Easy being green ...

Easy being green ...

and white, yellow, black and red at Chado Tea Room

By Erica Wayne 04/16/2014

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I usually assume that restaurants are as fixated on food as I am. But, at Chado Tea Rooms (there are branches of Chado in Pasadena, Hollywood, in downtown LA at the Japanese American National Museum, and even, according to their Web site, in Mumbai, India), it’s obvious that the menu, albeit good, is still secondary to their main focus: the sale of fine teas and the education of their clientele as to the complexities thereof. 
When I first visited Pasadena’s Chado (the company’s second location), soon after its opening a decade or more ago, their simple sandwich menu took up only a single page while available teas formed a 40-page list. Nowadays, the menu spans six or so leaves and includes soup, salads, sandwiches, a couple of Indian dishes, assorted panini, a chicken burger and a full page of (mostly baked) desserts. But the expansion of the annotated booklet “Chado the Way of Tea” has surpassed it, with pages now nearing 100! 

Chado’s ambiance is formal. Glass-covered white cloths and napkins, delicate English China and tea steeped in individual floral pots. The dining room has ample space, but the ceiling-high dark wood shelves along the south wall, their compartments crammed with glass canisters filled with tea leaves, are reminiscent of old-fashioned apothecary shops (or contemporary herbal dispensaries for medicinal “teas” you can only get with a doctor’s prescription). There are also displays of ornate china cups, teapots and other teatime paraphernalia for sale.

The tea booklet, a full manual really, is so fascinating that I bought my own copy. First it explains the company name. “Chado is pronounced ‘sado’ in Japanese. It comes from the Chinese words CHA (‘tea’) and TAO (‘way’) and translates ‘way of tea.’ It refers not just to the Japanese tea ceremony, but also to an ancient traditional practice that has been evolving for 5,000 years or more.” 

It goes on to explain that “Tea is quiet and calms us as we enjoy it. No matter who you are or where you live, tea is sure to make you feel better and more civilized. No pleasure is simpler, no luxury less expensive, no consciousness-altering agent more benign. Chado is a way to health and happiness that people have loved for thousands of years.” 

After the introductory remarks come sections on black tea, oolong, green tea, yellow tea, white tea, pu-erh tea, Chinese compressed tea, flavored tea, wine-inspired tea, display tea, tisanes and herbal blends, brick tea, fermented tea, medicinal tea, tea grading and even household uses for tea. Did you know, for example, that “mismatched stockings can be soaked in tea to give them a uniform golden tint?” There’s a list of shapes with their meanings to help me read tea leaves, and the entire growth cycle of Darjeeling is detailed (p. 28). 

FYI, Chado charges $9 for an ounce of some of the best “second flush” Darjeelings described (pp. 29-30). And, if you think that’s expensive, check out the price of the store’s high-end organics, which range from $16 to $28 an ounce. But these are outliers; most of the 300 or so stocked varietals are much less costly. For example, an ounce of organic Chinese “gunpowder’ green tea is only $1.01.

I love Chado’s mix and match policy on sandwiches. For $7.95 you get a side salad and two sandwiches, one filled with smoked chicken breast with cranberry/lingonberry sauce and another of goat cheese, watercress and olive basil spread. Or egg salad made with lapsang souchong tea-marinated eggs or cucumber with cream cheese and green onion or smoked salmon with lemon and baby dill ($3 surcharge). 

Salads are similarly priced. Nine of 10 are $7.95. My favorites are cranberry (greens, dried cranberries, wild rice, pulled smoked chicken and pomegranate dressing); Mediterranean (greens, onions, cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, feta and balsamic vinegar) and smoked salmon ($3 extra). You can add housemade tomato basil soup to a sandwich or salad lunch for a mere $2.

While Chado is nowhere near as fru fru as Rose Tree Cottage, Tea Rose Garden, Four Seasons in Sierra Madre or the (alas) recently closed Scarlet Tea Room, I still have a vague feeling that I should be wearing hat and gloves, especially when indulging in afternoon tea: Four assorted half-sandwiches, a scone with fresh fruit garnish, cream and jam, a cookie and a slice of cake served on a tiered tray plus a pot of tea of your choice. And they mean it. You can pick any one they stock.

There’s the rub. You could easily spend the entire afternoon making that decision. On my last visit, after poring over the stupefying list of possibilities, I finally settled on “T-42” (Namring upper muscatel SFTGFOP-1), described on p. 30 as “a perfect combination of ‘Wind, Water and Earth.’ Rich aroma, exquisite bouquet, muscatel flavor, wine-like taste and an outstanding aftertaste … A treat for a special occasion.” My friend, Pam, who volunteers at the LA Zoo chose S-331, “monkey-picked oolong” (p. 46), which isn’t. Its name indicates the difficulty in harvesting it from its original site in the Wuyi Mountains.

The selection of tea is not to be made cavalierly. In other “afternoon tea” restaurants scone varieties may often exceed those of available teas (which frequently are bagged rather than loose). Like fine wines, the appreciation of fine teas requires an educated palate gained only by sampling and savoring a large number. Chado is a perfect venue for such education. 

Unfortunately, I haven’t heard mention of formal tea classes at Chado, although they do have a limited eight-tea tasting, which you can purchase with afternoon tea and which is accompanied by explanations of the different types provided by a well-schooled server. Classes would certainly be a welcome addition. However, with the book as a guide, a few visits with a few friends willing to trade cups and comments should put you on the path to enlightenment about the nuances, subtleties and benefits of tea, green and other. n

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