Friday, March 02, 2007

Dish on Dining: Modern Tea--CLOSED (9/9/08)

Defining a new way to serve tea in Hayes Valley
602 Hayes St. (at Laguna), San Francisco
Hayes Valley neighborhood
Hours: Tue.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m., S
at., 10:30 a.m.–9 p.m.; Sun., 10:30 a.m.–6 p.m.
PH: 415.626.5406
Major credit cards, reservations accepted

UPDATE: (9/9/08) The owners put up a sign saying the restaurant is closed to be transformed into a working/classroom kitchen. No reports on when it'll reopen.

Tea is an afternoon affair. Whether in a tea room, tea house, or tea lounge. We’ve been trained (probably by the British) that an afternoon escape for a perfectly brewed pot of tea and some savory and sweet delights is the highest form of civility.

But maybe the modern sense of tea is that it should be enjoyed not just in the afternoon but all day and night, as it is at the Modern Tea in Hayes Valley.

Taking over the spot of what was once a Latin restaurant (I think it was Brazilian), Modern Tea has quickly become a comfortable friend in this neighborhood of high-end boutiques and restaurants serving the ballet/opera/symphony crowd.

Entering the brightly lit dining area, your eyes are bound to catch the colorful ceiling art that seems to playfully circle the room. The light and airy look is carried over into the service and food. Modern Tea is the brainchild of Alice Cravens, a tea lover who in the last few years have consulted with restaurants such as Chez Panisse and Delfina about their tea offerings. Now she’s created her own showcase for tea.

You can’t really call Modern Tea a tea house or tea lounge in the traditional sense because they serve tea and food all day and night (except Mondays). So in a way, it’s like a regular restaurant, with an extensive tea selection. Cravens—who you’ll often see buzzing around the restaurant checking on details while her husband, Greg Dunham, often works the tea bar—emphasizes sustainable food in planning the menu and tea offerings. The menu notes that meals are prepared with as much organic and locally grown produce they can find and that their teas come from fair-trade suppliers.

The menu changes daily and there’s a different menu for each service of the day (weekend brunch, lunch, afternoon and dinner).

I visited Modern Tea with a friend for afternoon tea. (I guess I’m still a traditionalist.) We sat close to the mini store near the back of the dining area, and I could see a wall of tin containers filled with what I assumed was tea. Our server was pleasant and friendly, and definitely engaged us in a discussion about the tea selection Cravens has put together and our particular tastes for that day.

We decided to get the “Nibble Plate,” which featured goat cheese with thistle honey, crostini, mizuna greens with orange citronette, toasted walnuts, watermelon radish (seasonal) and sea salt. My friend ordered a simple black tea, while I ordered a pot of persimmon leaf tea from Japan.

The first test came when the tea was served. It was brought to our table in white porcelain pots, and our server poured our first cup. The tea was perfectly warm and a check in the pot found that the tea leaves were removed, which means my tea would stay consistent in flavor and not darken like it would if the leaves were left to sit in the pot. (At other tea places, I’ve had to take out the tea bag or tea container to make sure my tea doesn’t get any darker or bitter.)

My cup of persimmon leaf was light and refreshing. That first sip made me a happy camper, and I became more entranced by our nibbling plate. All the ingredients were fresh and beautifully laid out. I felt like I was having afternoon tea at the backyard of a farmer friend. The goat cheese with honey was especially intoxicating. We had to ask for extra pieces of crostini to be sure we ate every bit of the cheese.

After such a refreshing afternoon experience, I wanted to see if this translated to the other meals. So I came back for dinner and was seated at the tea bar near the entrance, where I got to see the tea maker (bartender?) brew several pots of tea. He was precise about the timing, using a beeper to let him know when his tea was ready to be poured into a serving pot.

The dinner menu (similar to lunch and weekend brunch) is straightforward, with just a few choice items. (Side note: I read in the San Francisco Chronicle review that the soups were especially good, but I don’t really see how soup goes with tea. So I didn’t feel it was that important to test the soups when I really wanted to see how the tea was featured.)

I ordered the braised chicken served with mushroom gravy over rosemary mashed potatoes and an herbed biscuit and sautéed broccoli di cicco. For my tea, I ordered the Special Linden Tea, an herbal tea from Armenia.

The chicken looked like perfect comfort food, but it was bathed in the gravy that was overly salty. Other than the gravy, I couldn’t really detect any other significant flavors in the chicken or even the potatoes. The broccoli (kind of like broccoli rabe) was overcooked.
My tea was bitter and tasted like medicine.

This day and night experience in eating at the Modern Tea seemed to highlight the divergent images of this restaurant. Is it a restaurant featuring American California cuisine or is it a tea lounge showcasing organic teas? Sure, it’ll be great if it could succeed in both, but the harmony was just not there.

At times I felt the tea selection wasn’t extensive enough. I’ve been to tea lounges where you had several pages of tea offerings, compared to the one page at Modern Tea.

The attempt to try to be two things in one place may be the reason why Modern Tea isn’t extremely successful in either one. Still, it’s a nice casual dining alternative for the neighborhood and I do want to give them a chance. The owners seem dedicated and the rest of the servers are friendly and engaging. Hopefully, Modern Tea’s offerings can be more full-body with practice.

Single guy rating: 2.5 stars (perfect place to zen out)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Modern Tea in San Francisco

No comments: