their website: http://www.mariagefreres.com/

We walked through the upstairs Tea Museum, and afterwards picked up a blue tea from Formosa for us (a tea category that is tricky to find in this country), and a couple of special requests from my mother who had been anxious to try the famous Mariage Freres stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our lunch plans involved true Breton galettes (buckwheat crepes) at the Breizh café in the Marais. We arrived early, and were lucky to snag an outside table, even though we did not make a reservation (a major faux pas, but I was duly apologetic). They have a long, long list of organic artisanal ciders, so we settled on a bottle of a very dry and perfumy Francois Sehedic cider, traditionally served in a bowl, with our crepe complet au jambon cru de Savoie (filled with nutty, melted gruyère and topped with an egg and top-quality ham). For dessert, we chose a simple crepe with sugar and Bordier butter.

A word about Jean-Yves Bordier, an artisanal butter maker from Brittany who over the years has developed a cult-like following.  To achieve the quality of his butter, Bordier uses very traditional techniques and the best possible cream from select herds of Holstein and Norman cows that graze in pastures not far from Rennes, in Brittany. In an interview with France Magazine he said that the last part of the process (the slow, careful kneading) takes the wonderful butter “to a new level of suppleness that industrial butter makers cannot afford to achieve”.

Our next stop took us to La Chocolaterie de Jacques Genin. Monsieur Genin is an incredible pastry chef, chocolatier and food stylist who is responsible for inspiring a new culinary obsession: caramels. His phenomenally luscious caramels made nightly cost 100 euros a kilo (which comes out to about 1 euro per caramel), and come in nature flavor (“plain”, or sea salt butter-flavored), and a variety of infusions, such as mango, ginger, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

In case you are curious about all the chocolate bells, the French happen to believe that on Easter, the chocolate is brought not by a bunny, but by a big bell that flies in from Rome (which I first found out from my favorite David Sedaris story Jesus Shaves a few years back. Here is a link to this hilarious and short piece, in case you are curious: http://scottduncan.free.fr/blog/jesus_shaves.pdf

Groggy from all the butter and caramels, we took a quick nap, and woke up in the late afternoon, at the perfect time to skip the lines and casually walk into the wonderfully quirky Centre Pompidou, a great modern art museum conveniently located on our way to dinner:

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is important to note that few good restaurants are open on Sundays, therefore you have to manage your experience through careful planning. Prior to leaving for France, I had scored a reservation at Le Verre Vole (The Stolen Glass), a wonderful tiny wine bar (cave a manger) in the Marais, with a small, hand-picked selection of bio (organic) wines and a delicious menu.

We shared an amazing spring vegetable salad, and each had an entree (mine was a wonderfully comforting boudin noir).

 

 

 

 

The aromatic and food-friendly Cote-Rotie from Domaine Jean-Michel Stephan perfectly guided us from course to course. A country-style apple tart brought our first day in Paris to a satisfying close…

Like Salt for Chocolate

I am a total sucker for artisanal chocolates and salts, and I am on a perpetual hunt for both. Imagine my pleasure at discovering a shop in NYC’s West Village that specializes in both (plus artisanal bitters and fresh flowers, just to round off that sensory experience). My regular chocolate store here in DC (Cocova, formerly known as Biagio Fine Chocolate) has only chocolates (a whole sea of chocolates, to be precise), and The Spice and Tea Exchange in Georgetown has only salts (which I supplement with online purchases from SaltWorks). The Meadows has few but well-chosen items in both categories.

The recent excursion prompted me to share my salt & chocolate favorites of 2012: a few new discoveries and well forgotten oldies:

Salts

Fleur de Sel de l’Île de Ré  has a phenomenal silken texture; it is funky and briny, with a slightly floral nose reminiscent of lavender and violets. It is my personal favorite out of the three salt-making villages in Western France (Noirmoutier, Guérande, and Ré). The ultimate finishing salt…

Pangasinan Star fleur de sel (also called Ilocano Asin Philippine Sea Salt). Some say it is like tasting Fleur de sel on steroids, as it is certainly more rich, lush, and intense than its French cousins. But, even though this is a full-bodied salt, it wears its weight very gracefully. If the Cat in the Hat were a chef, he would use Pangasinan salt :-).

Indian black salt (Kala Namak): it is a unique salt with a strong sulfurous aroma (similar to a hard-boiled egg smell).Despite its name, it actually looks pink when finely ground. Chances are, you will love it or hate it. I have found it works best when sprinkled on mango, or in a raita or salty lassi (to make it, just blend plain yogurt, water, cumin, black salt, and cayenne in a blender). Putting it on an egg dish is an interesting experience…

Incidentally, Indian black salt is NOT the same thing as the Himalayan black lava salt, which is very easy to like, and which is amazing on good quality chocolate and caramel.

By the way, for a while now I have been admiring beautiful Himalayan salt slabs from afar. But I am very tempted to take one out for a spin to lightly cure carpaccio or sashimi. I should add that Himalayan pink salt is my everyday cooking salt of choice, as Trader Joe’s $2 containers with a built-in grinder are absolutely brilliant.

photo credit: atthemeadow.com

Chocolate

Artisan du Chocolat Jamaica 72% cocoa (Kent, UK). Super aromatic, with notes of jasmine, licorice, wood, and red fruit, it is undoubtedly one of my favorite origins (along with Vietnam, which this chocolatier also makes). It is hard to describe its incredible balance and complexity, as it is simply lovely!

Coppeneur  is a great micro-batch bean-to-bar chocolate maker from Germany. I am quite fond of their single origin bars, especially Republique de Madagascar 70% Cocoa with Ginger and Fig (made with Trinitario beans). It is a real fruit bomb, with a slightly oriental note. Sometimes it is fun to have a more brainless but still refined chocolate bar :-). Purists can have the same bar sans ginger and fig (Republique de Madagascar PURistique).

Fresco Jamaica Recipe 209 70% cocoa, subtle conche (Lynden, WA). Beautiful and elegant like a fine Burgundy. Wet earth and mushrooms aromas are so beguiling… I cannot ask for more from a chocolate bar or a wine, for that matter. One can only improve upon the experience by pairing it with a Burgundy.

By the way, for anybody curious about the subject of cocoa origin, varietals, and terroir, I came across an interesting article the other day:

http://www.coppeneurchocolate.com/files/Articles_of_Interest/Discovering_Terroir_in_Chocolate.pdf

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It occurred to me as I was finishing up my post that many of the chocolates and salts I was describing had a strong floral component to them, which also echoes the new perfume offerings we were investigating last Saturday (Jasminora from Guerlain’s Aqua Allegoria series, with notes of galbanum, bergamot and cyclamen; London Blooms collection from Jo Malone (comprised of Peony & Moss, White Lilac & Rhubarb and Iris & Lady Moore; and a few others).

Even though I prefer the more balanced and subtle floral expressions in salt and chocolate, I do agree with the parfumeurs’ philosophy which states that floral compositions promote “feelings of happiness, romance and good mood”. I think spring is officially here!

Skins

I have been lurking on the Chowhound France boards in anticipation of our upcoming eating and drinking trip in early April. In general, things seldom get very heated (partly because CH boards are heavily moderated); however, a recent Parisian restaurant thread got a little intense. The bone of contention, of all things, was vegetarian menu offerings: their sheer availability, excitement-worthiness, and overall chef attitudes towards vegetarians.

People eat vegetarian for a number of reasons, and have very different expectations of a worthy meal. If we were to put all socio-political agendas aside for a moment, and just focused on balance, flavor intensity, texture, etc., we would see that relatively few chefs cater to discerning vegetarians. For them, it is not enough for the meal to be meat-free, organic, local, sustainable, etc. They are looking for overall execution quality, inventiveness, and the kind of deliciousness that would excite vegetarians and omnivores alike.

I have found that in general, ethnic restaurants do a much better job turning out great vegetarian dishes. The most recent example was our experience with modern and traditional Japanese cuisine in the East Village involving yuba.

Yuba is tofu skin which forms during the process of making tofu and is obtained by skimming the top of the curding vat as the soymilk cools down. Yuba is ubiquitous in Japan and China, and is served as sashimi, enjoyed fresh in a rice bowl, used like nori or spring roll skin (for example, as a wrapper for Cantonese dim sum); it can also be deep-fried, dried for later use, etc.  Its texture and appearance run the whole spectrum from “old shriveled linen” to custard, such as in homestyle fresh yuba, which is supposed to give one’s complexion a satiny quality, according to Japanese grandmothers:

The eponymous restaurant in East Village does a fantastic job showcasing this fascinating ingredient; it was amazing to observe the chef produce such a wide range of experiences for a discerning foodie, starting with yuba sashimi and uni (sea urchin) with yuba, where it appears to be silky, creamy and almost milky, not unlike fresh silken tofu.

 

 

 

 

 

Other delectable variations were grilled miso yuba and yuba roll, and our favorite turned out to be layered yuba pouch with slow-braised yuba with mixed mushrooms. Here, it was rich and luxurious, with an amazing juxtaposition of sweetness and earthiness.

Besides the eponymous Yuba, we have discovered a whole “Yubaland” in the East Village (Cocoron, Sobaya, etc.). This is the kind of eating experience that is sure to excite any foodie, vegetarian or not. It sends even a lazy amateur chef like myself to the Japanese grocery store Hana here in DC, and then running to the kitchen. This time, the owners of Hana were out of yuba 😦 , but still provided me with plenty inspiration to put together a fun impromptu meal.

  • Assorted Japanese pickles (pickled plums, sesame pickled cucumbers, and eggplant)
  • Udon noodles with braised enoki mushrooms, nori, scallions, and miso grilled tofu in a dashi broth
  • Green Tea flavored Mochi Ice-Cream bonbons
I cannot wait for my tofu skins order to come in next week!

Hello! My Name is Pinot Noir

I have been invited to contribute on DCFoodies.com! My first post goes out to the brave souls whose New Year’s resolution is to be a little bit less afraid of wine: http://www.dcfoodies.com/2012/01/hello-my-name-is-pinot-noir.html

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.