Monday, November 30, 2009

Head 'em up, move 'em out

When my dad started tinkering with restaurant ventures with a relative many moons ago, he learned the most important operating procedure for even hoping to make money in this rewarding but tough business: turn those tables. That is, attract the customers, but then feed 'em and get 'em out, so new paying customers can sit down. The last thing you want, if you really want to make money, is people who linger at the table, stretching out their single check over an extra hour in which another check could've been earned.

That said, it's still kinda ridiculous that this email recently came to Michael Bauer's blog at the San Francisco Chronicle:

My husband and I don't live in San Francisco, but went up to Spork last night for the first time, and while the food was overall very good, the service was off. One weird thing that happened was that when I tried to order tea (iced tea during the meal and hot tea with dessert) I was told that they don't carry tea. At dessert, the waiter finally explained that the restaurant had taken tea off the menu because "tea-drinkers would stay an hour and a half after their meal ended, it was ridiculous." Do you think this is true? Have you seen this at other restaurants?

Bauer investigated the matter here. I wonder, do tea drinkers linger longer than coffee drinkers? I'll bet we do. Tea is all about time, don't chai know.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black (tea) Friday

There was the little girl with her grandfather. Neatly pressed wool skirt with little red stockings, her legs swayed back and forth under the chair — from boredom or excitement, maybe first the former, then the latter. Her dark blond hair was highlighted with red ribbons. Granddad, in his tweed suit, beamed in direct proportions to granddaughter's smiles. He looked a little like Robert Mitchum, though I doubt Mitchum ate dainty egg salad sandwiches at afternoon tea. (Then again, I'd never have thought he'd make a calypso record.) This fellow pointed out the various treats, sandwiches, pastries, and the little girl's eyes went wide and wider. She chewed on a finger as she contemplated what to chew on next. She knew it was a special moment, and when little brother showed up — all ha-ha chuckles and grabby-hands — she protected the sanctity of the tearoom. She smacked his hand as he reached for a tart and shooed him back down the stairs of the Drake's luxurious Palm Court, huffing back down in her seat with a grin at granddad as if to say, "There. Now, back to us."

There were three Trixies at the table next to us. Beautiful young women, each with flawless skin and tasteful sweaters. They were bored. They slumped and spoke listlessly — until the tea came. Then the sighs and murmurs became stories and giggles, then laughter and exclamations. I counted three "you didn'ts!" and eight "oh my gods!" The brunette rose to leave, brushing crumbs from her smart slacks, and sighed with purpose. "I'm so glad we did this," she said. A beat. "Really." She was surprised to discover she meant it.

Behind us, the shopping party. They arrived in a bustle, a Joad-like jalopy of high heels and shopping bags, dozens of them. They'd been in the Black Friday throng on Michigan Avenue since dawn, no doubt, and they were pooped. Bags arranged on the floor and piled in the empty chair, they whewed and goodnessed their relief at finally sitting down, and when the waiter returned for their tea order, the raven-haired grande dame said, "Son, we need a pick-me-up, and you may need to use a forklift."

And there was us: my partner Daniel, Mom and me. She'd come in for Thanksgiving, and we were thankful. This is her first holiday season without my father, who died in March, so we're maintaining traditions but indulging Mom's penchant for branching out a bit. I thought she'd like afternoon tea, at least a little. She liked it a lot. She ordered a nicely balanced black tea blend with orange and other fruit, and talked about scones ("something you just don't make yourself, you enjoy elsewhere") and egg salad ("just can't do it without olive in it"). We conjured the ghosts of Thanksgivings past and discussed what the future ones might look like. She said, "Mmmm-mmm, that was a tasty batch of memories. Thank you." Anytime, mamma. Anytime at all.

Mom and me at the Drake (where all my photos come out blurry).

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: Chinese, if you please

Yikes, late this week. My apologies. Up late baking, prepping for Thursday's repast with Mom, etc. As the holiday season kicks off this week, enjoy this quick tea-titled dance from the "Nutcracker Suite" ...

Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a: VI. Tea - Chinese Dance - Vladimir Fedoseyev

Friday, November 20, 2009

The power of pu-erh

You hear every now and then about the physical and mental effects of tea — how it invigorates, how it inspires, how it provides wondrous rushes of every kind. I've heard it described in a variety of vague, grasping descriptions ranging from attempts to pin it down with science to efforts at elevating it to some pseudo-spiritual euphoria. I've enjoyed tea for many years now, and while it's not merely the taste that brings me back to cup after cup I've always hesitated to proclaim its magic influence too strongly. Except, that is, when I drink pu-erh.

My pu-erh experience is still quite limited, but I find myself drawn to it more and more. And thanks to a recent discovery at Ten Ren, this week I enjoyed a cup of pu-erh every single morning.

I was skeptical about Oriental Delight, but it's pretty freakin' awesome. It's pu-erh, plus chrysanthemum, and it's in bags. Who knows what the quality of the tea is like, but it smells nice, tastes good, and it does that thing. That pu-erh thing. If there's anything to the whole chakra thing, pu-erh goes right to my spleen chakra. Or is it the root chakra? Whichever, it lights a fire in my belly. It stokes the furnace of my body and gets me cookin'. Not quite a tingle, not really a prickle. And the addition of the chrysanthemum in this blend adds a smooth mouthfeel, not to mention the evenness that comes from its buds. The tea gets you going, the flowers keep you on the level. (And I hear chrysanthemum is good for the eyes.) This may become my go-to workplace tea.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: 'A Decent Cup of Tea'

Some of us cry into our beer. This girl cries into her tea. (Like this? Try Frank Turner's hard-rock band, Million Dead. Great song here: "I Gave My Eyes to Stevie Wonder") - Frank turner

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Beg your pardon: Hawaii tea promises a rose garden

At the end of a very busy, weary week, I arrived home to find some new samples in the mail from Eva Lee at Tea Hawaii. A cup of tea can revive you, sure, but the promise of tasting a new tea can accomplish about as much.

This morning, I opened the Forest White: "Forest grown under a canopy of Ohia trees and Hapuu ferns and processed in Volcano Village at 4000' elevation." Snipping the bag caused a rush of sense memories for me ... of grandma. My father's mother wore tea rose perfume all the time; the mere whiff of it now delivers me immediately to her immaculate home and the kitchen table where she'd beat me at gin rummy. The tea rose hybrids themselves were named for a strain of the species that allegedly smelled like tea; now here's a tea that reeks of roses. A firm bouquet, too. Eva reports: "The white tea is not scented, pure organic tea grown in the forest. I believe most of the scent is due to our location as other white teas on the island are different and not as sweet." (I wonder if the nearby Ohia trees, with their Pele legend, somehow contribute to the scent in the tea...?) I'm continually amazed by the variety of scents and flavors that come from this single plant.

The leaf of this tea is whole, with dry semi-blackened buds largely intact (like the photo above, a perfect budset). Dry it smells of roses, steeped it smells of roses. The flavor, fortunately, is light on the rosy, with a hint of non-oaked chardonnay. Plus there's that faint earthy underpinning that I so love in Hawaii teas so far — a flavor of loamy soil I haven't encountered in other teas, maybe because of the new territory, or the unique volcanic signature of this island.

It produces a not-altogether-pretty grey color in the cup (try it in cups without white interiors), quite light, and it infuses repeatedly with some strength. I poured a pot with my breakfast, which was a bad move. The floral strength and lightness of this tea would be considerably better in the afternoon with a sweeter and less substantial snack, or perfectly fine on its own.

Contact Eva to procure some (her Makai Black is poised to become one of my fall-back teas, too). She is one groovy tea master, as you can see in this video, and this one, and this one. (Samovar, please allow embeds!)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Argh! I don't want to go to Argo

This Argo location and I go back a bit.

Since moving to Chicago five years ago, I have sung the praises of our hometown Starbucks competitor Argo Tea. With a celebrated backstory, the company deserves the kudos it gets for staking tea's claim among the continental coffee klatch. But I'm beginning to have my doubts about its tea.

Maybe I'm just hanging around too many tea snobs. Maybe I'm actually developing something barely resembling a palate. Maybe I'm just a fickle American consumer. But there's no getting around the fact that the green tea I've been getting from my workplace Argo recently tastes like Windex. I thought it was just that location. I stopped off at the Argo I used to hit every other morning, the cozy spot near the Armitage L stop. Uh-oh, same nasty, over-brewed, bitter flavor. I know you can ask for a custom cup at any of the shops, but that kind of defeats the point of supporting a store that came up with what's supposed to be a revolutionary idea of getting tea to the masses. Granted, tea is admittedly a troublesome product to prepare for people on the go — and maybe tea's inherent demand for slowness should be all the lesson we need here — but the Argo folks steep strong concentrates to ship to each location, where hot water is added to smooth the brew. Most of the time, it works ... OK. You know, for a cup on the move. But sometimes — and, seemingly, more frequently of late — it tastes exactly like what it is: old tea made this morning downtown.

I tried branching out, too, and ordered their seasonal Pumpkin Chai this week. In the last four days, my pancreas still has not produced enough insulin to fully recover from the diabetic-coma levels of sugar in the thing. It was so sweet my teeth ached. I'm tempted to reload my Starbucks card. I still love the Tazo ...

Boldly brewing where no one ...

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they react to a flowering tea. I recently picked up a Primula glass mug infuser, plus some of their tied tea blossoms. The compact eyeballs unfurl easily into a chrysanthemum-like flower in the bottom of your cup — tea leaves that do the work of infusing while they go about being beautiful. But beauty is in the eye of the tea lover. Walk around the office with a glass mug and a tea blossom, and the reaction varies from wide eyes and oohs to furrowed brows and icks, plus lots of sea urchin comparisons. I admit, some of them are a little "Star Trek," with undulating tentacles that look as if they're going to crawl out of the cup and suck your brain. But if I'm having a good day, they just look like the peonies and dahlias we just left behind in the good ol' summertime.

Primula makes several flavors of blossoms. Green Tea With Jasmine is one, with the jasmine blossoms in the center of the bloom. This week I tried the Green Tea With Pumpkin Aroma. I tried it simply because it sounded oh-so different, and I fully expected it to be loathsome — the astringency of the green tea at odds with the comfort-food spice of pumpkin pie. But it was surprisingly good. The pumpkin flavor is pretty subtle, and the tea rounder than expected. Two great tastes that, unbelievably, taste pretty good together.

Teaku No. 5

Broadway is windy
(Great White Way? No, Chicago)
— protecting my tea

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Winds of the Saphara

Out of bed in the morning, tea. Commute, settle into work, tea. Maybe tea with lunch. By afternoon sometimes I crave another cup — but maybe I (jitter jitter) don't need anymore (leg bouncing furiously) c-c-caffeine.

I've just plugged into a new line of Celestial Seasonings teas: Saphara — fancy blends in pyramid sachets. It being autumn, I gravitated to the rooibos blend (I only seem to reach for rooibos this time of year). It's called Tropical Rooibos, and it's loaded with fruity goodness. Check out the ingredient list:

Organic Fair Trade Certified rooibos, organic apples, organic orange peel, organic ginger root, organic lemon grass, organic coconut, organic pink peppercorns, organic cinnamon, organic cardamom, organic cornflower petals, organic currants and natural flavor

The fruit flavor packs a punch, in the nose and on the tongue. The rooibos is strong and solid, though, its cinnamon starchiness the perfect platter for the apples and oranges and lemons. The cornflower is a nice touch (an unheralded ingredient that makes Tea Gschwendner's Earl Grey Lady Violet such a summertime knockout). And like all other rooibos teas I've tried, it's invigorating without being ... stimulating. The sachets contain a slightly skimpy amount of the blend, however, so I find myself doubling up per cup.

Other Saphara flavors: White Tea with Schizandra, Mango Ginger Green, Gen Mai Cha, Premier Estate Assam and Blackcurrant Hibiscus.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: Sigh-chedelic

Do you have what it takes to listen to a Tiny Tim ballad? C'mon, man up, Jack. There's no ukulele on this one ...

Strawberry Tea (LP Version) - Tiny Tim

Friday, November 6, 2009

It doesn't suck

In my continuing quest to find some tea from the Azores, I ran across this nugget from ye old New York Times (July 27, 1879) describing one of the first encounters with leaf from St. Michael. Gotta love a backhanded critique like "the flavor of the infusion [is] by no means to be despised." A century before Frank Rich, no less.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Your dog wants some mmmmmatcha

I crave ice cream any time of year, but before it gets too cold here's an easy recipe for green tea ice cream. Don't ask me why there's a dog on the counter with this woman, or what's up with the narrator's quirky, robotic voice. Nothing surprises me from Japan anymore. [via Teatropolitan]

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: 'You can have yourself a tea'

Some woozy Kurt Weillish woes from Chicago's own Andrew Bird ...

Tea And Thorazine - Andrew Bird

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Dead man walking

Two notes from the Day of the Dead:

1. Perhaps a good follow to yesterday's post about my bar — and certainly a nice bit of advice for the day after All Hallow's Eve — I have for many years relied on the soothing effects of EveryDay Detox tea.

It's an old-worldy herbal blend, a kind of medicinal flavor (like warm paregoric), allegedly soothing for the old liver. After a night of revelry, this stuff always makes me feel a bit more solid. The box recommends a regimen of three cups a day. That seems a bit much, but it's good stuff. You have to let it steep about 15 minutes, much longer than tea, ideally with a cover over the cup.

2. At our friends' annual Dia de los Muertos party this afternoon — complete with altars for Michael Jackson, the Oxy Clean pitch guy and the Taco Bell chihuahua — I served up an improvised twist on tea for the occasion. Mexico's not a tea country, at all, but I built a chai that worked with the desserts, most of which were already loaded with cinnamon. Black tea, ginger, cinnamon, etc. — plus some dark cocoa, a small bit of spooky-rich chipotle chili powder and a pinch of lapsang souchong. A spicy pepper in chocolate or coffee can work wonders; this more even-handed, smoky pepper was kind to the weaker tea, especially with the powerful pine of the souchong to back it up. With a little sweet (brown sugar or honey) and some soy or dairy, it was smooth and very warming.