Steeped in tradition

‘There’s always a tea party here, thanks to the many spots (some quite exotic) that serve a nice hot cuppa’

With all the parties, pageants, pressures and packed parking lots, it’s easy to get frazzled this time of year.

That’s when it’s time to meditate with a steaming hot cup of fragrant liquid. Sure, you could go the coffee route, but java seems a call to action. Tea, on the other hand, promises contemplation.

And tea is, well, hot, and that is reflected in the changing tea landscape in Chicago, with the new specialty tea shops and extensive restaurant tea programs joining the variety of ethnic tea experiences.

Chicago is not alone. According to the Tea Association of the U.S.A., total estimated sales of tea in the United States tripled, from $1.84 billion in 1990 to $5.55 billion in 2004.

“Tea is doing fantastically,” says Joe Simrany, the Tea Assocation’s president. “It’s growing along several different fronts.”

Fancy hotel holiday teas with their cushy chairs, relaxed pace and emphasis on sweet creamy accompaniments rank high on our list of tea-centered, holiday-season escapes. But these elaborate affairs are certainly not the only way to enjoy the lovely leaf.

So we set out to master a handful of tea drinking experiences, from a Chinese tea ceremony and Moroccan mint tea sipping to English afternoon tea.

Join us for a spot of tea.

Chinese tea ceremony

What: A careful, meditative ceremony that focuses on appreciating special tea and following precise customs.

Where: Dream About Tea, 1011 Davis St., Evanston; 847-864-7464

The tea: White, black, green, oolong, pu-erh and herbal.

The ritual: The ceremony begins with the presentation of a tiny teapot of unfinished clay and two miniscule matching cups. My young son and I watch from the comfy couch in our screened-off area of the tea room as co-owner Hung Wu heats the water, washes the pot then places the small nubbins of green tea in the receptacle. The ceremony is based on the type of tea you choose; we pick green ginseng ($26).

Wu then splashes water from a kettle all over the clay tray. This, we find out, is done to reveal a Taoist poem inscribed on the bottom of the tray; ours is about living in a remote cabin.

When the tea is poured, you should alternate pouring between the cups so neither gets a stronger brew, she says. As Wu serves, we learn the tea’s provenance (Fujian) as well as the proper way to steep, serve and drink the tea. Our green ginseng tastes of grass with a mediciney finish. We also learn that the Chinese tea ceremony never includes milk, sugar or food. But recognizing our hunger, Wu offers us two dates and two preserved plums.

The service is beautiful and certainly the most intense and meditative of the bunch. But if you are looking for a lavish tea-accompanied meal, you’re in the wrong place.

Three tea tips

1. When you accept a cup of tea from the pourer, to show respect, accept with both hands.
2. When you lift the tea cup to your mouth, hold your other hand palm up with your pinky near your chest to catch any spilled tea.
3. Before each sip, inhale the aroma.

Another Chinese tea ceremony

Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Co. of Chicago, 2247 S. Wentworth Ave., 312-842-1171. Folks who make reservations can enjoy the ceremony free on most weekdays at 9:30 a.m.

Afternoon tea

What: English afternoon tea, traditionally served with black tea, milk, sugar, cakes, sandwiches, scones and clotted cream.

Where: Drake Hotel, 140 E. Walton Place; 312-787-2200

The tea: Classic black teas, health teas, herbal and fruit blends.

The ritual: This time of year, afternoon tea at the Drake is hard to resist. As you duck in from the icy outdoors, you’re greeted by huge toy soldiers and the aroma of pine. The Christmas tree in the lobby sparkles and the harpist in the Palm Court plucks out carols near the fountain while sippers sit down to individual ceramic pots of tea, silver tea strainers and three tiers of elegant nibbles.

Unfortunately, the actual tea service ($28.50) disappoints. The scones are too smooth and brown, tea leaves slip straight through the silver strainers and I had to ask for milk. And this may be nitpicky, but when I request “afternoon tea” my server twice corrects me, calling it “high tea.” Just for the record, folks, “high tea” is the working-class English term for a hot supper.

Quibbles aside, this combo of tea, pound cake, scones, clotted cream, strawberry jam and assorted finger sandwiches (roast beef, ham and asparagus, egg salad and cucumber with tomato) is enjoyable enough–as is our robust and rejuvenating English Breakfast tea. But is it worth $72 (for two people including tip)? Not really. Our fave is still tea at the lobby of the Peninsula Chicago hotel, which offers much more food (including a hot souffle and free refills on the scones and such) for $26 a person.

Three tea tips

1. You can’t reserve a table for a party of fewer than six people, so expect a wait during peak (2-4 p.m.) times.
2. This is a holiday tradition for many, so focus on the traditions, not the food.
3. Be sure to use the Palm Court restroom, where each stall is like your own luxurious loo.

Other English-style teas

Atwood Cafe, 1 W. Washington St., 312-368-1900; Fairmont Hotel, 200 N. Columbus Drive, 312-565-8000; Four Seasons Hotel, 120 E. Delaware Pl., 312-649-2358; Hotel InterContinental, 505 N. Michigan Ave., 312-944-4100; Hotel Orrington, 1710 Orrington Ave., Evanston, 847-866-8700 (weekend teas only); Park Hyatt Chicago, 800 N. Michigan Ave., 312-335-1234; Peninsula Chicago, 108 E. Superior St., 312-573-6760; Ritz-Carlton Chicago, 160 E. Pearson St., 312-266-1000.

Middle Eastern tea

What: A strong tea that regulars often have with heavy cream–and cigarettes.

Where: Mataam al-Mataam, 3200 W. Lawrence Ave.; 773-463-0606

The tea: Part Persian loose leaf and part Lipton made with the double teapot method ($1).

The ritual: “So what do most people have with their tea here in the morning,” I ask the cheerful waitress at this Albany Park diner.

“A cigarette,” she says.

That’s pretty clear as I sit at the counter watching the mostly male regulars roll in for a sip and a puff and a chat with pals as Al-Jazeera news plays in the background.

Being a non-smoker, I choose to pair my strong sweet milky tea with a different Middle Eastern delight. I order eshtaa, a heap of thick heavy cream, served with a squeeze bottle of honey and warm toasted bread. This makes for a heavenly $5 breakfast.

As I watch the cooks make the tea with a two-pot system–one small pot full of concentrated tea on top and a large pot of boiling water underneath–I notice that just about everybody takes it the same way: with lots of sugar, some with a spot of evaporated milk. So I do too, sipping the comforting tea between bites of warm bread heavy with honeyed cream. Ahhhhh.

Three tea tips

1. Arrive hungry because this stuff is rich and filling.
2. Don’t go if you have a problem with cigarette smoke.
3. If you like the way the tea is brewed–with the samovar-like two pot system–consider stopping into Holy Land Bakery and Grocery next door, where they sell the stainless steel double pots for $28-$34 along with the Al-Wazah Middle Eastern tea and sets of tea glasses.

Other Middle Eastern tea

George’s Kabob, 3216 W. Lawrence Ave.; 773-588-1800. $1.

Moroccan tea service

What: A casual, afternoon tea experience of mint-scented green tea and pastries that is fairly unique to Morocco in North Africa.

Where: Casa Family Restaurant and Cafe, 4410 N. Kedzie Ave.; 773-267-5619

The tea: Moroccan mint tea is fresh or dried mint leaves, blended with black or green tea and plenty of sugar.

The ritual: When Souad Rezzahe pours Moroccan mint tea, she lifts the silver teapot high in the air as part of a spectacular, traditional show. “This gives the guest a chance to smell its fragrance and it lets the tea cool down a bit while also showing hospitality,” says Rezzahe, a partner in the restaurant.

Other countries in North Africa serve tea (often black), but the Moroccans are well known for their mint tea infusions, she says. “We have the best one.” Here it’s a blend of green tea infused with mint and mixed with sugar before it is served piping hot in a glass or a silver pot. Moroccan mint tea service at Casa comes with pastries and costs $3.99, providing a delicious and relaxing treat on a cold afternoon.

Tea drinkers can sit at one of the tables or recline on the pillows in one of the four tented dining areas sipping this fragrant brew and nibbling on biscotti or housemade pastries that vary by the day. On my visit, I get a dish of scrumptious chabbakeya–an almondy cookie made of nuts, rosewater, sesame seeds and honey.

Even with the studies showing possible links between green tea and cancer prevention, heart disease protection and even weight loss, some people find its bitter flavor hard to enjoy. But here, served with zingy mint, plenty of sugar and warm Moroccan hospitality, drinking healthily has rarely been more enjoyable.

Three tea tips

1. If you are pouring mint tea for someone from Fez or Rabat, only fill the glass half full (so as not to appear as if you’re rushing them along). Casablanca natives, however, take no offense at a full glass, according to Rezzahe.
2. Use napkins when you grab the hot handle of the silver pot, or better yet, let Rezzahe pour it for you and enjoy the fragrant show.
3. Even though this is mint tea, its blend of green tea contains caffeine that can add up after a few glass.

Other places for Moroccan mint tea

Marrakech Expresso, 4747 N. Damen Ave., 773-271-4541; Hashalom, 2905 W. Devon Ave., 773-465-5675, where it comes in a glass full of fresh mint and an orange pekoe tea bag.

Signature teas

What: Fine loose-leaf teas but also a host of specialty tea drinks.

Where: Argo Tea, 16 W. Randolph St.; 312-553-1551

The tea: From pumpkin chai to hibiscus

The ritual: With three locations in Chicago, Argo Tea seems to have its sights set on becoming the Starbucks of tea. The Randolph Street spot is hip and elegant, with a wide repertoire of fancy tea-based “signature drinks.”

We sample a half dozen, while folks around us chat, study and soak up the wireless on their laptops.

My British tea date isn’t impressed by the spiced chai, mate latte, pumpkin chai, mint chocolate and ultra-subtle white tea and hibiscus sipper–the last which he described as hot “Ribena,” a fruity English health drink. “None of them actually tastes like tea,” he complains.

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe this place is supposed to show the tea averse that if you add enough sweeteners, flavorings and frothy milk, tea can taste like liquid candy. Our “teapuccino-ish” drinks may not elicit spiritual meditations on tea preparation and provenance, but they taste pretty good.

Three tea tips

1. Those ubiquitous cups with the plastic tops may be great for drinking on the go, but if you get anything remotely tasty or aromatic here, remove the lid and let your nose enjoy the tea aroma as well.
2. If you are feeling like you might be falling under the weather, go for the hibiscus sipper. It’s soothing.
3. If you there’s a tea hater in your group, never fear; they also serve fabulous Illy coffee.

6 more tea times

N, 2977 N. Elston Ave.; 773-866-9898: This nightclubby spot famous for its Argentine tapas is also a great chill spot for Argentine mate tea and the country’s famous caramel filled cookies called alfajores.

NoMI in the Park Hyatt Hotel, 800 N. Michigan Ave., 312-239-4030: The restaurant is now serving vintage, aged and single-estate teas from all over the world, some aged in caves and cost up to $850 a pound.

Tahoora Sweets, 2345 W. Devon Ave.; 773-743-7272: For the most potent tea pick-me-up in the city go for chai masala. Here, the South Asian tea is blended with generous amounts of both hot whole milk and half & half. And it’s only 75 cents.

Tea Geschwendner, 1160 N. State St. 312-932-0639: With more than 300 teas to choose from, it’s easy to get intimidated. But manager Michael Simpson says he welcomes both newbies and tea snobs at this neat and fragrant little shop, a Germany-based franchise that arrived in Chicago seven months ago.

VTK, 6 W. Hubbard St.; 312-644-8664: Next month, the restaurant features “Make Your Own Tea Tuesdays,” Jan. 17, 24, and 31 as well as Thai Afternoon Tea, Jan. 14, 21, and 28, from 1- 4 p.m.

— M.E.–

Copyright (c) 2005, Chicago Tribune