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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Take Some More Tea

Instead of water, meals at Chinese restaurants are usually accompanied by hot tea. However, I don't like the tea service at most Chinese restaurants. Tea, just like food, is about timing and temperature. A freshly brewed cup of tea is delicious. But often times the tea diners take at Chinese restaurant is unpleasant: lukewarm or steeped for too long.

At simple or inexpensive Chinese restaurants, tea is generally offered in one of two ways. One is for the server to walk around with a large teapot and pour the tea for guests at various tables. This is the way tea is served at places in Taipei such as Din Tai Fung. Since the tea is poured from a large pot, the tea is usually hot, especially in a busy restaurant. The downside is the diners do not have a choice of the tea. The diners may need to flag down the server to get refills, and depending on the level of service, the wait for the refill may be quite long.

The other method is to place a teapot at the table for the diners to pour themselves the tea. When the teapot requires a refill of hot water, one can either wave down a server or partially open the lid of the teapot. At a slightly fancier restaurant, the teapot at the table may sit on top of a candle lit teapot warmer. While some restaurants may offer the diners a choice of the tea, the diners cannot really control the steeping of the tea. After the first round of pour for the table, the tea is oversteeped and becomes bitter.

Neither of these two types of tea service is ideal. But since tea at simple or inexpensive Chinese restaurants are usually complimentary, it is unlikely the situation will change. The diners probably shouldn't be too demanding.

But at high-end Chinese restaurants, where tea is charged for (usually per person), the diners should expect a bit more care with the tea service. Unfortunately, most of the time, very little thought is given to tea by the restaurants.

In posh Chinese restaurants, the diners can choose the type of tea and the server will pour the tea for the guests with a dedicated pot. In an effort to show good service, the servers tend to refill the teacups at the table frequently without being asked. This is similar to the servers at fancy western restaurants who keep the guests' water glasses constantly topped off. The problem is tea is not similar to water because the temperature of the tea makes a big difference to the taste. Sometimes the server pours the tea but the diner is not ready to drink. By the time the diner wants to drink the tea, it is not longer at the right temperature. At some restaurants, the teacups are usually a bit too large. Most of the time, the diner cannot finish the entire cup of tea in a few sips. The unfinished tea in the cup soon loses temperature.

Upon seeing the half empty cups, the attentive servers, without asking, will top off the tea cup. The problem is adding hot tea to the cold tea merely makes the whole cup lukewarm. Furthermore, because the tea has been constantly steeping in the pot, placed at a serving station instead of the table, each successive refill makes the tea more bitter.

Unless one pours out the remaining tea every time before the server refills the cup, one is bound to be in this perpetual state of drinking oversteeped lukewarm tea throughout the course of the meal.

I believe there are solutions to this problem. First of all, I suggest high-end Chinese restaurants simply let the diners pour their own tea. The notion of self-service may seem counterintuitive at restaurants where the guests expect to be served. But since the server doesn't always grab the food with chopsticks from the share plates for every guests, why not treat tea like food? Also, it will allow the guests to decide how much tea they want to have for each pour and at least have the tea stay hot in the pot.

At the Michelin-one star Chinese restaurant, Amber Palace, in Tokyo, they clearly thought about this issue. Instead of having one pot of tea, they provide two pots: one with just hot water and the other with just tea leaves. The pot with the hot water is kept warm with a small candle. The pot with the tea is clear so one can see the tea being steeped. The diners serve the tea themselves by pouring hot water into the pot with the tea leaves, steep, and then pour into the teacups. The diners have the freedom to decide how long to steep the tea and how much to drink, while keeping the tea hot.

Will other high-end Chinese restaurant follow suit or think of other ideas? I hope so. Tea is an integral part of Chinese cuisine and deserves more thought on how it is served.

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