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Cha-An Tea House: An Oasis of Calm in this Concrete Jungle

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OK, so I just looked through Chowhound, and cannot believe there are no Manhattan Board posts on this fabulous little tea shop in the East Village. I believe it deserves a shout out. Here's my review of the gem. For full review, with photos: http://restaurantbrat.com

As a general rule I am much more a coffee person than a tea person. In my mind, an expertly brewed mug of dark-roast java is perhaps one of life’s simplest yet most indulgent pleasures. I have my daily fix sans the sugar and milk, black as the night – a potent, earthy broth with a pungent aroma capable of revitalizing even the most languid morning grouch. I like my caffeine to growl, punch me in the face, and corrode my tonsils. I’ll sometimes punish my stomach lining in this manner up to four times a day. Tea, on the other hand, is a different beast altogether. I will succumb to a zesty cup of chai every once in a while, or perhaps a numbingly spicy teh halia (Singaporean ginger tea), but for the most part, tea in my mind often seems a bland drink devoid of any attitude.

I suppose I can be partial to extreme behavior. To each his own. I do, however, understand how to appreciate subtlety on occasion, especially when it comes to food and beverage. The Japanese, for instance, have made an art out of simplicity, and their fresh, pure cuisine is a testament to the premise of ascetic fulfillment. On a recent visit to Cha-An Tea House for brunch, I was reintroduced to tea, and saw firsthand a beverage disarmingly shy, stripped down to but unobtrusive flavors and faint bouquets. The tea was the highlight here, but a special mention must go to the food as well: devoid of avant-garde presentations or unexpected twists; just uncomplicated dishes prepared with the freshest ingredients that showcased a respect for tradition and the simple yet spiritual act of nourishment.

Lo and behold! A pot of hot water magically transformed into Flower Craft Green Tea, as a modest pair of tightly spun bulbs blossomed into a joyous peacock watercolor before our eyes. A potpourri of faded greens, pinks and creams, the tea was as beautiful to look at as it was to taste. A whiff of jasmine, a fleeting touch of chrysanthemum, each sip was teasingly delicate and supremely balanced. A second pot, this time of a white tea mysteriously named the Yinzhen Silver Needle, was just as exquisite, but with a more distinct body. I sniffed at it and sipped it, I rolled it around my tongue, and tried to chew it. I treated my cup as though Yinzhen Silver Needle was in fact Napa Silver Oak, and it must have subliminally returned the favor, as I fell into a dreamy, otherworldly stupor, entirely relaxed and utterly content.

I snapped out of it only when the food arrived. Cha-An offers a number of good lunch options, and in my temporal state of languorousness and comfort, I had opted for an order of porridge, to be brought with what our server described as a daily rotation of six Japanese mini-appetizers. The porridge was thick, starchy and absolutely tasteless – and yet, all facetiousness aside, absolutely delightful. It was just what I needed. The light purple grains of Japanese rice lent a nice viscosity to the bowl, and the porridge could not have been more suitable as a platform for the bolder tasting accompanying side dishes. Of the six, savory Curried Squid Rings and tart Pickled Mustard Greens with Sesame were winners. I paid less attention to a thimble of Pickled Radish (slimy with yam extract) and the Grated Salmon (baked, and just a little dry for my liking).

My dining companion had ordered the rice set, which featured a dry version of my purple rice porridge, and a number of different, meatier accompanying dishes. Noteworthy among those that I sampled included the Soymilk Quiche with Mushrooms and Scallions, and the Shiso Chicken. The former had the texture of silky artisanal tofu in the middle and a crisp crust on the outside, and the latter featured tender chunks of dark meat paired with a coy kiss of mint. There was a salad with a tea-smoked salmon topping that I did not try, but which looked fairly decent. Among the sides in the rice set, I probably enjoyed the Curried Eggplant with String Beans the least. The oversized aubergine chunks were soggy and did not pair as well with the mild curry sauce as the squid from my porridge set.

I was pleased to discover that Cha-An’s dessert menu was very good indeed. A Cappuccino Sponge Roll with Strawberries was fluffy and delicious, as was a Japanese Coffee Choux Crème. I am not normally a big dessert person, but both of these were anorexically light, and I found myself inadvertently especially enjoying the latter, a cream puff of absolutely phenomenal quality, possessing just the right amount of coffee flavor to satisfy this perpetual java-addict.

Cha-An Tea House is a tiny, cluttered, one-of-a-kind tribute to all that is good about the Art of Tea. An oasis of calm on the second floor of a nondescript shophouse; a serene sanctuary of reflection and appreciation. I am nowhere near understanding the complex yet profoundly uncomplicated meaning behind a simple pot of tea, and accordingly am miles away from the status of my tea connoisseur friends. You won’t find me forsaking my morning coffee anytime soon, and my penchant for exaggeration will probably persist. Ultimately though, I guess every lesson counts. I will be back to Cha-An to try some of their daily lunch specials (Unagi Hitsumabushi-don, a Saturday and Sunday occurence, looked particularly good on the menu), and to continue my lesson in the surprising strength of the subdued.

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Cha-An
230 E 9th St, New York, NY 10003

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  1. >>OK, so I just looked through Chowhound, and cannot believe there are no Manhattan Board posts on this fabulous little tea shop in the East Village.

    Appreciate the update, but just where did you look on Chowhound? I find dozens of mentions going back to a few weeks after Cha-An opened in '05: http://www.chow.com/search?query=cha-... It's a longtime favorite around here for just the reasons you cite. Glad you enjoyed it too!

    1 Reply
    1. re: squid kun

      weird, i typed in cha-an in the search box and nothing came up.. save for a mention of cha-an in "Innovation: the CHOW Tour"... and now I guess my post too... new to this board...

      actually.. i just found out what happened.. i didn't have the right timeframe setting, i was searching only within the past 12 months... silly me... although i suppose since nobody's mentioned it for a year, i'll just bump it.