On to part two of my wonderful day in SF!
As I was saying, I was on my way to see a tea wholesaler. Actually, it was much more interesting than that. I was on my way to drink high-quality teas with a tea importer/teaware designer, who happens to be an artist on the side. Exciting!
I met Chongbin Zheng of Red and Green Company at the World Tea Expo last weekend. His company is based in SF, so when I told him I would be visiting SF this week, he was kind enough to invite me to enjoy some of his fine teas with him. I already knew through my friend Beau of Ito En that Chongbin is a Chinese calligraphy painter who shows his work around the world. Tea and art are two of my favorite things, so I was more than glad to accept Chongbin's invitation for tea.
As I walked from Samovar to Red and Green Company, I wondered what the office would be like. I was surprised by what I found. It was tucked away in an unassuming building. Inside, there was a small, dim meeting room, with two chairs, a low table, and some shelves. The focus of the room was clearly on what filled the shelves--hundreds of gorgeous Yi Xing pots, jade bowls, and carved wooden serving trays. I was pleased to learn that Chongbin used his art background to design the majority of these beautiful pieces of teaware. After I spent some time looking at the teaware, Chongbin offered me some of tea. Over the next few hours, we drank three exquisite Chinese teas. My personal favorite was the King's Wild Forest Oolong, which is harvested from the wild only once a year in remote regions of China. It made me want to plan a trip to China as soon as I get back from India. Delicious. Over tea, we talked about the ethics of tea buying and growing, trends in the tea industry, and all kinds of other tea geekiness. I'm glad to report that Red & Green is a very ethical company with some excellent teas, beautiful teaware, an intelligent and thoughtful owner, and (as I already knew from my days at Takashimaya) packaging that people love. It was great to get to talk with Chongbin and I look forward to seeing him at the Fancy Food Show next month.
After tea, I took a walk around the Castro, then hopped on a bus to the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. After exploring them a bit, I moved on to my real target: The Japanese Tea Garden. I had read about Japanese tea gardens before. I knew that they were very carefully designed so that each path provided the visitor with a range of visual plays/surprises throughout. What I didn't realize is JUST HOW BEAUTIFUL this is. You round a corner from one direction and you see a simple tuft of bamboo next to a Japanese maple. You might see bamboo leaves give way to a bridge, which (as you walk further) reveals more trees, and then (further yet) a pond with stepping stones, statues, and koi. Hidden in the greenery, there are rocks and statues that you may only be able to see if walking from one specific place to another. Walk a different path and you'll have a completely different experience. It's more witty (in the sense that it is intelligent and in the sense that it is amusing) than most of the supposedly witty art in SF MoMA. (And I love SF MoMa. Just not as much as NYC's MoMA.) At $4 admission and $3 for (OK) tea, (tasty) crackers, and (decent) cookies, I'd highly recommend it.
When the tea garden closed, I took a bus through Haight-Ashbury into town. I visited a cool used bookstore (where I found a copy of All the Tea in China for $9!), then walked to a restaurant to eat dinner.
This restaurant isn't just "a restaurant," it's Absinthe, quite possibly my one of my very favorite restaurants. It also happens to be where my good friend Justin works. I was seated in his section, so I got the lowdown on all the best veggie options. The meal began with the basics--bread and butter. The bread was fresh and whole grain, but the butter was divine. I don't even LIKE butter most of the time, but I was loving this. Then, I had a refreshingly frou-frou non-alcoholic beverage from their famed "bar chef" staff. It was a layered concoction made with ginger beer, lemonade, and cranberry juice. Yum! Next was the soup, a chilled English pea soup with mint oil and cream. It was perfect after being out in the sun all afternoon. The soup was followed by grilled portabella mushroom slices, grilled to the point of charring with balsamic vinegar and a parsley/garlic puree. Very nice. My favorite dish was the camembert with black truffle oil. It was a small plate with warm camembert, toasted walnuts, and a fresh, in-house-baked fruit and nut bread drizzled with black truffle oil. So simple, but SO GOOD. I ended the meal with a pot de creme with creme fraiche. It was made with Scharfen Berger, which is not my favorite chocolatier, but it was still excellent.
Sounds great, right? But I know what you're thinking. "No tea?" Nope. They have tea on the menu. From the description of the food, you'd think they might have a fresh shincha, a malty second-flush Assam, a full-flower chamomile, and some other tea goodies but, like most restaurants, their tea does not match their food. They have a few selections from Might Leaf. I don't have anything against Might Leaf--they make good quality bagged teas--but after a camembert and black truffle oil small plate, you really want something a little more, you know, special. I decided that I'd had enough tea for the day (Wait, what am I saying? Is that even possible?) and walked to a park near my friend's house to read some of All the Tea in China.
Despite the tea let-down at the very end of the day, today was really amazing. It left me wondering how my travels ever revolved around things other than tea.
Tomorrow, I get to see formal gaiwan and gong-fu cha ceremonies. Yes!