For a long time, tea was an afterthought in restaurants. It fell behind wine, coffee, and even water. You'd visit the finest restaurants in the city, have an amazing meal, and then finish with lackluster and poorly steeped teas. But that is changing. Over the last few years, a gradual shift in retail perception of tea has trickled down. It's led to the opening of tea-oriented cafes like Bosie Tea Parlor, Tea Drunk, and T Shop and now, finally, has reached restaurants. Couple this with a saturated coffee and wine market, a greater focus on health and other beverage options, and the timing is perfect for tea to have a turn in the spotlight.
A solid tea program is a thoughtful, curated tea list that goes beyond the ordinary. This list can cover a wide range of teas or be specific to a certain region or type of tea, whichever is most in line with the vision of the restaurant. This list can be sourced entirely from a single vendor or farm, or be a compilation of teas from multiple vendors and farms. While a regular list of teas often include the likes of earl grey and chamomile, the tea programs described below go far and beyond with options like multiple pu'erh teas, matcha, and a stunning variety of oolong teas hand-picked from Taiwan and China. These tea programs also consider tableside tea service, shaking iced teas to order, and traditional styles of preparation like the Chinese gong-fu cha service. The notion of a specific type of New York City tea culture is on the rise, and now here's a look at three of the restaurants that are quietly helping to up that tea game.
A restaurant like Atera, with 18-seats and a wraparound bar, offers an optimal setting for a stellar tea program. Jeff Ruiz heads the tea program at Atera, which started with five teas just a few years ago, and now offers 20 teas in a selection that spans all countries and spectrums, from matcha service to gong-fu cha, iced teas, and herbal infusions. Jeff sources tea from a mix of vendors — New York's In Pursuit of Tea, Camellia Sinensis in Montreal, and Tea Urchin in Shanghai — selecting the best of the bunch. Menu prices range from $6 for an iced Oolong to $24 for a Taiwanese Spring Oriental Beauty, and $25 for a 1989 Bamboo Aged Shu Pu-erh.
Ruiz trains Atera's staff intensively, both in groups and one on one. They blind taste teas over and over to the point when they can smell or look at a leaf and identify the tea type and region (such as a Tieguanyin from Fujian, China). This is so that each member of the staff is well versed in every tea on the menu. Come time for service, teas are prepared gong-fu style with gaiwans (a three-part Chinese bowl consisting of a saucer, the bowl, and lid), each tea offering multiple infusions. Tasting notes from each infusion of the tea change significantly, and the staff works to pair certain teas with certain dishes — at one point the beverage pairings included Mi Lan Xiang (Honey Orchid Oolong) matched with matsutake mushrooms and foie gras. The tea menu also encourages questions and comparison. Instead of one Darjeeling from West Bengal, India, there are two: A first flush and a second flush (a flush is the tea growing season. First flush in Darjeeling is March to April. Second flush is May to June). It wouldn't be unusual to order both for the sake of education, comparison, and taste all at once.
Atera is one of the few restaurants in NYC to offer tableside matcha service (done in customized matcha bowls). The service is an intricate preparation that requires sifting the matcha powder into the bowl, pouring in hot water, and whisking rapidly in a zig-zag motion till the matcha powder has fully dissolved (matcha is technically a suspension as opposed to brewed beverage) and the surface is frothy with tiny bubbles. Most restaurants simply can't offer this because of logistical issues such as table spacing and diner's sensitivity to personal space. Atera's matcha is available both hot...
...and iced, shaken like a cocktail. With both methods, each step, from scooping the matcha into the bowl, to whisking and pouring, is done in front of the diner. The show is part of the appeal, but the bottom line is that it opens up a new world of flavor profiles and possibilities. Taking matcha out of its usual context of traditional Japanese tea ceremony and placing it in a modern setting encourages the diner to see and experience tea in a way they might not have before.
And the tea isn't just for the diners. At precisely 5:15pm each afternoon the entire staff drinks pre-shift iced matcha "shots" in preparation for service. They also keep a giant bucket of iced matcha for drinking throughout the night. Sure beats a cup of coffee.
Eleven Madison Park
Chris Day is the man behind Eleven Madison Park's legendary tea program. He was the first in the city to champion the notion of a standout, strong restaurant tea menu and continues to serve as a model worldwide for restaurants looking to develop tea programs. His vision is clear. "At Eleven Madison Park," he says, "tea represents more than a beverage meant to be drunk at the end of a meal. It is an extension of the quality and spirit of the overall dining experience, a beverage meant to be enjoyed with family and friends at the beginning, middle or end of a meal. We regard it as with wine, spirits, and coffee — as something to be selected and prepared with the same attention to detail and concern for excellence as any aspect of the menu."
Chris works with In Pursuit of Tea to create the tea list, which currently has four teas prepared tableside and nineteen teas served by the pot. He first aims to showcase a collection of teas that are typical of their particular style. So, for example, the High Mountain Oolong would be representative of a classic high mountain oolong (as opposed to that might be significantly more floral or earthy). If the menu allows room for more, he will also include a variety of teas that are more exotic and off the usual path. The tea menu does not have to be broad, but it must be deep. The restaurant collaborates with local ceramic artist Jono Pandolfi for the teaware (Jono does all the ceramics for the restaurant), which include customized gaiwans and teacups. Prices range from $8 for a variety of herbals teas (like Mt. Olympus Flowers, Lemon-Verbena, and Lavender-Mint) to $10 for Sencha and Jasmine Pearls, and $36 for an 1994 Orange Stamp Pu-erh made tableside. When it comes to presenting classic teas rooted in so much history, the goal is to do the preparation as correctly as possible, while at the same time staying in line with the physical constraints of a restaurant setting. Chris sums it up: "Our goal is to keep things simple so that anyone, from novice to expert, can enjoy a good cup of tea, properly prepared and offered with the same respect and care as any other part of the dining experience at Eleven Madison Park"
The menu includes detailed descriptions of each tea, coupling tasting notes with history and story. For example, the description of the 1994 Orange Stamp reads: "This green "sheng" bingcha is made from tea grown and blended in 1994. It was pressed at the Menghai factory and has the Zong Cha brand. The age of this bingcha makes it ready to enjoy now. It has a deep aroma and mellow, balanced flavor."
Sebastian Beckwith and Ana Dane of In Pursuit of Tea frequently conduct tea education classes with the Eleven Madison Park staff. They focus on a different type of tea each week, and don't cover just the teas that are on the menu, but a wide range. The overall goal is to understand and learn more about tea and tea culture itself, as opposed to a few specific teas on the menu. A recent class covered a vertical tasting of five darjeelings and a collection of oolongs, plus the best technique for serving iced matcha (all complete with a demo). The classes are done in a conversational style, encouraging discussion and questions. One person might describe initial impressions of a darjeeling as having a wintergreen aspect, while others may pick up on an almost burnt sugar note. The flavors are discussed and then tasted over and over, and this is how one's "tea palate" grows.
Brushstroke serves the city's most comprehensive menu of Japanese green teas. Furthermore, it serves only green teas (you won't spot coffee listed on the menu, though it's available upon request), some of which are imported from direct from farms in Japan and others sourced from Zach Mangan of green tea purveyor Kettl. There are eleven teas on the menu, with prices ranging from $7 for genmaicha and hojicha, to $45 for an award winning hon-gyokuro. As different teas demand different water temperatures for optimal results, they keep two types of water available (spring water and ionized) at three different temperatures (170F, 175F, and 212F) available at all times.
The tea menu has been focused and highly edited since the start of the restaurant, though there has been noticeable increase in customer awareness. As opposed to asking for "just" green teas, customers will inquire about specific types of teas — there are, for example, four types of sencha teas on the menu, two from Yame, and two from Kagoshima. Having both the English and Japanese tea names on the menu as well as detailed tasting notes is valuable in terms of guiding a diner who might not know exactly what type of tea he/she wants. For example, of the two Kagoshima Sencha teas, one is described as "deep-steamed sencha green tea, rich, flavorful." And the other is a "fine sencha green tea, light, great lift, and refreshing." It reads like a wine list.
Brushstroke hosts monthly staff training and orders in small (think 50-100g) packets to ensure that the teas are fresh. Tea selections are made in-house by Jacob Daugherty and Keiko Ito, who go through numerous options before narrowing down to teas that are the best fit for the restaurant. Three main factors they consider when buying are the smell, the tea leaves themselves, and taste. 33 percent of diners order tea during dinner (usually at the end of the meal), and 50 percent order tea during lunch service (usually throughout the meal). Look out for a proper tea pairing with lunch service in the near future.
These are the three NYC restaurant leading the way in creating and developing a strong tea program. As general curiosity and knowledge in tea continues to grow, expect more restaurants taking an interest in serving better quality teas. And having an excellent tea menu doesn't necessarily mean needing to support and stock a wide variety of teas. So long as the teas available is something that the restaurant is proud of, we are one step closer to a finer overall dining experience. Tea is not afterthought, but a drink that can fully enhance a meal whether it is served at the beginning, end or throughout.