urbàna tea blog
fresh thoughts, meditations and ramblings re. tea
tea is a great way to connect, and in 1987, the sister cities of boulder, colorado, and dushanbe, tajikistan, chose an exchange of teahouses to symbolize their newly established commitment to friendship, peace and cultural understanding. construction of the dushanbe boulder teahouse began in tajikistan in 1987, and the result is a museum-quality structure that takes you about 7,000 miles around the world and whose traditions stretch back 2,000 years.
it is a structure of extreme beauty, as witnessed by more than 100,000 visitors a year. created entirely by hand by more than 40 artisans in tajikistan (which is in central asia), the carving and painting is in lavish persian style, traditional for teahouses in central asia. amidst the intricate patterns and motifs are the carved names of the artisans, who worked on the teahouse for more than two years, as well as the message, “artisans of ancient khojand whose works are magical.”
and the space is, in fact, magical – as well as almost a miracle. after the creation of the teahouse, it was taken apart and packed into 200 or so crates and then shipped to boulder. it arrived in 1989, but with no city funds to assemble it, years of fundraising followed. the teahouse finally opened in 1998, almost a decade after its arrival, following an agreement with the city that would generate revenues for assembling the teahouse by leasing it to a restaurant operator.
the teahouse clings to tradition both inside and out. the boulder valley rose society planted a rose garden outside the front doors, and even the location of the teahouse was dictated by tradition, with a brook running alongside. outside, there are ceramic tiles representing the tree of life, and inside, the carved wooden pillars and bronze statues and colorful geometric-design ceilings combine to make the words awe-inspiring inadequate.
while everything is almost too beautiful to touch, you’ll want to enjoy some tea (hot or cold) or even a tea cocktail. we ordered a beet salad and a hummus plate from the appetizer menu, and both were delicious. there are about 100 teas available, and we suspect that if we had reserved for afternoon tea (available 3 to 5 p.m. daily), it would have been very special.
the promises made in 1987 by the mayors of boulder and dushanbe have now both been realized. a teahouse that was constructed over the harsh 2007-08 winter in dushanbe has now opened. the gift was designed in boulder as an internet café that would respect the tajik tradition of gathering for tea but would incorporate the boulder tradition of going to coffee shops for emails and socializing. the cyber café and friendship center is part gathering place, part internet café, part restaurant, and its design has been recognized for the solar panels that warm it. we’re thinking hot tea if we ever have a chance to visit.
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everyone knows the celestial seasonings boxes – too magical to throw away once the bags are used – and we’d guess they’re as much a reason for the company’s success as the tea within. who can resist the art? who can resist names like sleepytime and red zinger when they’re walking down the grocery aisle? so it’s not hard to believe that the brand has grown from a garage, to the facility in boulder, colorado, that turns out more than $100 million worth of tea per year.
having grown up with celestial seasonings, we were thrilled to take the tour with steve spencer, a 35-year staffer at the company (there almost from the company’s beginning in 1969). the tour, which is free to all and is so popular that many people return to do it all again, includes a brief film that outlines the history of celestial seasonings, followed by a sensory trip through the factory, passing by fresh lemongrass (touch it, smell it), standing by 50 kg cardamom bags, and gaining entry into the famous peppermint room, where the scent can vary depending on the batch of mint but often is so strong that it clears sinuses and even brings tears to the eyes. today, the botanicals used are sourced from 35 countries around the world, and the company has worked with many of the same farmers for 30 years.
most days, machinery is running in the factory (the most highly automated tea-packing equipment in the world), and that’s the best time to visit, so call ahead to check. when running, you can see those adorable boxes marching along the lines, making you want to take some home and start (or add to) a collection. in fact, as we walked through one room, steve pointed out a photograph of john and yoko in the dakota building, with six or seven celestial seasonings boxes on their bookshelf.
for those who didn’t grow up with this brand, it’s not just for grandma. from the days when the founders would pick the herbs in the colorado mountains, dry them, pack them up in the garage and sell them to local stores, to a company that went international in a mere eight years, to current production of 10 million teabags a day, this mega-brand has always been all-natural, with many of the teas being organic. about 15 products are added each year, and the company led the way for american consumers five years ago with goji berry and acai teas.
the tour starts in a check-in area where you receive a “ticket” (a pack of tea to take home) and you’re able to view an art gallery of celestial seasonings paintings and teapots and other memorabilia such as a dress made entirely of teabags, all while sipping samples of tea. but if you’re in the mood to buy, the tour ends with the gift shop, where you can purchase everything from celestial seasonings teacups that match the art on the boxes, to branded nail files, to scone mixes and lemon curd.
from the beginning, celestial seasonings was based on truth, beauty and goodness, a foundation that meshed with the ‘70s and enabled the company to gain a foothold on taking herbal teas to the masses. these days, celestial seasonings also sells green and white teas (as well as black teas to the restaurant industry), distributes to k-pack manufacturers, and recently added ready-to-drink kombucha tea to the line. the kombucha was very tasty (we tried the meyer lemon-ginger), but when there’s time, there’s something about the ritual of making tea – and of course those adorable boxes.
with 100,000 visitors a year, the celestial seasonings tour is one of the top tourist attractions in boulder, second only to pearl street mall. but we think it should be first!
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in the hip area of salt lake city known as sugar house is the seven-year-old tea grotto, a tribute to tea that combines the best of ancient to modern. the shop is located in an industrial-style building that features brick walls, large expanses of windows, and open ductwork. asian lanterns are suspended from high ceilings, and abundant light falls on the large gold buddha seated against one wall, a focal point that sets the mood of the space.
if the buddha could speak, the words might be the message that is posted at each table: “hearing a bell? it’s a call to presence. take a deep breath, and taste your tea.” and, indeed, the meditation music in the background is occasionally punctuated by a ringing bell.
upon the recommendation of our tea sommelier amanda (who combines her love for tea with her love for art by creating yixing teapots), we ordered a high-quality honey-fragrance oolong grown in the phoenix mountain region of china, to be enjoyed as a traditional gaiwan tea service. we slowly enjoyed the visual presentation… the aroma of the tealeaves… the ritual of purifying the cup… the patient waiting for the taste of a most excellent tea.
you can enjoy tea at the tea grotto as it has been done since the mid-1300s in china, or you can choose a more modern presentation. the selection is extensive, with about 75 teas from which to choose, and we loved that there is a separate list for especially exceptional teas.
we also loved that tea is turned into a lifestyle at the tea grotto, with various ways to experience tea and develop a “tea mind.” we enjoyed ginger-miso soup, a rich broth containing chunks of tomato, carrot and onion, as well as ginger tea. there are tea tastings on wednesday nights, and also events that feature pairings of tea with cheese, or tea with chocolate.
on sundays, the tea grotto celebrates the tea lifestyle with morning meditation from 10 to 11 a.m. through the gaiwan tea ceremony, this hour is dedicated to clearing the mind and enriching the soul. but as we learned on a peaceful weekday afternoon at the tea grotto, any day is the perfect day to enjoy the ritual of tea.
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located in the sugar house neighborhood of salt lake city (also known as the sugarhood) is a warehouse building that houses dancing cranes. the imports gift shop has occupied the warehouse for 11 of its 17 years and was joined last year by café solstice, which occupies a cozy corner of the space.
café solstice is a mostly organic café that serves a nice selection of organic teas, tea lattes and rooibos espressos. we had come for the tea and a bite of lunch. but when we walked in the door, we couldn’t resist a once-through of dancing cranes’ vast display of jewelry, salt lamps, stationery, buddhas, indian-patterned cotton bedspreads and sixties-style something-for-everyone. it’s impossible not to get your hippie groove on, but we eventually made it to café solstice.
we learned that it was the café’s first anniversary, and just as we sat down, a super-talented musician arrived — guitar, flute and didgeridoo in tow — to help celebrate the day. while she sang, we could have closed our eyes and believed joni mitchell was in the room. truly wonderful.
the décor at café solstice is light and airy, with 22-foot ceilings and tropical plants, japanese lanterns and screens, a mix of tables and chairs, an artsy menu board and a mélange of colors – purple, lime, deep red and blue – all of which make up an eclectic mix that appeals to residents of this hip slc neighborhood. there was a birthday celebration at one table, some friends at another table, people at the bar that ran along windows overlooking the street, and – our favorite – a young father sipping tea with his young son in his lap. this little one will be one of a new generation of tea lovers!
along with a rooibos espresso, an assam tea and turkey pesto sandwich, we enjoyed live music that was the perfect complement to lunch at this little new-age café. and then, we let the beat of the music lead us back to dancing cranes and the opportunity to pick the perfect singing bowl out of a display of 20 or so.
our new-age experience will now follow us everywhere, and we also wish good vibrations to café solstice for the year ahead.
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what would a tea room look like if it were created by a former librarian/wedding florist/assistant to set designers? walk into the beehive tea room in salt lake city to find out – and to fall in love.
the tea room is layer upon layer of vintage eye candy, divided into small areas that each accommodates several groups of guests. tall ceilings allow the bric-a-brac to go high as well as wide. japanese lanterns, a crystal chandelier and glass pendant lights are suspended from 20-foot ceilings in the old building that houses the beehive. “gates” from a set design hang high above the rooms, creating a boundary that makes it feel you are at the center of a stage. there are velvet draperies, old furniture, assorted paintings, sconces, clocks, silver, glass, topiaries, teapots, mirrors, lamps, an antique radio – and lots of books, including an entire bookcase of books for wedding planning.
the eight-year-old shop attracts young, old, men, women, people on laptops, friends chatting, and everything from red hatters to convention goers. owner lisa brady also brings her love for literature into the tea room by holding book club teas – sherlock holmes, nancy drew, agatha christie, to name a few. there are bridal showers and baby showers, and the tea room has been official café of the sundance film festival, an honor you’ll understand when savoring every morsel from your tea tray.
our server, laura, brought us two hot black teas: the beehive’s cream and honey house tea, which smelled just like honey, and a lovely chocolate-orange tea. she poured hot water over a flowering tea blossom centerpiece and then presented us with four scones – two lemon-lavender and two cranberry-almond – along with marion berry jam and butter. The scones were amazing, and were followed by just-as-amazing savories: cucumber sandwich on buttermilk bread, baby tomato spread on rye, and spinach and artichoke sandwich on dark rye and buttermilk bread. this vegetarian café also serves soups, salads, sandwiches, quiche and european “passties.” we can imagine we’d have our own table at the beehive if we lived in slc.
feeling like we were in a woody allen movie, we listened to the vintage music playing softly in the background and drank tea from the beehive’s dainty branded china cups. and as the afternoon tea progressed, we were even more impressed. we enjoyed a cup of the freshest blackberries and raspberries, smothered in lemon cream – and then the chocolate rhapsody bar, a heavenly flourless chocolate cake with chocolate mousse layer in the center and topped with chocolate ganache. it’s impossible to say which we favored, but both set the bar high for sweets.
for those who want a little bubbly with their afternoon tea, the beehive will have it on the menu soon. but even without, this afternoon tea was a champagne experience that won’t be forgotten soon.
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valet your car and take the elevator to the twenty-third floor of the mandarin oriental, one of the gems of vegas’ city center development. you’ll experience luxury from the time you step into the hotel, and entering the tea room (an open area between check-in and an elegant bar), you’ll find appointments at a level that leave it impossible to imagine changing a thing.
quality such as this sets an expectation, and the mandarin oriental’s afternoon tea service doesn’t disappoint. but first more about the setting. there’s a thick chinese rug underfoot in tones of camel, jade, sapphire and ruby. guests settle into low, cushioned asian chairs or beige velvet sofas or sapphire-colored chairs, sitting low to the ground and scattered with pillows of deep purple. high overhead are nine large chandeliers, reminiscent of upside-down opened umbrella shades. walls are black granite, and separating the tea room and the check-in area are two glass cylinder vases with brightly colored paper butterflies covering willow branches.
that’s only the beginning of the drama of this room. we were seated for tea with the ultimate in glitz and glamour on three sides and a magnificent view of vegas on the other side of a 20-foot glass wall, including planet hollywood, paris, the new aria hotel, and the even newer cosmopolitan, as well as the mountains in the distance. tended to by staff in gold mandarin-style jackets over black dresses, no detail is too small, and afternoon tea is a luxurious affair which was served to us on a modern gold metal table topped with glass.
we chose our teas: the mandarin orange black tea (the signature blend for vegas’ mandarin oriental) and an osthmanthus oolong. while we sipped from gold-handled china cups, we were presented with an elegant array of sweets and savories. the savories we enjoyed were salmon/cucumber/watercress sandwiches, egg salad-chives on brioche, curried chicken salad sandwich, and black forest ham with horseradish cream sandwich. we give five stars for presentation. the standout was the salmon and cucumber sandwich, which consisted of circles of rye bread wrapped in thin slices of cucumber, topped with a generous floret of salmon and a single caper. but of course presentation isn’t everything, because taste gets five stars as well.
our buttermilk scones featured housemade berry blend jam, housemade citrus jam (tasted soooo like wonderful lemon curd) and devonshire cream. delicious! and then there were the “pastry delights.”
for those hotel guests who make a habit of the mandarin oriental’s afternoon tea, the sweets selection changes frequently. but on our visit, we enjoyed purple-dusted white chocolate-enrobed cheesecake pops, raspberry torte topped with gold-dusted fresh raspberries, and a napoleon topped with a triangle of gold-patterned chocolate. the piece de resistance was flourless chocolate cake, topped with gold-dusted, chocolate-coated coffee beans. if this were offered every day, who could possibly tire of it?
tea can also be enjoyed at night on the twenty-third floor. with the bright lights of vegas shimmering in the darkness, it makes for a different experience – just as glamorous on the inside, a little more vegas glitz on the outside. either way, it’s a golden experience.
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take an entertainment capital like vegas, and you might expect that azuza hookah lounge and fine teas would look like it does. themed in an indian style, the dark interior contrasts beautifully with the hookahs that cast a fiery glow throughout the room. there are red track lights and a few black lights and a small crystal chandelier. walls have areas that are padded in an indian design, and who knows how many buddhas there are in the space, subtly taking guests into a meditative mindset.
despite frequent promises to ourselves to maintain a healthy lifestyle, the occasional indulgence is allowed, right? so we found ourselves at this seven-month-old lounge, which combines hookah and tea, a combination not unusual in other countries around the world, and even in some of the hookah lounges popping up around the u.s. we found it appealing that the teas featured at azuza are premium teas, as their name would suggest. we also appreciated the comfort factor. in addition to the dark atmosphere, the banquettes lining the walls are super-cozy, and the staff excels at making sure everything is perfect and at melding the elements of hookah, food and teas.
there are about 25 teas, a few of which are flowering teas, and some interesting ones such as the kava stress reliever tea. however, most are traditional, and they can be prepared hot or iced. we chose a scented black tea with mint (hot) and a blueberry-pomegranate botanical (iced). both were excellent.
while there is a range of teas from around the world, the food is middle eastern. we were surprised at the quality and quantity of the hummus and warm pita bread and the plate of six pieces of baklava to share (more than we could eat in one sitting but a great treat the next day). food is organic and freshly prepared daily in-house.
we found that the hookah experience was not only beautiful to observe but an interesting novelty to participate in. the staff (josh and desiree) patiently explained the process and recommended favorites such as one blend that tastes like blueberry muffins. there were 75 or so single flavors or blends to choose from, ranging from fruit loopz to pumpkin pie, mango to margarita. after josh filled the hookah and started it up, we settled back to relax. again, it’s vegas, so we shouldn’t have been surprised to see a certain entertainment factor at azuza. josh was a showman, changing from one blend to the next with dramatic flair, sparks flying in the dark.
the lounge-y music, presented on a great sound system, ranged from jamaican to ‘whatever lola wants.’ on friday and saturday nights, there’s a dj playing hip egyptian music, and sometimes you’ll find belly dancing. (there are actually two azuza lounges in vegas. this one, across from hard rock hotel, is 21 and up. the other is 18 and up. the clientele and the vibe are a bit different, with the other one being a more nightclub and more college-oriented.)
for us, the location across from hard rock hotel was perfect for relaxing on a wednesday night. we kicked back, enjoyed the hookah experience, meditated on our fine teas, and were about as mellow as the buddha statues all around us. we didn’t realize until we walked to the car that it was 2:20 a.m., 20 minutes past closing time. two hours flies when you’re having fun… and when you’re enjoying the comfort and calm of azuza.
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if you want to see where celebrities shop for tea, the best spot might be in beverly hills. there, at a shop called american tea room, there are 300 or so teas, as well as the opportunity to sit at the tea bar and sample teas of the day or order off the tea menu.
catering to celebrities and corporate clients and those strolling this area of ultra-upscale shops and restaurants, the modern shop is located on a corner just a block away from rodeo drive. it features windows on two sides, high ceilings, café tables by the tea bar, a nook of teas, and throughout, the look of a sophisticated gift shop. in fact, co-owner david barenholtz considers the concept to be more gift shop than tea room.
be warned that david has a history in the retail industry. everything is beautifully displayed, and the teas are experiential (just open stoppers in front of the teas to see and smell each one). even more than teas, david’s passion is teaware, so you’ll find plenty of teapots to pair with teas and create the perfect gift. you might not be able to resist purchasing some gifts for yourself, as well, when you discover the marmalades made locally with american tea room teas.
culinary tea artistry is also evident at the tea bar, where you can enjoy tea-based treats that are created locally. we chose a matcha petits four and an earl grey lavender tea cake – both adorable and delicious. we also tasted a lovely oolong and enjoyed the clever combination of pu-erh tea and hot chocolate.
the owners pride themselves on the quality and freshness of the teas they serve and sell. david discovered what really great tea tasted like when he began traveling europe. his travels now take him to tea-producing countries where he sources the teas you’ll find in the shop. the teas are blended in europe, and to ensure the freshness that is the company’s mission, they are then air-freighted to the u.s.
american tea room also has some fresh takes on events that introduce people to tea or take them further on their tea journey. on the day we were there, they held a tea and music event that had been sold out for weeks. many of the classes and events revolve around tea paired with food: think cucumber-mint soup paired with mint tea, lapsang souchong-smoked salmon at a from russia with love event, tea-infused chocolate at the tea and chocolate pairings, or a variety of cheeses at the tea and cheese tasting.
we didn’t run into any celebrities, but we left with a wonderful ruby black tea, and drinking that lovely blend, we feel pretty special ourselves.
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at scarlet tea room and fine dining in pasadena, ca, patrons enjoy sophisticated tea, food and atmosphere. verrrry sophisticated, yes… but stuffy isn’t a word that would apply. owner karen mikaelian, a.k.a. scarlet, injects a sense of fun that is as obvious as the combination of a chandelier dripping with swarovski crystals, a red and gold chihuly chandelier, and the round porcupine-ish lighting globes lined above the bar. not to mention burlesque nights that are held three or four times a year, where dancers perform and mingle with guests.
scarlet’s mission was to create not just a tea room, but a way of life. at first, she created it to give ladies a place to be ladies. but over time, her strategy developed into one of attracting men as well as women to keep the concept alive (and lively). maybe double-draped linen tablecloths, white china, brocade baroque-style chairs and a white baby grand piano wouldn’t be the key to attracting both genders, but with food the likes of which you’ll find at scarlet tea room, it’s proven easy to win the men.
fabulous food – served not only in the afteroon, but as evening tea, or for lunch or dinner. think of a mouth-watering menu that currently includes slow-roasted beet salad, lobster and crab soup with aged sherry, spiced chilean sea bass, and bananas foster bread pudding. oh, and the signature cake is red velvet, topped with cream cheese frosting and red rose petals. red may be your new favorite color!
besides food and an assortment of about 20 teas, there’s beer… wine… champagne… sake… and vodka-based cocktails – all elegantly served and even available during a happy hour that is now being offered to celebrate the tea room’s sixth anniversary. there’s often a special excuse to imbibe, with events to celebrate valentine’s week, mother’s day, father’s day, new year’s, etc. on a regular basis, there’s a pianist at the baby grand on friday nights and a jazz trio on saturday nights.
even the tiniest experience at scarlet tea room is special. while we enjoyed a mini tea at 5 in the afternoon, we heard everything from french music to tango to ‘it had to be you.’ our server brought a beer and a champagne to the table, followed by our choice of tea, tea sandwiches (pastrami/swiss and brie/walnuts/watercress), and berries romanoff with fresh strawberries and blueberries in a dark chocolate cup. delicious! it’s no surprise that scarlet tea room is the recipient of numerous ‘best of’ awards in the los angeles area.
(in addition to the mini tea, there is afternoon tea and evening tea, available in three courses or five courses. the five-course tea includes sorbet and petite desserts. evening tea includes a glass of champagne.)
we also ordered a scone that arrived with ah-ma-zing lemon curd, raspberry preserves, cream, and an edible orchid. the scone was a tasty finale to a lovely late afternoon treat. we left just before 6, knowing that soon it would be a well-attended saturday night at scarlet tea room. some nights, most guests order dinner; some nights it’s nearly three-quarters enjoying evening tea. whatever their choice, fine dining is deservedly part of the concept’s name, and it will undoubtedly be a night to remember.
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pasadena has its rose parade on new year’s day, but throughout the year, it has the tea rose garden, a tea shop that has been growing and thriving for almost 17 years. co-owned and run by sisters elizabeth and grace based on the vision of their sister susan, the concept is part floral shop, part tea room and part gift shop. step inside and be greeted by the scent of fresh flowers, steeping tea, and freshly baked scones – a winning combination.
on saturday afternoon, tea rose garden was humming with small groups of two or three and several events of 10 or 12, including one in the charming garden outside the back door, plus a group of 18 indoors. our own party of two consisted of myself and the only male in the room (jim), but we were assured that men are allowed, welcome, and even often come in to celebrate anniversaries with their wives or enjoy father-daughter festivities.
we learned that although pasadena is a tourist town, the tea at tea rose garden is often a family affair. many people who celebrate with a wedding shower return for anniversaries each year and then for baby showers, and as families have grown, popularity of the shop has grown, as well. also, word of mouth deservedly works. the owners grew up in korea, and they bring a lifelong love of tea and a great sense of hospitality to the table.
at our little table for two, we had a tiny bouquet of roses and a gerber daisy, a large fountain next to us, and a view of the refrigerator case of fresh flowers on one wall. visible also from our seats was the florist shop in the back of the tea room, also run by elizabeth and grace. there are a couple of tall gaslamps in the tea room and a sky-painted ceiling.
while the shop was mainly a gift shop when it opened, the tea segment grew quickly. with 40 teas and a tempting menu that lives up to its appeal, we could see why. presentation is also quite beautiful. flowers are part of every course, and the nasturtiums and pansies and mint leaves are all edible. flowers also float in the tall glasses of iced tea – almost too pretty to disturb.
we ordered a french plum black tea and a keemun tea, both poured into our flower-themed china cups from simple teapots. there were various afternoon teas to choose from. i chose the french tea, with a flower-topped green salad, ham and cheese croissant, fruit (orange, grapes, kiwi and strawberries) and chocolate mousse cake (decadent!). jim chose the english tea, with green salad, turkey-apple-watercress tea sandwich, sugar cookie and ginger scone. the devonshire cream was decorated with tiny bits of nasturtium.
all of the food was prepared so well, but we especially loved sharing the chocolate mousse cake and the scone. the owners plan to add evening hours for tea and dessert in the garden in the near future, and that can only mean even more success for this darling tea concept. we left with a tissue-wrapped bouquet of flowers and hopes that one day we’ll have dessert again at the tea rose garden.
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