Sunday, January 28, 2007

Chugging Tea at Cha-an

UPDATE: A slightly different version of this post also appears here at Associated Content.

Despite growing up in a tea-drinking culture and being aware of its health benefits, I never really found the stuff appealing, preferring to ingest my daily dose of caffeine through a four-cups-a-day coffee habit. On the rare occasion that I am forced to drink tea, I usually opt for mint tea with heaps of sugar - picked up from my vacation in Morocco, minus the tea leaves of course. Fortunately, the opportunity to expand my knowledge of this beverage arose when I met Kiki of Tea Tour NY, and was able to attend the Japanese tea tasting event held recently at Cha-An tea house on East 9th St.

Situated unobstrusively between a parking garage and an Irish pub, I spotted Cha-An's sign and climbed up the stairs led into the low-lit, spare main room. The fifteen or so tea enthusiasts in Kiki's group were there to sample eight different varieties of Japanese and Chinese teas, including Matcha, the powdered green tea served in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. Food accompaniments included some light tea-time fare, and the Cha-An Tea Set (15-grain rice and assortment of 6 mini-appetizers) for those who opted for it. We kicked things off with two varieties of Sencha tea, described by Kiki as the most refined and sophisticated of Japanese teas. Both tasted good (even from a non-expert point of view), though I preferred a stronger flavor. At the same time, we snacked on the green tea biscuits and truffles (pictured), both delicious and perfect for those with a sweet tooth, yours truly included. Sadly, only one piece of each was allotted per person - maybe next time I can devour an entire order of the truffles.

The next tea was Genmaicha, sometimes referred to as "popcorn tea" because of the roasted brown rice combined with the green tea. Genmaicha didn't go down well in our table, with most of the participants disliking the burnt flavor, but I personally thought it was fine and liked the stronger roasted flavor. In addition to the light, flaky sweet potato samosa (yet another recommended appetizer), I also started working on the cha-gayu (15 grain rice) and the other mini-dishes that came with the Cha-An tea set, including bamboo shoots, seaweed, and sumptuous chicken with eggplant. And yes, the tea just kept on coming - next in line was Hojicha, a lower grade of tea than Sencha but quite popular to drink before sleeping due to its low caffeine content.

The green tea used for Japanese tea ceremonies, Matcha, was served as well, followed by Tencha, the base tea used for making Matcha. The food pairing with the Matcha tea was sweet rice cakes with a light soybean powder coating which were yummy and ate a lot of, since the people at my table seemed full already. At this point my unsophisticated tea palate had gotten somewhat confused what with the different varieties, but I recall liking the Hojicha and Matcha, and finding the Tencha somewhat bitter. For a change of pace, the last two teas served were Chinese teas - one had a chrysanthemum flower inside the pot, the memories of the fragrant smell and sweet aftertaste still linger in my mind. The last one was jasmine tea. If it sounded like we drank a lot of tea, well...we did! Time flew by quickly, and before we knew it three hours had passed.

To cap off the fun, interesting, and educational tea tasting event, Kiki gave each of us as a parting gift an assortment of tea sachets from Harney and Sons. Everyone had a great time, and full credit goes to Kiki's efforts and passion in sharing her love of tea. As for me, while it is doubtful that I will be giving up my cups of Joe anytime soon, further experimentation beyond my tired mint tea routine is in order - a cup of Dragon Pearl Jasmine does sound enticing in the morning.

Cha-An on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Gastronomic Delights with Gustavo

It saddened and shocked me when Gustavo remarked that he hadn't been enjoying the food. Here we were in Paris, one of the exemplary culinary cities in the world, thus surely a good meal could be found just by walking into any proper restaurant. But then I recalled some of the meals he'd had so far - the crappy chicken and spaghetti at the Italian pizza place (don't ask...sigh), the crap at the cabaret Moulin Rouge, and of course, who could forget the crappy Christmas dinner at our hotel in London with the inedible beef, inedible pork, inedible lamb...well, inedible everything, really. Thus, I boldly declared to him, "Come sightseeing with me tomorrow, and I promise you won't eat any crap".

The next day saw us take the metro to Montmartre, the lovely neighborhood teaming with cafes, restaurants, and eye-catching, mouth-watering food shops (refer to 1st photo...we stood outside the window staring and salivating). The streets are perenially jammed with tourists, as well as artists willing to do your portrait. Despite the crowds, Montmartre retains its appeals and is a must-see for anyone visiting Paris. After some sightseeing which included me huffing and puffing my way up the circular staircase to the dome of the Sacre Couer church for some great views of the city (paying five euros for the privilege, no less), Gustavo and I were ready for lunch. We were spoiled for choices, and after scrutinizing the prix-fixe offerings of a few restaurants we settled on Le Progres.

After some delay in deciphering the written-only-in-French menu (I generally avoided restaurants with English menus, preferring to torture myself... seriously, the absence of English-language menus correlate to better food), and with the aide of my trusty French-English food dictionary and restaurant guide, we finally managed to make our choices. Not normally a fan of salads, I nevertheless had the seafood salad and lamb chops, while Gustavo had soup and breast of duck with honey sauce (pictured), which was superb according to him. My dishes were equally tasty, and I liked the seafood salad enough to devour all of it. So both of us were happy campers as we came out of Le Progres for more exploring. Predictably enough, a couple of hours of sightseeing later, we were both famished and eager for a snack. Luckily, we stumbled upon a tiny (only eight seats) crepe place near the Centre Pompidou.

Again, it took a while to place our order, both due to the numerous choices written on the board, and trying to figure out what they were. Unfortunately, the proprietress didn't speak English and couldn't quite answer our questions, compounding our woes. She, however, kept demanding in a loud voice what our order was despite our hemming and hawing, much to the amusement of the group of six Italians occupying the rest of the tables, who awaited each of mine and Gustavo's mangled French phrases with bated breath, followed by comments amongst themselves and then uproarious laughter coupled with pitying glances in our direction. Not all was lost however, as the crepes proved satisfying.

As it was our last night together in Paris, we met up with Jo and Amy back at the hotel. I suggested that we have dinner at Le Hangar, a family-run restaurant serving excellent, reasonably-priced French food in the Fourth Arrondisement. Le Hangar was recommended to me by my friend Maureen who dined there almost every night on her trip to Paris a few years ago. Tucked away in a dead-end alley and somewhat challenging to find, I had dined there by myself a couple of nights ago and thoroughly enjoyed my appetizer, lentil soup with foie gras, and main course - duck with foie gras and potatoes. Thus, I thought this would a good choice for exposure to real French food and to wash away the memories of all the crappy food we've had. Try as I might though, I had difficulty convincing either of the other three to order the lentil soup with foie gras, although I let them have a taste. For the main course, Amy ordered the gnocchi, Jo and Gustavo both had the beef stroganoff which came with deep-fried potato balls that melted in your mouth, while I had the foie gras over mashed potatoes (pictured).

Happily enough, everyone was pleased with their food. Despite the hard-to-read handwritten menus (in French only, bien sur) and no credit card policy, I wager that my companions would return to Le Hangar on future trips to Paris. For dessert, I had Le Hangar's special "mi-cuit" (warm, I think) chocolate cake which was superb and unanimously loved. Overall, not only was it a great meal, but also a pleasant and fitting end to our trip. As for Gustavo, he seemed pretty pleased with the day's adventures and at the chance to expand his gastronomic palate, so I can confidently say my promise to him was fulfilled. Now, Gustavo, about trying those escargots...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Pricey High Tea at the Savoy

The lone culinary highlight in London was partaking in the British tradition of high tea, in this case at the luxurious, opulent five-star (everything our hotel was not) Savoy hotel. Since every attraction and museum in London was closed on Christmas day, there wasn't much to do so I got dragged into eating sumptuous biscuits and scones, flaky French pastries and tarts, and delicate sandwiches by the girls. To wash all this down, each of us also got a pot of tea (flavor of your choice), and not being a big tea drinker I opted for my usual mint tea, a habit carried over from the trip to Morocco.

The privilege (yes, that's what it is) of high tea at the Savoy doesn't come cheap - GBP31.50($63), not including the service charge. There is also a "Champagne high tea" option which for an additional GBP7($14), includes a glass of the bubbly. Two of us (me included) got caught up in the holiday euphoria and fell for this scam, but thankfully the usually efficient Savoy staff made an error and billed us only for one Champagne high tea. I have to admit the food was really good, and the staff just kept bringing more and more scones and sandwiches and tarts - so even if it's debatable that it was worth it, at least we stuffed our faces trying to get our money's worth. Also managed to generate disapproving glances from an older British couple at the adjoining table by acting like super-excited tourists. Total bill per person: a whopping GBP35($70). Someone please do something about that darn exchange rate.