Monday April 17, 2006

Well, I just got back from my college friends’ wedding in Syracuse, NY. Interestingly enough, of all places, we went to a teahouse last night before the wedding. Specifically, it was the Roji Tea Lounge. There seems to be a few teahouses in Syracuse, but this one is supposed to be pretty good. It also has good reviews from Tea Map. So, I went with some expectation.

The decor of the place is simple, with a sofa, a few tables and chairs, and a small tatami area. The place is staffed by two people. From the looks of it, most people order some form of bubble tea, although there are some who drink real teas that are not sugar bombs as well. There were 8 of us, so we all crowded around the little round table at the tatami area. It worked well enough.

The menu (which strangely isn’t available on their website) consists of a number of different kinds of teas, with maybe 2-3 varieties in each category of green, oolong, red, white, etc. There were more choices of herbal teas than anything else (and most of my companions chose some sort of herbal). They also had chai, which the groom to be happily ordered, since he’s Indian (and I think he approved, more or less). Prices were somewhat steep, ranging from about $4 to $9.50 for the Oriental Beauty. I opted for their tieguanyin, having no idea what I will actually get. I figured that since I’ve been drinking so much tieguanyin these past two weeks, I will be able to better judge the quality of their offering that way.

They served us relatively quickly, considering that there were lots of people who came in after us (and the place was packed). Everyone ordered something different, so they had to bring it out in a few rounds. The red tea and the herbals were brewed in a glass pot, with a glass cover, and a glass filter/separator that can be taken out. They open the teapot, let you smell the cover, then take out the tea leaves and put it aside. The chai came in a large bowl, and it came with a side of syrup, but I have no idea how you’re supposed to serve chai.

Then came my tea. I saw them preparing it with a gongfu set, so I wasn’t sure what their plans were (some places brew it for you with a gongfu set without actually giving you the set itself). They ended up giving me the whole deal — pot, smelling cup, drinking cup, fairness cup, and the “tea sea” for excess water. The tea came washed already, so they just added water and gave it to me. They didn’t, however, give me any extra water, so I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I didn’t look inside the teapot initially, and just poured it out after the normal interval I will allow for a tieguanyin — about 5 to 10 seconds for the first infusion. The pot was rather large, enough for maybe 5-6 cups. It was definitely too big for one person.

When I began pouring, I knew it was trouble — the tea was far too weak. I thought perhaps their tea just brews a light colour, so I drank it (after going through the smelling cup procedure), and indeed, it was far too weak. The smelling cup yielded little fragrance, and the tea tasted insipid. I looked in the teapot, and there it was the answer — too little leaves. The pot was only about half filled with leaves after they’re now wet and expanded, which means that they put in at best 1/8 to 1/10 of the pot with dry leaves. That is far too little for making proper tieguanyin (it should be at the very minimum 1/5 for qingxiang, I prefer about 1/4, adjusting for individual teas). So, I tried next infusion (after asking for water, which came in a thermos that pours VERY poorly) with less water and more time. It still came out insipid. Then I realized the second problem — the water is probably not hot enough. I think that while it might be advisable to use less than boiling water for the 3 minutes brew method, for gongfu tea, tieguanyin should take hot water. They, however, gave me, I think, 180 degress water. That made for weak brews.

The tealeaves themselves may also be somewhat dated, but since it was dark and I never saw the dried form of the leaves, I couldn’t tell if that was the case. It certainly tasted weak and smelled weaker. Any of my tieguanyin at home beats those hands down, even with that level of tea leaves/pot size ratio.

On top of that, the pot they use I think is not actually yixing, but of some other material. The worksmanship was nice enough, but I think it is some other sort of clay. The water that I poured onto the pot didn’t cling at all, but rather slipped off easily, and the texture felt funny. It was dark, and I couldn’t tell very well. That’s sort of an unknown.

All that negative criticism doesn’t mean, however, that I didn’t enjoy the night. It was good company, especially since I haven’t seen my friends (the ones getting married) for quite a while. Catching up was nice, as was the mere fact that in Syracuse, NY, there is still a teahouse trying to do proper tea. It can certainly be improved, and I think I might even send in an email to suggest such things (after all, if they’re charging me $8 for the tieguanyin, they can afford to give me a little more leaves). Perhaps next time when I go back I will have a better cup of tea.


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