My friend. C.W. has been reading this little blog of mine and expressed an interest in going tea tasting somewhere. Of course I was thrilled to spread the joy of tea addiction to another person but I did try to warn her, “They might make fun of you for using teabags.”
I picked the Aroma Tea Shop as our destination site; I’ve been there many times myself and it’s the home of the illustrious Got Oolong? t-shirt. As far as tea shops go, what a great one for beginners and more experienced tea folk alike. I confess I’ve never been to their Chinatown location, I like the Clement street shop because that’s where Haymen hangs out.
You’ll find a little bit of everything here, including an array of teapots, cups and gaiwans. Here’s one section that always seems to catch my eye:
Actually I am not that snobby when it comes to my tea drinking, but this is where all the rare and more expensive teas are lurking about.
When we sat down at the curved marble table, a young couple already sitting there looked quite mesmerized by all the oolongs being offered for tasting. A quick overview of the proper way to prepare a tea for tasting as Haymen does it starts with first putting your tea in the gaiwan and then rinsing the leaves with hot water. At home I usually just rinse pu-erhs, but here they rinse everything. The raison d’être for this process? Dust and dirt gets on the tea and this “cleaning” is an essential part of making your leaves perfect for consumption. All teas here are prepared in a gaiwan and then poured into individual serving cups. Shown below is a very fresh jade oolong we sampled that afternoon.
I wasn’t planning to buy any more oolongs, since I had a few that were in danger of going stale. The conversation came around to the subject of teas and how long they can stay fresh. It was suggested I could keep mine in the refrigerator as the teas here are refrigerated every night. Aroma Tea Shop is a great place to go and get all of your stupid questions answered as Haymen is a man of great patience.
“How long can you keep tea before it gets stale?”
“What’s the difference between a green tea and black tea?”
“How is oolong processed differently than green tea?”
Let me tell you, it’s quite a preliminary education here all in the span of 1/2 hour or so…
The one thing that really caught my eye? A first flush West Lake dragonwell, pictured below.
In the past, dragonwells have been kind of boring to me because I just can’t seem to get too much flavor out of them. However, I found this tea to be deliciously fresh, nutty and creamy. The quality is definitely there and I think the freshness of the leaf absolutely makes a difference. I could not resist getting an ounce of this which was pricey, but delicious.
We sampled a few other oolongs, including a roasted dong ding from Taiwan. The thing that caught C.W.’s eye and tastebuds was a lovely white jasmine tea. Last week she sent me a message that she was enjoying her new tea and didn’t even miss her morning coffee. I may have made a convert to the tea way of life!
After we bid Haymen adieu, we walked to B*Star the sister restaurant to the incredibly popular and trendy Burma Superstar restaurant. Burmese food has always been a treat for me and we’re fortunate to have a couple of Burmese restaurants here in San Francisco. One tasty morsel, especially for tea lovers, is the Tea Leaf Salad made with chopped lettuce, yellow beans, sesame seeds, tomatoes and pickled tea leaves. The salad is tossed fresh at your table and incredibly delicious! I’ve asked a few times what tea leaves are used for this salad, but have only been told they’re imported from Burma and nothing more.
Following the salad, I ordered a tofu scramble with hijiki and roasted potatoes. A glass of sauvignon blanc topped it off and made a delightful brunch for the hungry tea-drinking Ladies.
After C.W. and I parted company, I took a walk down Clement Street, a fun neighborhood to spend all your money or just go window shopping. One of my favorite shops is Kamei Housewares, a WalMart sized store full of every kitchen gadget, utensil, cup and plate one would ever need. In this section of town you’ll find a high percentage of Asian grocery stores, bubble tea shops, Irish bars (go figure), and a small emerging scene of art galleries and independent boutiques.
One little shop I like is Haig’s Delicacies, which has been on Clement Street since 1956 and specializes in Middle Eastern delights. In addition to the tasty treats they make in the store, sold are an array of jams, chutneys, bulk spices, coffee and of course, teas. They stock a wide selection of English brands of tea, as well as their own private label which is sold in bulk bags. This is where I discovered the Czar Nicholas II, a favorite of Mr. Tea.
Czar Nicholas II is an insanely inexpensive black tea you can buy in a bag, scented heavily with bergamot, spices and fruits. Think of it as the poor man’s Kusmi, if you will.
I couldn’t resist picking this up as a gift for Mr. Tea, because I know it’s one of his favorites. Clement Street is a great destination for tea, food and friends to get together. I feel truly blessed to share my obsessive love of the tea leaf with those around me. For the most part, they just seem to nod their heads and feign enthusiasm, which works out pretty well for me!