The stinging disappointment of poor tea service used to wash over me time and time again in the 90’s. I particularly remember a time many years ago when a friend and I were dining at a swanky steak house in Edmonton.
I had suggested we cap off the exceptional meal with a nice pot of tea to settle our stomachs – we had unduly gorged ourselves and I was feeling just a tad bloated. Ike wholeheartedly agreed and I summoned the waiter for his tea selection. He reappeared momentarily with a little wicker basket. It yielded the following choices (I remember this clearly): Red Rose, Twinnings Earl Grey, Stash peppermint, and some unknown chamomile. I recall the feeling of being let down, disregarded, even placated.
I looked at Ike, while he looked at me, both of us thinking the very same thing – what a truly lame offering from such a great restaurant. Feeling somewhat like I was backed into a corner, I selected the Earl Grey and Ike chose the Red Rose.
Less then a minute passed and the tea arrived in those drippy flip lid stainless steel pots. The water was barely steaming and had a fizzy foam on top. I knew exactly what I was in for – stereotypical restaurant tea service (horrid). If you recall, these small pots would lose a third of their precious cargo on the tablecloth while you poured. It was ultimately a dismal failure from beginning to end.
However, I don’t forget these things, and neither do a lot of my brethren. Because tea is probably the last item your palate will taste before leaving any dining establishment, chances are it will leave more of an impression on you than the two sides accompanying the main course, or even the main course itself.
And sadly, this is where most chefs completely miss the boat. This is a squandered opportunity – a brief chance to raise the bar on a component of the dining experience that can leave an indelible impression.
Fortunately, time has a way of healing all open wounds. Today, nearly a decade since this memorable tea experience, I can see a small shimmering light at the end of that tepid tunnel.
It was, nonetheless, a recent trip to Winnipeg that surely surprised the hell out of me. I dined at three popular eateries in Winnipeg and was served loose-leaf tea each time. We are not talking about those pseudo tearoom/teahouse restaurants that have a full menu, but call themselves a tea spot, but rather a cross-section of the entire dining spectrum. I went to a crowded pancake house on a Saturday morning, a modern bistro, and arguably Winnipeg’s finest restaurant – 529 Wellington. At the end of each meal, I was offered a full (and separate) TEA MENU – a well-written, nicely organized card with upwards of 30+ loose-leaf teas.
In one case, I ordered a Darjeeling and my colleague, Bob, ordered a rooibos. Our tea arrived in less than three minutes in the trendy new BrewT teapot. The young lady took the time to explain the workings of the device and when to pour – I mean dispense – the tea (the device sits on top of your cup and drops the tea straight down into it). She also said we could refill the BrewT as often as we like. I would be lying if I told you that I kept my excitement in check with the spectacle unfolding in front of me. I asked a couple of questions and let her run off to another table. I looked around and saw many more tables with people sipping tea from BrewTs.
It then dawned on me; this was the image I had in that steak house of what tea service might be like in the future. Beautifully crafted loose-leaf infusions, properly prepared and served in modern brewing devices by knowledgeable staff.
So the future was happening here, now, in a hip bistro on Academy Road, in the bustling early morning in a 300-seat pancake house in the burbs, and in a large renovated turn-of-the-century mansion whose many rooms were converted into plush dining nooks.
It is time for the leaves to unfurl again, to escape the confines of the paper sac and wow the many unsuspecting palates of today’s sophisticated beverage generation.
How can you help perpetuate this? Ask for loose leaf every time you go out to dine – whether they have it or not.