Review of the Week #3- The Tao of Tea

“Japhy got out the tea, Chinese tea, and sprinkled some in a tin pot, and had the fire going meanwhile, a small one to begin with, the sun was still on us, and stuck a long stick tight down under a few big rocks and made himself something to hang the teapot on and pretty soon the water was boiling and he poured it out steaming into the tin pot and we had cups of tea with our tin cups. … ‘Now you understand the Oriental passion for tea,’ said Japhy. ‘Remember that book I told you about the first sip is joy the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy.'”
– from “The Dharma Bums”, by Jack Kerouac

Where:  The Tao of Tea, 3430 SE Belmont St, Portland, OR 503-736-0119

     The sun beat on my back as I biked up Belmont Street. Every three minutes or so, though, it would hide again and the wind of the otherwise crisp spring afternoon would chill the sweat.
     It had been an another day in the bakeshop, and while I wasn’t necessarily eager to run to home just yet, I wasn’t feeling the noise and stimuli of a bar. I’d spent the day setting everything up and double-checking supplies so the new kids first solo day in production would be smooth- and now I needed to let go. Find a quiet place where I could crash in silence, chain up my bike, and slip into some light fare.
     Fortunately, I knew such a place.

     Tao of Tea’s location feels like a waystation of sorts- just on the edge of the bar and nightlife-heavy Belmont Street strip. This is the location of several decent establishments, usually loud and illuminated.
     Directly across the street from an arcade theater, the Tao of Tea sells (of course) fine loose leaf teas and wares, while their restaurant offers these up to guests with a menu of vegetarian dining options. I’d known and enjoyed their teas for a while, and tried their snacking offerings in the Tower of Cosmic Reflections- the tea house they manage in Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden.

     Having experienced a taste of their work amid the bliss of a curated garden, I sought out their flagship location for the “full experience,” so to speak- trading the tranquil garden for a busy city street.
     As soon as soon as I entered, that street could have been ten miles away.
     Every aspect of the restaurant, from the decor, to the music, to the lighting, exuded calm. Shutting the door behind seemed to be a ward- forbidding the noise and pace of the city from proceeding any further.
     The dining room sat about 20, and I was told to pick any seat I liked by a smiling young Japanese woman. As she turned to get menus for me, I heard her rehearsing her lines quietly. A new hire, obviously- trying hard to impress. She was doing well so far.
     The furniture and decor was intriguing- a hodgepodge of Pan-Asian and cargo cult accents, with bamboo shelves, displayed tea, and teaware. Normally, such kitsch would strike me as exotica, appropriating cultural elements to titillate and excite. The overwhelming calm of the place, however, let it come off as completely unpretentious. Everything felt like it was meant to be there, following some logical one could comprehend only on a visceral level.
I chose a low wooden stool at a four-top, with warmly polished wood and supported by a stenciled tea chest. Large windows flood the room with sun, and soft lighting shades it when the sun hides again.
     The menu arrives. A veritable catalog of fine teas, of course- arranged by variety, with tasting notes. The food menu is much simpler, and as much of a well-curated hodgepodge as the room- light vegetarian/vegan fare based from India, China, Japan, Greece, and one or two offerings from Europe. My tea selection is a no-brainer- the Pine Smoked Black. For food, however, the choice is edamame and steamed vegetable potstickers to start, Indian paneer soon after.

     The tea arrives first, of course. The room wraps around me like a warm blanket was the young waitress carefully pours my first cup from the small clay pot. Pine Smoked Black is a lapsang souchong- a type of black tea that gets roasted over wood fires, in this case, pine boughs. The heady smoky aroma lingers in the tea, eliciting memories of hearths and campfires past. This cup reminds me of camping in the Pine Barrens with the Scouts- a warm fire, my hair and clothes rife with the smell of woodsmoke, and a sky full of stars between the towering pines and cedars. A blissful memory for each cup.

     My eyes wander as I sip my tea- there’s something else unusual about the place. In cafes in Portland, I’ve gotten used to the omnipresent click-clacking of typing while people work. You tune it out after a while, like white noise on a television set, or the hum of air conditioning.

    No one was on a computer. I was the only one with my phone out. Tao of Tea has no Wifi, and few- if any- wall outlets in the dining room. You are not supposed to be working here, or at least not staring at a screen. Aw hell, I’ve missed the point. Screwed it up. I’m not supposed to be working on it right now. Enjoy the tea, get pictures quickly and quietly, then put it away. My phone feels like an albatross- hide it fast.

Picture

The food arrives. Simple, stark, and beautiful. The vegetable potstickers are warm and soft- almost too soft to grab with chopsticks. There’s no dipping sauce- that would be too complicated, it feels. The dumplings are dressed on the plate, garnished with red-orange goji berries and green onions. Perfectly decent little pillows of veggie- each one feels like having your mother hold your hand.

The edamame are blanched perfectly- a verdant green, served ice cold. Warm dumplings and chilly soybeans- even my food matches the odd weather outside. Unlike other places, the edamame are unseasoned- not even salted. Again, not even soy sauce on the table- you have it as it comes, as it was meant to be.

Picture

     Finally, the paneer- sprinkled with black volcanic salt, lime juice, and raw grated ginger. The ginger is spicy and pungent, of course- what is the cook thinking? Who wants to eat just raw ginger root? Someone does- and I guess that’s me right now.
Another waitress sees me eyeing the plate and smiles- “You’ll love the black salt- it adds a sulfurous tang. It’s the best salt I’ve ever had- we put it on our yams too, you know.

​     “Sulfurous tang”? Raw ginger? Such aggressiveness in such a pleasingly peaceful meal?
     Yes- and appropriately so. The paneer is tangy and cold- the lime and salt pull forward the sweet/sourness forward from what would otherwise be a simple farmer’s cheese. It’s the raw ginger that gives it aggression- or perhaps the word would be “backbone.” It’s aggressive, but like a screaming lunatic- but of a motionless self-assurance. The ginger supports and is tempered by the lime and salt- making room for it, and giving it place on the plate. A fine, fiery dessert to a serene meal.


     I linger over my tea, wanting to postpone my return to the world… but there are things to do, and I can’t stay. The check comes- $18 for a delicious moment of peace.
I could do this more- maybe instead of a few bar trips. Who couldn’t use more tea in their lives?

When: Hours are 11a – 10p daily. Mid- to late afternoons are best- the place is rarely crowded, and almost never noisy. 

Why: Because you need a moment’s peace- a mini-vacation from your own worried mind, and all you want is serene simplicity.

How:  Visit them in person, or for a real treat visit the Tower of Cosmic Reflections in Lan Su Garden. There is an admission price  for the garden, and the tower is beholden to the gardens schedule.  Visit their website at Taooftea.com to get their tea delivered anywhere in the US.