All of my tea afternoons this spring have been spent at Teance. It’s dear to me. It’s the place where I took my first formal tea class, where the employees and I talk about schools and life and other things. But now that I’ve tried almost every tea there, I thought I should venture out a bit. To see the world, so to speak.
Last week was my first time drinking at Imperial Tea Court. I’ve been at Imperial before and had some green onion pancake as thin as a business card and some kind of cold noodle. I wasn’t too excited by their food. But they seemed to have a lot of tea, so I came back. Let’s focus on the tea part for now:
MENU: Imperial indeed has many teas, but so does Teance (Teance has more oolongs, Imperial has more blacks). I didn’t count the lists but the numbers wouldn’t differ by more than 5. The difference is in the description: Imperial gives generic descriptions:: “sweet”, “smooth”, “lingering”, etc., and tends to emphasize the “imperial-ness” in naming their teas (“Imperial Dragon Well”, “Imperial Silver Needle”, “Imperial Chai”, “Imperial Breakfast” – what does this even mean?! the list goes on…); meanwhile, Teance gives specific description: e.g., “Rich and complex, light floral notes; grown at 1600 meters.” (High Mountain Light Roast). Which one sounds more informative and reliable to you?
TASTING: Imperial requires reservation and a minimum of 4 people because they have to have a person come in and do the demonstration. Teance doesn’t require that, you can just walk in by yourself. I like the flexibility.
COST: Imperial charges $5 for a gaiwan, and Teance charges $7 for a gaiwan (multiple steeping with the same amount of leaf) and $5 for a single tasting. But Imperial charges $3 extra for sharing (I don’t know if it’s $3 per person or $3 for both, because the hostess wasn’t clear and Kristen and I weren’t in the mood for paying extra). Simply put, I hate places that charge extra for sharing.
PRESENTATION & SERVICE:
The procedure of gongfu tea that I’ve learned at Teance is as follows: 1. warm gaiwan/teapot, server and cups; 2. rinse tea (this step depends on the kind of tea); 3. steep; 4. pour from gaiwan/teapot into server; 5. serve in cups. Warming and rinsing ensure that the leaves properly open up and release the flavors.
The service at Teance, whether you sit at the bar or at the tables upstairs, follows these steps. The bar at Teance is designed with drainage so that you can freely pour water and warm your tea set.
At Imperial, you get a cold gaiwan already containing 1 teaspoon of tea and a kettle of hot water. The hostess brings them to your table on a tray but then she takes the tray away, so you can’t warm your gaiwan because the tea is already in there, and you can’t rinse your tea because there’s no place to pour the rinsing water out.
What also bothers me at Imperial is that they expect you to drink straight out of the gaiwan. This doesn’t make sense because:
1. The steeping temperature for oolong, hong cha, and puer is 205°F, that’s boiling water. How can one drink boiling water, let alone taste anything but burnt?
2. Say you have a normal tongue that you don’t want to burn with boiling water, you have to wait for the tea to cool in the gaiwan. That means the tea steeps for at least 3 minutes. If your tea is of high grade, it will surely oversteep (many sensitive teas steep for under 1 minute). So if you drink tea from a gaiwan at Imperial, either Imperial teas are not of high grade, or your tea turns bitter and dry.
3. Say you drink green tea, which steeps at 165°F and you don’t need to burn yourself drinking without waiting. But most green teas are sensitive and steep for very short times (for instance, Bi Luo Chun takes 20 seconds), that means you need to down the whole gaiwan in one gulp or you oversteep at least some of your tea, or again, the quality of your tea is about that of a tea bag and you never have to worry about oversteeping it.
I did not want to oversteep my Lapsang Souchong or my Zi Sun, so I asked the lady for a cup. She brought a cup. Then I had to ask again for a server.
No matter how I look at it, Teance seems more professional than Imperial.
SETTING: Imperial looks more Chinese and restaurant-like, Teance looks more modern and tea-house-like.
Now before I’m a tea enthusiast, I’m a food enthusiast, and Imperial also serves a number of savory dimsum and noodle soups, so let’s also talk food.
Kristen and I ordered some “Dragon Well green tea pork dumpling” ($9) and a niu ro mien ($10), intending to start our meal with the dumplings & zi sun pair and go on to the niu ro mien & lapsang souchong pair(*). Well, beside not tasting like tea (which is understandable, green tea can hardly be discernible in food, and savory food at that), the dumplings are cold. I hate nothing more than cold dumplings. It’s worse than cold gaiwan and charging extra for sharing. The noodle soup is good, though.
So yeah, I’ll cozy up at Teance again. I haven’t crossed Imperial off my list for good. There are a few teas at Imperial that Teance doesn’t carry, and for learning purposes, I need to try everything. After I try all of them, maybe I’d go there if I happen to need something at the nearby Safeway. Maybe.
(*) That plan was crushed because the dishes came at the same time and we knew better than leaving our noodle forever soaking in its broth.