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, but 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 is supposed to induce 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 got there. All I can say is 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. Yes, 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, you are escorted by the wait staff 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 seemed to have about 50 different varieties of French macaroons but more importantly….
Entire walls of cases filled with Mariage Freres teas, which I have never spotted 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 do 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 did have 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