Samovar and Hayes Valley

Samovar, samovar, samovar…. the very word conjurs up the age of Czars with a dash of Tolstoy. But does the real Samovar tea lounge live up to this romantic and exotic ideal?

Samovar Tea Lounge has three locations in San Francisco, and we decided to go to the Zen Valley location. Located across from the San Francisco Zen Center and near the trendy Hayes Valley neighborhood, it’s a great place to meet friends for lunch or spend a quiet afternoon with a cup of tea. Shown in this photo below is an entire wall full of tea tins.

The decor inside is mostly Asian inspired, with some Moroccan lanterns and of course, a Samovar in every location. The interior is a subtle nod to the international menu, which boasts tea services of Moroccan, Japanese, Chinese, and English varieties. Each tea service comes with a suggested tea but substitutions can also be made. Some of the Yelp reviews I read recently complained about the prices of the tea; it’s true you won’t find any $2.00 slop in a cup here. The most expensive tea I found on the menu was a $29 gyokuro, the elegant shade grown Japanese green tea.

I opted for the Nishi Sencha First Flush which was served in a glass pitcher and came out to be a beautiful, vivid green.

I found this tea to be smooth, very seaweedy, slightly grassy and a bit sweet with a touch of bitterness in the finish. I imagine they are still serving a 2011 shincha (I didn’t ask) but it was excellent. This tea supposedly induces the alpha state like no other. For those of you who don’t know, brainwaves are categorized into four states: alpha, beta, theta and delta. Alpha brainwaves are associated with a state of relaxed awareness and creativity. I already had a lot of tea that morning and was fairly loaded up on caffeine when I arrived. This tea was very energizing! I was practically ready to run a marathon.

For lunch, Mr. Tea and I shared a plate of squash dumplings and I opted for the “paleolithic” tea service with carrots, beets and tofu smothered in a tasty barbeque sauce over a bed of kale. This place is quite vegan and vegetarian friendly (always good to have options). My companion opted for a toasted cheese sandwich which was served with a mixed green salad.

We found if you order the Samovar Russian blend, the wait staff escorts you to an actual samovar where you pour your own tea, and get unlimited refills. The gleaming silver samovar is shown below, which was the traditional serving vessel for tea in Russia and other countries.

Their Russian tea blend is very smoky, sweet and fruity. I do enjoy a good lapsang from time to time, but this particular blend was a tad too strong for yours truly. I was told it’s a mix of lapsang, Earl Grey and lychee black teas. Mr. Tea enjoyed his with milk and was quite the picture of an elegant gentleman.

At that point we were both heavily caffeinated and satiated, so we decided to bid the lovely Samovar adieu and go for a walk in Hayes Valley, which sports many boutiques, restaurants, bars and coffee shops. In short, the perfect place for two aimless flaneurs to spend an afternoon.

I accidentally stumbled upon a French bakery called Chantal Guillon which had about 50 different varieties of French macarons but more importantly….

Entire walls of cases filled with Mariage Freres teas, which I have never seen in San Francisco until now. I did find the Marco Polo and the Darjeeling Princeton at Williams-Sonoma, but now I know where to get an entire vast selection by the cup, or for the loose leaf tins. This was quite a thrill for ‘lil old me! Believe it or not, I did not buy any tea that day, but took a card for future reference. We seem to have quite a few French expats in San Francisco, perhaps they have brought their taste for tea with them for us all to enjoy.

Mr. Tea wanted to watch the Kentucky Derby so we headed over to the Abinsthe Brasserie & Bar to have a beverage. Unfortunately, they did not have a television but we managed to entertain ourselves by ordering an actual abinsthe and see it made the old fashioned way.

This traditional absinthe fountain has three spouts and is filled with ice water. The absinthe is poured into a glass and then a slotted spoon is laid on top with a cube of sugar. The ice water is allowed to slowly drip into the glass, then stirred and served. Absinthe is a very strong drink which I don’t necessarily recommend for the afternoon but since it was a Saturday, I had a few sips of the anise flavored beverage. Note the similarity in color to my green tea.

Finally we headed over to Marlena’s, which has drag shows in the evenings but is fairly quiet and unassuming during the day. Much to our delight, they were showing the Kentucky Derby and we managed to catch the very end of the race but missed the pre-race coverage fashion show and all the crazy hats. My hat is off to “I’ll Have Another”, who managed to beat “Bodemeister” in the final stretch. I’m not a horse racing aficionado, but it was quite thrilling.

It was a delightful afternoon of being a tourist in my own town, a hobby which I never seem to tire of. I hope you’ve enjoyed following me along in my afternoon in the City by the bay.

-Your Faithful Correspondent

Comments (12)

    Profile photo of scottteaman
    ScottTeaManMay 6th, 2012 at 12:57 pm      

    Whay a terrific reviw, sounds like a great experience…….although I did miss the KY Derby this year. :-[

    SimplyJenWMay 6th, 2012 at 1:00 pm      

    Jealous! You get to go to all the cool places! I love your posts!

      Profile photo of amyoh
      amyohMay 6th, 2012 at 1:26 pm      

      If only my life was this glamorous every day… :)

    Profile photo of xavier
    xavierMay 6th, 2012 at 1:56 pm      

    Sounds quite interesting.
    If I ever go to LA, I know where to go.

      Profile photo of amyoh
      amyohMay 6th, 2012 at 5:03 pm      

      San Francisco is not that close to Los Angeles, it’s about a 6 hour drive but you would see some nice scenery along the way. :)

        peterMay 6th, 2012 at 5:39 pm      

        Don’t let her fool you! The drive from SoCal to the Bay Area is long. I grew up in the Southland and I drove up to Concord, California every weekend for months. Once you get out of SoCal and over the mountains into the central region, its the kind of drive were you see the same flat open scenery for about 5-6 hours. Long enough that if you were a passenger and fell asleep early on and woke up an hour or two later you would feel like you haven’t gotten anywhere. Boy, the memories of that drive….good times!

        Anyhow, @amyoh it’s nice to read your description of Samovar. I hear so much about it online since Jesse Jacobs is so prolific on the internet, it’s good to read about from another person’s point of view. I’ve always thought that it sounds like an interesting place to go for tea.

        Of course, is it just me, or does that picture of the sincha look like a pitcher full of margarita?! Pass the salt!

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          amyohMay 7th, 2012 at 7:50 am      

          @peter – you could take Highway 1 along the coast and that would be quite scenic although would end up taking a reeaaaly long time! :)

          I do like Samovar, they are kind of pricey but people have been very friendly to me there. In the beginning of my tea journey, one of their wait staff and I got into an extended conversation about tea and he told me where else I should go and what other online retailers I should look at.

    Ash-Lee (DaisyChubb)May 7th, 2012 at 6:40 pm      

    Mr. Tea, I’m pretty jealous.
    That sounds like a heavenly state of being :D

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    lahikmajoeMay 9th, 2012 at 10:14 am      

    Enjoyed this post, and I’m eager to one day make it to Samovar. I hear such good things about tea in the San Francisco area.

    Oh, and your blog’s layout is really appealing. Nice job.

      Profile photo of amyoh
      amyohMay 9th, 2012 at 10:29 am      

      I wish I could take credit for the layout but it was one of the Word Press pre-canned themes. Perhaps one of these days I’ll get creative and do one myself!

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    thepurrfectcupMay 10th, 2012 at 8:46 pm      

    Amy, again I loved your take on tea! I’m really digging your format and all the info you pack into each post. I really need to get out to your neck of the woods!!

    jackieMay 10th, 2012 at 9:30 pm      

    Amy, I enjoy traveling to San Francisco with you here. Almost as good as a real trip. Except of course, that I don’t get to sip these interesting teas. Or eat the macaroons. Either way, fun, interesting and informative – looking forward to more.