By Stef Schwalb
Tea is the new coffee, in a matter of speaking. Its popularity and the diversity of flavors now available are giving java a run for its money and a jolt of great health benefits to converts like me. Though of course I still delve into a café mocha every once and a while as a sweet treat, after a wretched bout of the flu last year that seemed to be cut short once I over-consumed large amounts of green tea, I loyally sip at least two cups a day.
Tea has a long history that stems from its inception as a Far East favorite. It is rumored to have been “discovered” by a Chinese emperor whose boiling water accidentally had a tree leaf added to it. He found the addition delicious and started to include the leaves in his water on purpose. Travelers from China brought the new drink to Japan, and it is there that the elegant aspects of that culture incorporated their unique spin to it. As tea became a staple of everyday life in the nation, so did the “celebration” of it as the ritual Japanese Tea Ceremony was initiated.
Trade with other countries brought tea to Europe where England took a particular shine to it as well, and afternoon/high tea became a social standard. The beverage became quite popular in Russia and India, too. Europe brought tea to us here in the United States, and aside from that little dumping incident in Boston that lead to the Revolutionary War, most tea parties have embraced and thoroughly enjoyed the drink without much uproar. That quickly brings us to NYC, where in the past few years, tea salons and specialty shops have been sprouting up all over our island. Hot or cold, tea is a beverage worth talking about and its transformation from seemingly stodgy to socially sleek is something to be noted.
Fit to a Tea – Some Variations on the Theme
There are so many different types of tea out there that I won’t even begin to try and name them all. They come in numerous colors and flavors, but some of the basics include green, black, red (rooibus), chai, oolong, white, herbal/organic, and floral. There are so many variations on these flavor foundations, and since different cups taste unique to each palate and unique to each brew, instead of giving you my descriptions I’ll advise you on some places to go where experts can help you figure out what’s the best bet for you.
If you’re in the West Village, take a trip over to McNulty’s Tea & Coffee Company (www.mcnultys.com). They offer a wealth of knowledge on this subject. They can tell you how tea is grown and the different ways it is made, and they have choices of flavors that span the globe. To say that they offer specialty selections would be considered an understatement in terms of what you’ll find here. They have a long history in the field and a great reputation. Consider this: Their business was established in 1895 and is still brewing strong.
If you’re in Midtown on the west side, drop by Empire Coffee & Tea Company (www.empirecoffeetea.com). They also provide amazing tea imports from around the world, and a number of tea accessories can be purchased here as well. They have been around since 1908, and there are some neat gift baskets available for those who want to take a sampling of some offerings or give an already established tea lover something special. Most come with other sweet treats to savor at tea time as well.
If you’re heading to Midtown east, go no further than ITO EN (www.itoen.com), where Japan’s premier artisan of green teas has touched down on American soil. The store has over 75 rare and exquisite teas that come from a number of different countries. After making their selections, shoppers may sample one of the daily tea offerings or try a more elaborate demonstration at ITO EN’s polished cherry word tasting bar. A tea specialist is always on hand to answer any questions, and numerous tea accessories and supplements (i.e. books) are available too. The first product introduced to the states by ITO EN is TEAS’ TEA. This is a line of bottled unsweetened green tea beverages, including Pure Green, Golden Olong, and Green Hoji, among others. In addition, this store is attached to its serene sister restaurant Kai. It features Japanese cuisine inspired by the traditions of kaiskei, a meal made up of a number of small courses that according to custom follow the traditional tea ceremony.
Heading down to the Lower East Side? Take a trip to Teany (www.teany.com). Music maven Moby opened a vegetarian restaurant that focuses on tea and he started a company that distributes some creations inspired by it in addition. The cool, artisty presentation of the place and accessories you can purchase there, make the experience a bit more hip and happening than you ever thought tea could be. They offer loose leaf teas as well as bottled beverages. Some fab flavors include Herbal Citrus Cooler, Vanilla Berry Hibiscus, and Peach Berry Green Tea.
If you’re a Gramercy girl, the T Salon and T Emporium will be the sweet spot for you. Not only do they have over 200 teas to choose from and amazing accessories, Proper Afternoon Teas are held here for special events and parties. The décor is divine, the arrangements impeccable, and rates are reasonably priced per person. Innovative aspects to the industry can be found here as well, including the Pyramid Pouch translucent tea bag developed by T Salon owner and expert Miriam Novalle, and classes to attend at the T School. On a monthly basis, some of the courses include “How To Open Your Own Tea Salon,” “Cupping: A Workshop on Tea Tasting,” and “The Benefits of Tea.” www.tsalon.com
And available at your local favorite food marts like Whole Foods, Citarella, Fairway, and D’Agastinos is a new product I found that I think is totally worth mentioning as well. We all know by now the benefits of green, black, and red teas from all the health reports we’ve viewed on TV or read in the paper. But have you heard about the latest color to join the craze? White tea is becoming a hue that’s having a positive impact on people. Just in time for spring and summer, we stumbled upon Inko’s White Iced Tea (www.healtywhitetea.com). Being coined the new green tea by some industry insiders, white tea contains extremely high levels of antioxidants and is high in antibacterial agents, which means it’s great for your teeth. Inko’s has six flavors that are low in caffeine and are definitely making a savory splash. Among my favorites are the Honeydew, Blueberry, and Hint O’ Mint.
Tea for Two – Places to Sit and Sip
Some tea salons/spaces/restaurants worth noting in NYC include Tea & Sympathy in Greenwich Village, which transports you to England once you step inside the door as it’s complete with British food (in a good way) and an authentic afternoon tea. Speaking of afternoon tea, to experience it at the Plaza Hotel in Midtown, is an elegant New York memory worth the trek through traffic. The Tea Box, also in located in Midtown, nicely brings together Eastern and Western sensibilities in their afternoon tea offerings. The Wild Lily Tea Room is a Chelsea staple that’s serene and provides exquisite Asian fare. Lady Mendel’s Tea Salon is a Gramercy great that creates a tea experience echoing of English eras past. Alice’s Tea Cup on the Upper West Side is more laid-back approach to the tea experience and is great for kids and adults alike. The Tea Lounge in Park Slope, Brooklyn, serves as a serene space during the day and hot spot in the evening hours.
For further information on everything tea, check out www.1stfortea.com. There’s a wealth of knowledge to be absorbed there. Take-home teas I indulge in? I love everything Yogi Tea (www.yogitea.com) since there are special blends for EVERYTHING that ails you; Stash Tea (www.stashtea.com) for everyday use that tastes way above the ordinary; and of course, Celestial Seasonings (www.celestialseasonings.com) because I love that bear and the many options his line of teas entails. I hope this information is helpful no matter what your cup of tea!
Tea & Sympathy (212) 807-8329
Plaza Hotel (212) 759-3000
The Tea Box Cafe (212) 350-0100
The Wild Lily Tea Room (212) 691-2258
Lady Mendel’s Tea Salon (212) 533-4466
Alice’s Tea Cup (212) 799-3006
The Tea Lounge (718) 789-2762