KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Samovar Tea Lounge
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Thursday, January 03, 2008
Samovar Tea Lounge
Sometimes it seems if you're not up on the latest, newest restaurant, or are lagging behind while chasing San Francisco's food wordsmiths about what's happening right now, you might miss what's incredible. In the Bay Area you could miss The Dish everyone's talking about if you're not in 30 places on one night. So many restaurants here change their menus daily, and seasonally-- more than any city/ region I've ever cooked in, that it can take years to taste it all, plus there's always another eatery opening-- it makes our heads spin trying to keep them all straight.

Whew! All the head-spinning can blur what's right in front of us: a neighborhood joint, a down-to-earth 50 seat house, or the corner place you pass by every day on your way to work. In these Off-Broadway or Off-Off Broadway stages there are great plates going out every day, every night, year after year. The food is good or great, or it's consistent. The chef is famous or not, and the cooks on the line want to be chefs one day or they continue to collect the paycheck that keeps their family fed.

As a professional cook it's important for me to read and eat and meet new restaurants. But the dishes I crave, the dining rooms I want to have a good conversation in, are rarely those I've eaten at once. Anything can be amazing once. But how does that dish taste month after month, year after year?

Samovar Tea Lounge was going strong at 18th and Sanchez at the edge of The Castro District when I "discovered it" a few years ago. It didn't need me to talk about it's specialness. It's busy morning, noon and evening. People inside are studying, knitting, reading, sipping, recovering, dating, scoping, listening and imbibing. Samovar's food menu is straightforward and small, changing slightly with the seasons. There are breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner and high tea offerings. Tea service menus include food and tea in a theme and they are always gracious about letting you order one of the components from these packages with another dish.

My absolute favorite dish is what Samovar calls their egg bowl. Two delicately poached eggs lay next to mounds of flavorful rice and are garnished with the protein of your choice; smoked duck, salmon and tofu are often in rotation, and there's a little ramekin of fresh ginger grated in soy sauce. I'm also a big fan of their house-made scones (some of the best in the Bay Area as far as I'm concerned!), not just because the little bowl of clotted cream for spreading is the real deal.

Of course tea is Samovar's main attraction. From their website,

"Our goal is to create a company that is good for this world. We partner with tea experts and suppliers from small family farms and estates, and local businesses and organizations. Through our service and environment we aim to embody the tea lifestyle and provide a place for our customers to escape, relax, and be healthy."

I know little about tea intellectually. But on a recent visit I drank a Keemun that silenced me. Not being a tea sophisticate I like my black tea with milk. Samovar's staff are well trained, thoroughly knowledgeable and never judgmental. The woman who brought me this tea for which I am not worthy poured hot water into a tiny clear glass dollhouse teapot filled with twiggy leaves and immediately upon filling it poured the barely steeped liquid into a small, handle-less tea cup. She explained that this Keemun was so strong, even a 5 second steep would render the flavor too strong!

I sit here before you to report that this Keemun was not made better by milk. Brew of the gods. Hot liquid like no other. I didn't want to tell you because then there would be less for me. But then I thought you might not believe that Samovar, the place you barely see, the place producing no beeps on your radar screen, was as special as I said, if I did not tell you about this hot elixir, this liquid manna.

At Samovar I have been introduced to two other favorite teas I drink weekly. I go for flavor profiles which list pine, dark, rich, earth, chocolaty, peat, smoky and velvet as possible evocations. If you and I have anything in common, I suggest Pu-erh or Black Velvet.

There's now a second location of Samovar Tea Lounge in the Yerba Buena Gardens. It's located on top of the Martin Luther King Jr. fountain and although encased in glass, this location is as warm an environment as their original. You can buy some of the teas they offer, although when I made an inquiry about the Keemun they said it was too new to the menu to have packaged it yet, and there was no promise that it would be. Samovar's commitment to freshness is amazing and some of the more rare teas will only ever be available if you are drinking them there.

Sometimes I want to go where it's quiet. I enjoy the trust I feel in these places and feel grateful that they continue to survive in San Francisco-- a city not known for it's ease when it comes to owning and operating food businesses. I desire familiar food that's consistently good and sometimes blows my mind. I have a hankering for a little sameness and a dash of surprise.

And when it's time to take a break of trying the latest thing, I hope you'll take cover from the hustle and bustle, or just the fog, and give Samovar a try, even if it's a pot of tea. I can {almost} guarantee your pleasure at doing so.

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Blogger Sam said...

Hmm - interesting - I must give it another try - i almost did before Christmas but it wasn't open late enough for the occasion in mind. When I went there for a Brit friends birthday tea party a few years back it failed the Brit tea test - but heh! Why should it have to be authentic anyway? Btw Devonshire double cream and clotted cream are not quite the same thing so I am a little bit confused by their website description of the English tea.

which location do you prefer?

1/03/2008 2:30 PM

Blogger shuna fish lydon said...

Hello Sam,

Indeed, Samovar could very well fail the British tea test, but at least you have Lovejoy's, right?

As someone who does know the difference between clotted cream and Devonshire Double Cream I can not speak to the Samovar website, I can only speak to the actual dairy condiment I have been served-- gorgeous, no matter what the test.

I prefer 18th street but mostly because it will forever hold so many gorgeous loving and also bittersweet memories from tea people I love. I'm doggedly loyal, but I have also begun to make some new memories at Yerba Buena Gardens.

I hope, no matter what location you pick, you give them an open-minded chance to please you in other ways even if they cannot pass a Brit tea test. Tea is beloved for many a culture.

1/03/2008 11:53 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Failed the British Tea Test?!"

Give me a break.

Having been to London and traveled extensively across the British Isles I can say that "British" high tea is anything but a singular, consistent experience. High Tea at Claridges, for example ($200 USD per person) is charming but by no means uniquely or exclusively British affair. Their teas hail from the regions OUTSIDE England and moreover Clairidges cuisine is influenced by locations such as Polynesia and Japan. Last year I had passion fruit and green tea mousse?!

With a name such as Samovar, the message should be clear to all who enter -- the patron is thankfully OUTSIDE the British Empire. And let us not forget that tea is decidedly NOT English. Tea's origins are Indian, Persian and Chinese. The term itself The or Tea comes from Chai or Chai'i (or 'that which is from Chai.") The term itself invokes the word "China."

Funny, but I don't recall the words "England, Britain, UK, Pommie, Limie or Brit" having anything remotely to do with tea or tea growing.

If you want an authentic TEA experience, I recommend Samovar highly. If you'd rather eat deep fried blood pudding w/ a warm beer and bag of crisps while shouting w/ your hooligan mates, then i recommend staying back in London.


1/04/2008 9:34 AM

Blogger Sam said...

thanks Shuna - just you wait til you get my clotted cream recipe ;)

Of course I will give them another try with an open mind. Maybe I'll go with you?

1/04/2008 9:44 AM

Anonymous kudzu said...

I learned about pu-erh years ago from my Chinese cooking teacher when she and I frolicked through Chinatown on food shopping trips, always beginning with morning dim sum. She raught me that it is the perfect tea to sip with the multi tastes of a dim sum service and she is right. I find it a wonderful brew at any time, and always hear the cacaphony of the big restaurant we favored as I drink it. I will have to give your Samovar a visit when I can get into the city through the floods!

1/04/2008 3:18 PM

Blogger Catherine said...

Thanks for the tip, Shuna. It sounds wonderful. I want to check this out.

1/06/2008 10:50 AM

Blogger Sam said...

Anonymous - the words you should be using are actually "Afternoon Tea", not "High Tea". High Tea, which I grew up on, is actually a working class dinner-like meal at around 6pm and has nothing whatsoever to do with polite little fingers holding bone china cups and scones with clotted cream.

I do apologise, I didn't explain myself quite adequately in my first comment. I should have said that the English part of Samovar's menu failed the Afternoon tea test from several Brit's points of view.
On our visit we were served up sandwiches the size of door steps made with stale bread instead of the delicate kind of sandwiches we expected with something described as English. It wasn't that they got it wrong that caused the dissatisfaction, it was that they did a very poor job of delivery.

I see now from Samovar's website that instead of sandwiches they serve Quiche - a French dish - as part of their English Tea Service. In terms of authenticity this would be something like selling an "American Burger" made from kangaroo meat.

But like I remarked previously - I don't think things should have to be authentic anyway. If people are enjoying heir English tea with quiche, then good for them. For me, when I revisit Samovar, I will try something which I have less set cultural expectations about and probably will enjoy it just fine.

And if I need a fix of English Afternoon Tea that's more as I'd expect it to be, like Shuna suggested I'd go to Lovejoys or better still make it myself.

1/08/2008 7:48 PM


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