urbàna tea blog
fresh thoughts, meditations and ramblings re. tea
along south beach’s ocean drive, drinks are typically alcoholic and super-sized. but behind the gates of the villa by barton g. (commonly known as the versace mansion), the more refined experience of afternoon tea awaits during miami’s high season.
the mansion, a representation of columbus’ residence which was built in santo domingo in the 1500s) is one of the most-photographed residences in america (after the white house and possibly graceland). it was home to gianni versace and a celebrity playground for the likes of madonna and elton john. but today, it is a luxurious 10-suite boutique hotel and restaurant run by barton g. weiss, with a stylish afternoon tea that would make versace proud.
weiss’ resume includes competitive figure skater, set designer, costume designer, choreographer, restaurateur, and hotelier. his company, barton g., combines experience, talent, imagination and panache to offer events management, destination management and culinary services through a staff of more than 400. with a reputation as one of the most important concept designers in the country, barton g.’s corporate goal is one of “delivering clients’ visions well beyond their expectations.” tea at the mansion is an experience that does in fact deliver.
the villa’s staff offers afternoon tea on saturday and sunday afternoons, november through april, on a terrace overlooking a fabulously bright and brilliant mosaic pool (versace had italian mosaic craftsmen living at the mansion for three years during extensive renovations). but before you get to the tea, a butler at villa by barton g. will greet you, make you welcome, and take you on a tour, explaining the architecture, history and relevance of the mansion.
on this particular day, preparations for a wedding were underway, and the guest rooms were occupied and therefore off-tour. however, executive butler joe was generous with his time and attention and walked us through the hotel guest experience, which borrows from weiss’ luxurious european travels. it quickly became clear that a special tea experience would follow our visit through the courtyard, the dining room, the bar, versace’s former library and the pool area.
up the stairs from the pool, the mosaic-floored terrace is surrounded by black ironwork. we settled into dark rattan chairs. rose-pink tablecloths are topped with white cutwork tablecloths, and pink-and-gold versace china graces the table. the table itself (except for that versace brand on the bottom of the cups and saucers) is traditional, with a small vase of freesia, mums and baby’s breath. but once our champagne was served and our teas were chosen (one beautiful pink versace pot of earl grey ceylon and one beautiful pink versace pot of first flush darjeeling), joe explained that all of the butlers love afternoon tea but that theirs isn’t a typical english tea. with one of barton g.’s restaurants serving macaroni and cheese on a mousetrap, we weren’t sure what to expect, but joe’s promise that it would be good left no doubt.
our three-tiered china tray was laden with sweets and savories: tea sandwiches including lobster with mango relish, pumpernickel cucumber sandwiches with saffron aioli, vodka-cured salmon with crème fraiche and capers, foie gras mousse, seared tuna and daikon radish, and beef roulade with peppadews topped with fig compote and caviar. even with this breadth of assortment, the presentation was impeccable, and the combinations were truly amazing. we enjoyed every morsel. and then we moved on to the candied orange scones with clotted cream, lemon curd and strawberry jam. fabulous, but not to be outdone by brownies, pistachio macaron, strawberry macaron, key lime tarts, fruit tarts, chocolate cookies and chocolate kiss.
this was gourmet afternoon tea, artfully prepared and presented. the staff was superb, the setting was exquisite, and as one of the butlers snapped our photo as we walked back through those famous iron gates on ocean drive, we felt a little celebrity status ourselves.
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this little tea room charmed us with its location and its adorable assortment of vintage china on vintage embroidered linens – just like from grandma’s linen cupboard. located in a hip row of restaurants in atlanta’s candler park neighborhood, dr. bombay’s underwater tea party is an equally hip venue for tea, tea parties, and hanging out streetside or on the back patio.
even after googling the words ‘dr. bombay’ and then asking our service from whence the name came, we’re still not sure. but at the end of the day, we were taken by the theme and by the super-cute take-out box with a handlebar mustache as the logo. the atlanta-based owner is in-shop on weekdays, so our sunday visit left us unaware of whether he sports a mustache or not. we did learn from our server that the other partner lives in india, running the learning tea, a girl’s school that receives support from this atlanta tea room. take a look at the books spilling from bookcases, and for every book sold, a portion of proceeds goes to the school.
through the front door, dr. bombay’s underwater tea room is composed of an overstuffed room with counter and a large case of baked goods, tables and chairs, random bric-a-brac, and a line of aprons hanging above like kitschy pieces of art. i spied cupcakes and scones right away, along with signs relating the tea of the day and a menu of miscellaneous teas.
through a doorway to the right, there’s a “social” room packed with tables, chairs and guests, along with umbrellas suspended from the ceiling and clutter all around that we hope is never cleared away. beyond, the wood-fenced patio boasts red tables and chairs, teapots and pitchers overflowing with sprengeri fern, bamboo, caladium, coleus and rosemary. it’s the perfect spot to hang out with someone special, or maybe sunday’s new york times.
afternoon tea runs 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. bread is baked in-house, and we enjoyed pimento cheese on sourdough, as well as egg salad on country white. also on the two-tiered tray were mini red velvet cupcakes, cinnamon rolls, lace cookies and two large scones. the peanut butter scone was especially delicious, but we had no complaints about the pumpkin scone; both were made even more decadent by a pot of devonshire cream and little jars of jam. we refilled our china cups over and over from the vintage-style teapot, enjoying an apple ceylon tea that we’d chosen from a large menu of teas — an excellent choice, we have to say.
the patio is spared from sun by a huge tree overhead, but looking up, we saw strings of lights suspended above. this lazy afternoon was perfect, but we can imagine an evening outside, knowing it would be made even more special by the fact that events at dr. bombay’s underwater tea party also help fund the learning tea school.
with a weekend in atlanta at its end, it was time for the drive home, along with our little mustachioed take-out box. but as I folded my vintage-style napkin and placed it on the table, i noticed its tag: made in india. surely karma has kept this adorable little shop alive for the past seven years.
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there’s a passion for antiques in lexington, kentucky, and on west short street, for a combination of antiques and tea. greentree tearoom has been doing double duty since its opening 12 years ago in a charming traditional brick home-turned-business near downtown.
many tea lovers have an affection for all the china and paraphernalia associated with serving tea, and there are adorable and quite beautiful english and asian pieces displayed in the two rooms that comprise greentree tearoom (one the tea room and one the tea events room). but tea lovers may also find themselves drawn to the sideboards, china cabinets, bric-a-brac and artwork that decorate the rooms.
we found ourselves seated adjacent to a lovely brick patio, with mature magnolia trees and hardwoods and evergreens and white impatiens filling a large pot. In the middle of the tea room is a round table with a gigantic floral arrangement. this is the focal point of the room, and the table also serves as a buffet for the last two courses of the tea.
the tea room is elegant and serene. pale yellow walls and chair railing and mouldings are accented by artwork that is displayed gallery-style. the 18th- and 19th-century furnishings meld with round claw-footed tables covered with tablecloths. the chairs at each table match, but the style and color of chair at each table differs – hunter green, black, café au lait – and this delivers a nice eclectic touch. honey-gold parquet floors underfoot are beautiful.
luncheon tea at the greentree is a silver and crystal and white china on white tablecloth type of experience. it is simple, traditional elegance, done well. and beyond the ambience, the food is so very wonderful. our tea was a high mountain ceylon tea, an excellent accompaniment. our teacups were refilled many times while we enjoyed this five-course tea.
we first enjoyed a chilled cantaloupe soup, a light and lovely beginning course. second, the standout – and maybe we knew that even before enjoying the next three courses – was the scone. we have tasted so many scones, but few compare to the asiago scone with herbed cream cheese and housemade tomato chutney. we sampled it on its own, tasted with only the cream cheese and tasted with both cream cheese and chutney. absolutely amazing every way.
our third course was baked pear with bleu cheese filling. it was arranged on a salad of fresh spinach, tomatoes, red onion and pecans, and this proved to be a great combination.
the next course was a trio of tea sandwiches: poppy seed egg salad on rectangles of nutty wheat bread (delicious!), jeweled sweet pepper (a mixture of cream cheese and peppers on triangles of white bread), and French radish (a round of white bread with butter and thinly sliced radish and a decorative but equally delicious sprig of parsley).
we arrived at the dessert course, which consisted of ginger chocolate truffles, buttermilk cupcakes topped with coconut frosting, and key lime custards (the perfect ending). our tea tasted just as wonderful with these desserts as at first taste, and we pronounced our luncheon tea at the greentree tearoom a delicious – and relaxing – experience. looking ahead to the september menu, which includes carrot and ginger soup, apple-walnut scones with apple butter, and bananas foster, we’d love to come back soon.
the shops here included great examples of teaware, including asian tea sets, royal crown derby, and one very interesting modern teapot (photo on the home page of teatripster.com). although tea (available with reservation at noon wednesdays through saturdays and also for a second seating at 3:00 p.m. on saturdays) is lovely on its own, if time allows, you’ll enjoy extending your experience by browsing the shops.
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you can think of hillbilly tea in louisville as a down-home place for tea, but don’t miss the splashes of sophistication that make it a fun and modern fix. the eclectic composition ranges from bare-bulbed light fixtures hanging from the high black ceiling, and rush chairs with seats that have seen better days… to genuine silver tableware and a menu more nouveau than country.
you’ll feel quite comfortable in this 15-month-old establishment as you settle into a wooden booth and find a tiny bouquet of button mums. right away, music sets the mood, with a great mix of blues, house, creedence clearwater revival, grateful dead and van morrison. artfully arranged are antiques, an old rocker with a colorful afghan, and primitive farm implements. the centerpiece, though, is a wood-and-glass retail display – an antique the owner found nearby at architectural salvage and repurposed into a beautiful bar.
on the glass shelves of the bar are black paint cans that hold teas with names such as big earl’s and smokey mountain chai. there are more of the cans displayed against rustic walls. and lest you forget that hillbilly tea is all about tea, a full page of the menu is dedicated to it. you can enjoy it hot… or served in ball canning jars, chock-full of ice and possibly topped with some locally grown mint.
local is, in fact, an important part of the concept, and the kitchen ingredients are sourced from seven area farms and gardens. there are vegetarian and vegan items on the menu and a number of items that made it difficult to choose. we were tempted by the local cheese and honey, the grilled duck with spicy green salad, the bbq pork pie and the corn-fried smoked tofu. we were also intrigued by the standard tea platter. (we considered it pretty non-standard compared to the typical three-tier tea tower, but one that seemed like an interesting alternative to scones and lemon curd with its smoked chicken salad on corn pone, benedictine spread on stale bread, tomato biscuit, candied nuts and a trio of tea cookies.)
with four iced teas of the day, we chose a green mint and a white peach. our server, matt, brought out our drinks in the supersized jars of 24 ounces or so (and later showed us that he could balance three drinks at once). for our late afternoon snack, he made a few suggestions, and we chose a lovely chilled strawberry soup, smoked catfish with lemon tartar sauce, pit-roasted sweet potatoes, and old-fashioned corn pone. the catfish was light and delicious, and the lemon tartar sauce was so wonderful that we couldn’t resist dipping the sweet potatoes and corn pone, as well. the unsweetened iced teas paired perfectly with our selections.
many menu items include tea, such as earl grey chocolate torte, forest berry layer cake, matcha or chamomile cupcakes, and chocolate chip-chai cookies. soon there will be tea cocktails on the menu. but the piece de resistance was the bourbon bread pudding, a treat that won our kudos to the chef. the large custardy square was covered with a thick layer of fondant icing, and caramel-colored bourbon sauce added drama to the presentation of this sweet creation.
yes, the “moonshine” is very fine tea at hillbilly tea. but If there’s anything here that should be illegal, that bourbon bread pudding would be it.
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on the main street of the old o’bryonville neighborhood in cincinnati, we discovered the bonbonerie café. it’s a place where you can have tea and a scone, or afternoon tea, or pair your tea with any of the items baked fresh in the full bakery there: cakes, cookies, cupcakes, quiche and oh-so-much more.
it’s hard to beat the charm of the bonbonerie, which has operated since 1983 as the bakery upstairs. as of less than two years ago, this quaint trifecta that comprises the bonbonerie includes the multi-roomed streetfront café downstairs (a piece of real estate quickly snatched up when the coffee shop there closed)… the bakery upstairs where you can sit and enjoy any of the beautifully displayed confections or have them packaged to go… and the tea room where events are hosted regularly for tea lovers of all ages.
the three areas are tied together by “the secret garden,” with outdoor seating in the midst of ivy-covered brick walls. although the overall effect is sort of like a maze, it’s an alice-in-wonderland-esque journey from the café, through a hall, into the charm-filled garden, up the stairs into the bakery, and down a small set of stairs to the tea room. tying the entire operation together are two best friends. one of them worked with the brother of the other, and he introduced these two women whose passion for sweets resulted in establishment of the bakery 28 years ago.
walking in off the street, the café seemed part old-school soda shop, but the bakery cases made the primary impression. we were drawn to them, as if in dire need of a sugar fix or maybe because they were such impressive eye candy, and if these weren’t irresistible enough, we were told that there was an entire bakery full of sweets upstairs that could be enjoyed with our tea. how could we not take a look?
after our detour through the secret garden and up to the bakery (adorable!!! is the best word for the bakery), we settled back downstairs with a pot of cherry rose sencha in a tiny red tetsubin and an iced apricot black tea, along with an array of sweets: scone with butter (try to choose from raisin, lemon-glazed blueberry, classic, raspberry or apricot), iced molasses cookie (with an icing that tasted like chai), a tiny cheesecake bite topped with yummy vanilla frosting, and a lemon square (one of the best you’ll find).
only then were we able to appreciate not only the amazing bakery creations and excellent teas, we also became aware of the jazz music in the background, the red tin ceiling above us, and the gold-framed mirrors with the menu written in blue, orange, white and yellow markers on the bronze-toned glass. the floors were honey-colored wood, and the walls were pale yellow, accented with red and purple and brightly colored art. there were playful collections of china cats and teapots displayed.
we will return one day — for breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea, and of course for the bakery, too. there is a friendly staff and a nostalgic feel overall that makes it easy to relax and enjoy this concept that it surely one-of-a-kind. but eventually we had to leave. we walked out with a cellophane package of chocolate bliss cookies, tied with a pink bonbonerie ribbon, knowing that ‘bliss’ would undoubtedly define our cookies perfectly.
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located in chicago’s chinatown is saint’s alp teahouse & café, an import from hong kong. while boba originated in taiwanese tea shops during the 1980s, saint’s alp was the first to introduce it into a teahouse atmosphere. since first opening in hong kong in 1994, they have expanded to more than 40 locations there, as well as having three in the u.s. and one in macau.
although you can sit down for hot or cold teas and both chinese and japanese food at any saint’s alp teahouse, the first drink on the menu is boba tea. that’s what they’re known for and what we were there for. we ordered an almond black milk tea, light on the tapioca pearls, and learned that we’re not alone with this request. the café is seeing a trend toward health-consciousness and is happy to oblige by customizing the quantity of tapioca pearls in a drink.
of course, we then negated our good intentions by ordering a fresh mango ice cream sundae. this probably wasn’t the best idea, but when it arrived in a large martini glass, we tasted it and quickly determined it was worth the indulgence. the boba tea was also perfectly prepared, just the right sweetness, and so cute in its tall glass with a thick pink straw. in fact, we loved the fun factor throughout the concept, with the citrus-colored tables and chairs, playful graphics on the wall, and our pink and orange cups of water.
the menu is extensive, but unfortunately we were there in mid-afternoon, with lunch behind us and dinner plans ahead. at another time, we would have found it easy to be tempted by the extensive array of asian foods (we’re talking pages!). and there’s a just-as-extensive list of mostly tea-based drinks, enough that you could have a different one every day for a couple of months. many are available hot or cold. the boba is super-popular, and not just among the young, but again, there’s something for everyone on this menu.
several popular entrees include beef with chinese okra, fish filet with chinese chives and garlic, japanese tofu with assorted mushrooms, and fried rice with roasted duck. there are also hong kong-style snacks such as sweet condensed-milk toast, soups ranging from hot and sour to shark’s fin, seaweed salad, and noodles and rice in various asian styles.
the delicacy we should have ordered was the tea eggs. but somehow the boba and ice cream won us over, and we have no regrets. with their delicious teas, whimsical marketing and plans for expansion, we know we’ll find saint’s alp on the road again.
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located next to the landmark oriental theatre (now the ford center for performing arts in chicago) and near the art institute of chicago is the flagship store of argo tea. the space once housed an intimate comedy theatre, a piano bar and in the early 1900s was a german restaurant. so argo tea’s old building has a history… and in the space of an hour there, we’re predicting a future that’s a tough act to follow.
one of 12 argo tea cafés in chicago (also with a presence in new york — including in the historic flatiron building, in st. louis and soon in boston), this tempest in the tea world opened four new york locations in five months and will soon open another there. founded by two tea drinkers who were in the i.t. industry, the argo organization seems to be working like a machine.
we dared label argo the “starbucks of tea” but learned that they differentiate themselves through their focus on the healthy aspect of tea and being all-natural. there is much more to love besides the commitment to tea: the modern interior, an efficient ordering system, free wifi, and hitting the public’s pulse with the attachment to “green” and to “charitea” (their donations this quarter go to the sierra club).
also, quality is on spot. our teas were very tasty, and our sandwiches were equally so (one of them was a delicious panini with tea-poached chicken, and there are other menu items made with argo’s tea, as well). with 40 to 50 teas at any given time, names such as hibiscus tea sangria and mojitea and green tea strawberry crème are appealing.
the lines are clean, modern. there are comfy banquettes, long desks to plug in at while sipping some tea, white or khaki walls and a combination of cream tile in the front and dark wood floors in the social area, stainless steel, and black-and-white photos on the walls. all of this is accented by pops of color from the displays of teapots to the cute printed cups and printed paper sandwich bags, and all combines seamlessly.
this isn’t quiet, relaxing tea. although it’s possible to read a book, for the most part, it’s tea with lively conversations and people busy at computers in an energetic black-tea mode. unlike any tea we’ve seen as we’ve crossed the country, this is a tea shop for the masses that seems to resonate with a younger-than-usual demographic. at the counter and seated all around, it’s twenties- and thirties-somethings.
after visiting this arts-district location, we have to say “bravo!” for a concept that is bringing new generations into the world of tea.
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open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, an intimate space in chicago captures the russian tradition of tea all day, every day. we stopped in on a weekday afternoon and crafted our own afternoon tea, one that also included a flight of vodka.
technically a restaurant, russian tea time looks very much like a lovely little dark tea room, sophisticated but cozy. in the afternoon, a full tea is served, but we opted to order a la carte, with a plate of tea savories, cranberry-raisin scones with house-made whipped cream and strawberry marmalade, and an endless pot of black tea. the savories consisted of a salmon and cream cheese tea bite, a spring crepe with peanut sauce, roasted red pepper and cream cheese sandwich, and a miniature sun-dried tomato quiche. we enjoyed the food very much, and our tea was quite good, as well, but the standout was the scone, which was absolutely one of the best we’ve had on the teatripster trip.
we settled back and savored. heavy draperies covered the windows, separating us from the busy chicago sidewalk. inside, we were surrounded by dark wood, cream tablecloths, brass samovars and enamel cloisonné-type samovars, and russian doll teapot cozies. there were traditional brass sconces and wood-framed mirrors on the cream-colored silk wallcovering. the rose-burgundy-edged china echoed the burgundy-and-cream theme of the room, and we enjoyed viewing huge displays of fresh flowers in every direction – a really lovely touch.
in the middle of our tea, our server brought a flight of vodkas – a coriander vodka, a black currant tea vodka and a lime vodka. the black currant tea vodka was delightful and definitely tasted of black currant tea. it was by far our favorite in the flight and worth experimenting with some black tea infusions once we’re back home. with russian music playing in the background as we shared the shots and then returned to our pot of tea, we enjoyed a great retreat before hitting the streets again for sightseeing.
russian tea time is a 17-year-old chicago institution where the slogan is: take tea, enjoy life. it’s a philosophy that we embraced there, and one that we’ll carry with us always.
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the world is in such a hurry. but even before we entered seven cups denver tea house, the writing was on the wall that it would be different. instead of the usual tea-to-go signs, the graphics that greeted us as we walked toward the door were for tea to stay.
this is denver’s first and only chinese tea house, a three-year-old replica of the first seven cups which was founded in phoenix by a tea master. the little space in denver’s hip washington park neighborhood houses teas that you won’t find anywhere else in the country, and all but two of more than 80 are chinese (those two are japanese teas). it takes you into chinese culture through the teas… the décor… the little snacks of mocha and dumplings and steamed buns.
and then there is the passion for the teas, which are sourced from chinese tea masters. all are organic (although all are not certified organic). the staff is ready and willing to educate you on the different varieties in the front area, where you can view cakes of pu-erh and sniff a few rare yellow teas. (there are also tea tastings every friday and tea ceremonies every other wednesday.)
in the back, behind wooden screens, it seems like a secret room that shields you from the world outside. there are chinese chippendale tables and chairs, wood chests, red-tasseled chinese lanterns, hangings with chinese characters that adorn pale yellow walls, a bookcase brimming with books, sideboards with teapots and teacups, asian fans, and beautiful displays of ikebana that were arranged by our hostess, rebecca norton. settle back, and enjoy the calm.
rebecca recommended a pot of rare yellow buds tea (meng ding huang ya) from the sichuan province. it was exquisite, and this was a lovely stay-for-tea experience. we learned that the seven cups name originates from an ancient tang dynasty verse. part of the verse: “the fifth cup releases my muscles and bones become light.” and by the fifth cup we enjoyed, it was true.
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promising an oasis of calm and a taste of england, the house of commons in denver, colorado, is a quaint little tea shop that gets five stars for british-style tea and scones. as for the calm oasis, owner jessica avery is a former psychotherapist who moved across the pond to denver in 1980. she opened the tea house 6-1/2 years ago and has been offering tea therapy ever since.
the space is as comforting as you might hope for, located in an old brick warehouse-style building, with dark forest green accents on the outside that are echoed on the inside with seafoam green accents against cream-colored walls. there are large storefront windows and wooden floors.
although the shop originally served british favorites pg tips and taylors of harrogate, the selection has expanded over time to a sophisticated assortment of more than 60 teas. there is a certain loyalty from the brits, and even with the broad selection of teas, they often gravitate toward the pg tips and taylors of harrogate yorkshire gold.
but there is a tea for everyone – and the most wonderful scones. just spread on the jam and devonshire cream, close your eyes as you take a bite, and you’ll think you’re in london. these scones have been served at the british consulate in denver and loved by many british travelers who find themselves in the charming platte river valley area of town.
we shared a wonderful pot of ti guan yin and along with our scones sampled a red velvet mini cupcake and a beautiful pastel macaron. all of the house-made food was delicious and perfect with our cuppa.
the house of commons serves a british-themed lunch, with double-decker sandwiches plus salads such as the wimbledon, westminster or chelsea. afternoon tea includes scones, an assortment of finger sandwiches, english biscuits and petits fours on a three-tiered tower, along with a pot of tea. whatever modifications were needed to adjust jessica’s recipes for high-altitude baking in denver, she’s made in spades. wishing we’d gotten about a dozen of those scones to go!
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