by nevin martell | June 4, 2013 | Food & Drink
At Mari Vanna, teas steep in ornate Sovietstyle glasses.
Mari Vanna exclusively brews teas sourced by Kusmi Tea.
Instead of sugar, Russians often add a spoonful of jam to their cup of tea.
Beyond a simple cup, the menu offers a traditional Russian tea service.
"Performance" teas, like the Sea Anenome pictured in front, unfurl while they steep.
Tea Cellar's Underwater Garden in a glass teapot.
Tea sommelier Robert Rex-Waller.
An aura of calm remains ever-present inside the glass-walled Tea Cellar (1201 24th St. NW, 202-419-6755) at the Park Hyatt Washington. Conversations carry on in muted tones, while servers move silently across the space’s smooth limestone floor. Notables from various ports of call, including Hollywood stars like Kate Walsh and powerful politicos such as Rahm Emanuel, have frequented this temple of tea. They come to take important meetings, make deals, or simply enjoy the atmosphere. “It’s a place for them to lose themselves or find themselves,” says tea sommelier Robert Rex-Waller. “It’s a space [where one can] reflect.”
Steeped in Tradition
Floor-to-ceiling glass humidors display airtight jars, each filled with one of 85 loose-leaf varietals from Asia, Africa, and beyond. The choices make up one of the most expansive collections in the United States—the Cellar offers more than 50 rare and limited-production teas—and the selections are refreshed weekly, depending on what Rex-Waller is able to source.
Beyond exotic provenance and variety for the palette, tea has distinct advantages over alcohol for business and social gatherings. For one, minds stay clear. Discreet conversations or power meetings, which in days past might have happened over a few neat whiskeys or glasses of Cabernet, are now taking place over a brewing pot of Lapsang Souchong. Says Rex-Waller: “You can drink as much… as you want and not worry about how you’re going to get home.” That’s reason enough to seal your next deal with a toast of tea.
At Park Hyatt, patrons can choose from white, green, black, Pu-erh, oolong, herbal, or decaffeinated options. Each one possesses a distinctive flavor, and some are as complex as fine wine. Intoxicatingly fragrant Emperor’s Himalayan Lavender exudes deep floral flavoring and herbaceous undertones, which go well with Blue Duck Tavern’s classic-style sugar cookies. Emperor’s Chocolate Elixir combines black tea and cocoa nibs, creating a dark, punchy offering. Pair that with the restaurant’s milk chocolate banana s’mores for a completely decadent tea break. Like wine, “ultimately, teas are all about the terroir and how [they have] been processed,” explains Rex-Waller.
The most costly—an earthy 1985 Pu-erh from China’s Yunnan province— sells for $300 per pot. “It’s that expensive because of the very minimal quantity that was produced,” Rex-Waller says, “and the challenges we had getting it.” But other, more widely produced varieties also have captivating flavors. Rex-Waller recommends Dragonwell green tea, famously enjoyed in China for centuries. (“It’s very high in antioxidants,” he notes.) He also likes performance teas, which sport flashy names like Moonlight Jasmine Blossom and Extreme Display. Served in glass teapots or futuristic, foothigh glass tubes, these balls of hand-tied tea, available in several varieties, put on a show. After sinking to the bottom, the leaves slowly unfurl to expose a blossom that floats upward in the tawny liquid.
From Russia, With Love
Traditional Russian tea service at the newly opened Moscow import Mari Vanna (1141 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-783-7777) in Dupont Circle is equally eye-catching, although the restaurant tends to attract a younger, more social crowd. Hockey hotshot, Russian expat, and Caps captain Alexander Ovechkin was spied partying there soon after it opened, while Paula Abdul, David Arquette, and John Leguizamo were there for an Inauguration Eve event. This is the second US location of the storied restaurant, which is modeled after an archetypal Russian home. The lavish three-floor space is decorated with gleaming chandeliers, comfy armchairs, displays of vintage dinnerware, and antique rugs.
Here, teas steep in classic Soviet-style glasses that rest in ornate metal cup holders and are accompanied by towers of desserts—multilayer cakes, blinis, and fresh fruit. Mari Vanna exclusively brews teas sourced from Kusmi Tea, founded in 1867 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (The company is now based in Paris.) There’s the Anastasia spiced with bergamot, lemon, and orange blossom; a licorice-peppered Imperial Label; and marzipan-evoking Petrushka with almond and vanilla notes.
To liven up these teas like they do in the motherland, you don’t reach for the sugar bowl—you add a spoonful of preserves. Alternately, you might put a small spoonful of jam on your tongue, then slowly sip tea to integrate the two flavors. At Mari Vanna, the culinary team crafts jam in-house for tea service, creating familiar flavors (think cherry, raspberry, and blueberry) as well as unexpected varieties such as tart, tangy sea buckthorn and luscious black currant.
No matter how you sweeten your sipper (or don’t), mid-afternoon tea is a sacred ritual for Russians. “You have tea if you have to discuss something outside of the office with a colleague, or if you have to have a conversation during the workday with your family,” explains Tatiana Brunetti, a founding partner of the Ginza Project, which owns the restaurant. Even in busy Washington, most guests spend at least an hour at the teahouse. “You don’t just grab a tea and walk away,” explains Brunetti. “You must sit down and drink it.”
photography by greg powers; getty images (walsh)
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