Cafe Society

Tea Time

Like most addicts, I always know where I'm likely to get my next fix. At any given moment, I can tell you exactly where the nearest dealer is, and I often plan my day around taking time out for a quick high. Of course, I could quit any time -- if I could withstand the agony of withdrawal, the crushing headaches and mood swings, the snacking and resulting weight gain, the terrifying sense that I might never be able to write another word.

The pushers of my drug of choice? Starbucks. Peaberry's. Boyer's. Diedrichs.

Forget the energy crisis -- a coffee shortage would do this country in. In a culture determined to make us faster, richer, hipper and better, a beverage designed to get us jiggy wit' it was bound to become our drink of choice. But it hasn't made us smarter. Although we pay a lot of lip service to stopping to smell the flowers, in reality, it takes the average American four cups of coffee just to get through the day. The myth is that coffee helps us in some way, but studies of caffeine's effect on the body indicate that it merely puts the brain on a roller coaster, and the only way to feel better after coming down from that last cup of coffee is to have another.

If coffee is the symbol of what ails us, then tea just may be our hope for a cure.

Tea isn't just hot water poured over some dried leaves. It's little girls in lace-edged dresses with big bows in their hair pouring teeny cups for teddy bears. It's ancient Chinese doctors blending the fruits of the earth to cure flesh and British nannies snatching a few minutes for themselves in the kitchen. It's a Zen koan and the Pope's drink of choice, a ceremony and a getaway, the trance of a reader foretelling destiny. It's mint for a stomachache and chamomile for a bad hair day, ginseng for looming deadlines, catnip when you miss them. And it's starting to look like the last island of civility in a sea of insanity where you find yourself wishing there were eight more hours in the day just so you could get more done.

If there were truly more time in the day, we could take more time out for tea.

I'm not talking Lipton's here, or even Celestial Seasonings. The topic of tea is much, much broader than that, an agricultural marvel on par with wine-making and mushroom cultivation. Tea is grown all over the world, with the vast majority coming from Asia. A brew made from just-picked leaves would be too rough on the throat; the oils in the leaves mellow after they've been "withered" on cloth-covered racks until nearly dry, then tossed in baskets or machines so that the oils are spread around and a kind of fermentation begins. When the leaves turn darker and richer, they're fired -- in a wok on small-batch farms, in a huge oven in more industrial operations -- to halt the fermentation process. The leaves are then graded according to their condition: There are the loose, perfect leaves that are sold as premium, then the broken leaves, and finally the "fannings" -- essentially dust that's used in tea bags.

There are four basic types of teas: black, smoked, flavored and blended. Yes, some contain caffeine, but not as much as coffee -- although a few black ones come close. Still, within the types are many, many ways to relax, slow down and get into a better frame of mind, either through an herbal concoction such as chamomile or echinacea, or through scents and flavors that soothe or invigorate.

There's no more soothing, elegant spot in town to sit back and enjoy a cup of tea than Oaks & Berries Tea Room, a genteel escape located in the Historic Holiday Chalet Bed & Breakfast on Colfax Avenue. A three-story brownstone built in 1896, the Historic Holiday Chalet boasts rooms filled with antiques -- many of them found in the basement by owner Margot Crowe, whose grandparents bought the building in 1912. Several of those rooms are set aside for tea, with linen-covered tables topped by beautiful mismatched china cups and saucers.

Tea here is in the hands of the gracious and charming Roxanne Mays, a former manager of afternoon teas at the Brown Palace. Not only does Mays cook, serve and pour, but she also researches and finds the interesting teas offered at Oak & Berries -- the leaves come from World Market -- such as the lapsang souchong, a smoky tea that smelled like a campfire but tasted like a honey-sweetened walk through the woods. That tea provided an interesting counterpoint to the homemade potato-leek soup, a thick, creamy concoction that was as comforting as Mays's welcoming manner.

Oaks & Berries offers two soups each day, which are included in the $17 tea service. We'd have gladly paid extra, though, for the tomato brew we tried, made from fresh tomatoes and basil. Tea also includes mini-scones with jam and clotted cream -- sometimes known as Devon or Devonshire cream, in other countries it's made from unpasteurized milk that's been heated until the semi-solids separate and thicken; in this lawsuit-crazed country, it's pasteurized, which takes away some of the rich edge -- along with finger sandwiches filled with smoked meats, savory cheese spreads and fresh fruit, and decadent cookies and pastries from my favorite bakery, Gateaux. To go with the food, there's an ever-changing roster of six or seven teas; our choices at tea time included a heady peach ambrosia and a mellow peppermint ginseng. Mays knew just when each brew was at its peak in the pot, and she poured the tea through strainers into our cups. Then all that was left for us to do was kick back, snack and soak up the peaceful surroundings.

While tea at Oak & Berries felt like a quiet respite in an old, beloved auntie's home, tea at A Spot of Tea was more reminiscent of what you'd find at an authentic British teahouse. Owners Fran and Bion Allen bought the concept from the original Spot of Tea -- which sat on 32nd Avenue -- a year ago and moved it to the Linscott House on 34th Avenue, a whimsically painted Victorian complete with walnut wood-pocket doors, velvet window treatments and antique tea sets in old curio cabinets. Several rooms are available for tea and dining, and the Allens manage to work these rooms efficiently while still conveying a sense of grace.

Spot of Tea does more of a regular lunch business than many tearooms, and its offerings are also expanded. The chicken pot pie brought tender chicken and fresh vegetables chunks in a light, creamy gravy, all hidden by a flaky biscuit-like crust; the pie came with a cup of cheese-thickened tomato Florentine soup. Spot of Tea also serves sandwiches and salads -- the tarragon chicken salad, a sweet and savory mixture filled with the crunch of nuts and grapes, was a stunner -- as well as a daily quiche and the quintessential Brit ploughman's platter, with assorted cheeses, smoked turkey, bread and pickles.

The teas at Spot of Tea come from Harney & Sons and involve about two dozen choices. There's the Eight at the Fort blend, made from eight teas to commemorate 1997's Summit of the Eight, and a stress-relieving verveine odorante, a bold, tangy lemon verbena herbal infusion. You get your pick with the tea service you choose. Cream tea -- the name refers to tea served with scones, jam and clotted cream -- comes with homemade scones, including a moist, sweet apricot-and-currant version. Dessert tea brings miniature pastries; the unusual green and yellow cheesecake was a wonder. And a savoury tea is all about those little finger sandwiches, of which there can never be enough. The day we visited, Spot of Tea's savoury option featured deviled ham, chicken salad, egg salad and walnut bread with cream cheese, along with a cluster of grapes and an orange slice.

The details are what can make a tea so special, and for the little girls in our group, the Alice in Wonderland tea, with its PB&J finger sandwiches and precious cookies and cakes, was a delight. The girls' arms shook as they tried (successfully, it turned out) to pour their own tea; their eyes lit up when, at the end of the tea, tiny dolls were their reward for good behavior. And as they bounded out of the house, wondering when we'd be going back for tea, I couldn't help but think that we'd never bonded in a Starbucks.

Rehab, here I come.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner