Five or six years ago, when sales in exotic estate coffees began to boom, I had a hunch that varietal teas would soon follow suit--just as soon as our love affair with caffeine had worn us to a jittery frazzle.
Not that tea doesn't have caffeine. But there's something gentler, more civilized about the caffeine charge in a cup of tea. Coffee jacks you up. Tea cheers you up.
Personally, I'm more than ready for tea to have its day, so I was delighted to learn of Chado, the new tea room tucked into a tiny storefront on 3rd Street.
The long, narrow room is lined with a honeycomb of wooden compartments, each holding brown tins of tea. Everything you need to brew a pot is for sale as well.
The walls are painted a curious lilac. There's a small trickling wall fountain; a woven floor lends a tropical/colonial ambience. In the front of the store and at the rear, there are tables with white linens and gold-rimmed cups where you can sit and order any one of Chado's 250 teas.
The menu is a daunting document. Teas are listed by country--China, India, Brazil, Russia, Ecuador, South Africa and Japan. There are perfumed teas, fruit teas, blended teas. There is no decaffeinated section, though the waiter or waitress will suggest teas either low in, or lacking, the stimulant.
Steeping time depends on the variety you choose, anywhere from two to 12 minutes. The teas are brewed in round white pots using cloth tea strainers, and kept warm not with a fussy, frowzy cozy but with a round, shiny suit of insulated metal armor.
I've had some absolutely memorable and exotic cups of tea at Chado: a full-bodied assam called Mimalighur; Sichuan, a light, kicky Chinese tea; a crisp second flush darjeeling called Namring Upper; the delicious South African "Admiral's Cup," a spicy, rich reddish brew, and the lively Grand Keemun from China. A decaffeinated Ceylon was flatter than untreated Ceylon: flavor loss is the common problem of decaffeinated teas.
Chado is not quite a full-blown restaurant in that there is no actual cooking on the premises. This constraint lends itself perfectly well to "tea food"--muffins, scones, sandwiches, salads. Given the kitchen's constraints, the menu is actually imaginative and pleasing.
For breakfast, there are Fortune Eggs, hard-boiled in a smoky tea so that they are marbled in sepia, look ancient and taste wonderfully of the campfire. Crunch Bowl is granola studded with dried fruit. Waffles are topped with walnuts and bananas; muffins are enormous and on the sweet side.
My favorite appetizer was something called the Venetial, a slice of ripe pear wrapped up in prosciutto with a trace of ricotta and a small bite of Stilton cheese. The Mountain pate with chicken liver and truffles is good, so is the Garden pate , which looks like a wedge of wrong-colored Neapolitan ice cream (it's made with spinach, cauliflower and carrot).
Sandwiches have funny names and are made almost exclusively with La Brea Bakery's pain de mie , a delicious, hefty white bread. The requisite and dreamy crustless cucumber-and-chive sandwich is called the Limerick. Egg salad on toast is known as Punjab Wheels.
Every tea house needs blini on its menu; Chado's version consists of flexible pancakes topped with creme fraiche and salmon caviar. The only sandwich I disliked was the Balzac, an open-faced roast beef on whole-wheat bread topped with an unpleasantly grainy tarragon sauce.
Of the pastries I tried, only the lemon squares were truly pleasing; a cheesecake tasted artificial and the fruit in an apple pie was way too crunchy, underdone.
There is rarely more than one person serving all the tables at Chado. This person not only takes orders, makes tea, serves food and clears dishes, but must also sell loose tea and deal with delivery persons. This is unfortunate, for one of the pleasures in drinking a great pot of tea is in the ritual.
Although pots are delivered promptly after the timer dings, and fresh cups are usually supplied with each pot of a different variety, often other details are neglected. After almost every visit, I had to deal with a long wait at the register. It seems silly to bestow the pleasures of excellent tea only to obviate them before one leaves the shop.
* Chado, 8422 1/2 West 3rd St., Los Angeles, (213) 655-2056. Open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. No alcohol. MasterCard, Visa accepted. Pots of tea for one $2.75 to $4.85. Lunch for two, food only, $12-$35.