Sunday, June 7, 2009

Tea shop: The Green Teaist


In this economy, the last business I'd want to start would be a very high-end tea shop. Excuse me, tea salon. But here's to Hoken Seki and the fulfillment of his dream. "It's his passion," said the salon's manager during my visit to The Green Teaist (Salon de The Vert et L’Atelier), speaking of the place's owner, Seki, an attorney in international law who opened the shop last fall in the swanky suburb of Lake Forest, Ill.

Friday was — finally — a gorgeous sunny day here, and I had the day off (on furlough, so please buy a newspaper today!), so I hopped the train up the North Shore. Lake Forest is one of many such ’burbs north of Chicago, an old stop on the train line that's been adorably gentrified with a lovely green plaza and a level of shopping supported by the same demographic that would keep an expensive tea shop in business. In fact, there they were, a gaggle of seven upper-crust ladies, fortysomethings, the only other patrons in the tiny salon when I arrived. Pick a little, talk a little, sip sip sip ...

The Green Teaist is a dream, a living chapter from The Book of Tea. Comfortably sparse, impossibly tidy, subtly inviting — the essence of "a clean, well-lighted place." The menu is an impressive list of high-quality green teas — senchas and shinchas, gyokuro and genmaicha, some special offerings and an intriguing house blend — all overnighted from Japan and stored in the beautiful tea cellars (they look like big refrigerators designed and organized by a serious and possibly envious case of OCD). This is not a "grande to-go" kinda place. Here's the run-down of my delightful visit:

Heir aperitif
After perusing the menu and making a difficult choice — alas, there is no offering of samples, so pick a pot and stick with it — the server brought a complimentary treat. I was about to ask her for a glass of water, having heated up a bit on the sunny walk to the shop. But who needs water when you have gyokuro frisson, I ask you? Delivered in a small cordial glass, this was a strong green tea chilled, thick and almost briny. "Meant to be sipped like a fine wine," my server instructed. Surprisingly refreshing, just shy of tart, and exactly what I needed!

Sweet stuff
The shop has a limited array of pastries and sweets from a nearby bakery. There's no menu: the server brings out a tray of the day's half dozen or so choices, and you can pick three. Make no mistake, these will not in any way fill you up. They are tiny little things, presented for complementing flavors only. Which is nothing to scoff at, mind you. I opted for an almond-currant tart (more the latter than the former, subtle flavors, OK but nothing to blog about), a miniature slice of matcha pound cake (just the right amount of sweetness, but dry) and a custardy lemon tart (the winner, perfectly light and sweet and an excellent partner for green tea). Three bite-sized treats: $7.25. Hmmm.

The tea
I selected something I'd not had before. Why not? A pot of Kukicha — leaves and stems, baby. Here's the thing: The Green Teaist prepares the tea at your table. It's like ordering guacamole at a showy Mexican restaurant but considerably classier. The server came to the table with a tray containing a small kettle, a glass pot, strainer, timer and the tea. The tea was already measured out into a bamboo scoop, which was presented for my inhaling pleasure. The Kukicha had a fresh green scent, with a hint of moss. She dropped it into the pot, poured enough water to get it wet, swirled it around, then added all the water. She set the timer and then ... chatted with me. This has the potential for an awkward three minutes in some company, I'm imagining; fortunately, for her I hope, I was interested and inquisitive. She taught English in a small Japan village for two years, drank bancha at school every day. Qualifications! The tea that she poured was a beautiful yellow-green. It looked as buttery as it smelled, and tasted grassy and barely sweet, with a smooth finish. Delish. One pot poured two decent cups: $12.

There's a shop in the back with some really nice pots and accessories, as well as books (including at least four different editions of The Book of Tea) and teas from the cellar. The clerk said Mr. Seki hopes eventually to open Green Teaist locations in Beverly Hills and, er, Zurich. Do they drink tea in Switzerland?!

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