Tea is having its moment on Long Island as three independent shops, dedicated to the glories of choosing and brewing it, have raised the traditional cup to a new level of connoisseurship.
"Tea comes in an almost infinite variety, and every tea tells a story about its own history, geography and processing," says Nicole Basso, whose Sip Tea Lounge in Huntington is the newest emporium to open.
Basso grew up in an Italian family in Halesite, where coffee was the dominant hot beverage. Her interest in tea spiked when she met (and later married) Toshi Mogi, a Hawaiian native of Japanese descent. During years of travel to Japan and China (along with India and Sri Lanka, the world's leading producers of high-end tea), she visited tea plantations and met tea producers
Like Basso, all three of Long Island's new-wave tea impresarios strive to tell their teas' stories, not only through occasional classes but every day, with every purchase. The one-on-one is crucial, because many customers are not familiar with buying loose-leaf tea by weight.
Loose leaves are generally of higher quality than what goes into mass-market tea bags and, more importantly, freed from the confines of a tea bag, the leaves can more fully infuse the hot water, resulting in a much richer, more nuanced beverage.
All of these shops offer bites to accompany tea, as well as a wide range of pots, cups, strainers and accessories. But their focus is always on the tea, and in imbuing their customers with passion for this storied beverage that, next to water, is the world's most popular
1. Sip Tea Lounge
286C New York Ave., Huntington
HOURS Tuesday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Monday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
THE TEA At her 4-month-old tea lounge, Nicole Basso sells about 30 varieties of tea (starting at about $5 an ounce), many of which she buys directly from Asian plantations. She stocks no flavored tea, but mixes her own herbal infusions and Indian chai blends.
Her little shop, all reclaimed wood and rough-hewn minerals with pops of colorful silk, has a peaceful, Zen-like vibe, perfect for enjoying one of the half-dozen Japanese teas she carries. During the day, locals stop in for a cup to go ($2.75) or to sit down at a table or the "tea bar" to savor an elegantly served brew ($5 to $10 a person). "We get people just taking a restorative break," Bassano said, "or people holding business meetings, or dads coming in with their sons to do homework." On Friday and Saturday nights, sippers sidle up to the little bar to drink, chat and learn.
THE EATS Long before Sip opens in the morning, baker Christian Dyckman is at work in the little kitchen. He turns out a variety of creative scones (currant, cornmeal-cherry, savory sun-dried tomato, vegan lemon-chia, all $3.50) as well as pastries, cookies (try the lemon bar, $2.95) or the musubi (traditional plum-filled, seaweed-wrapped rice balls, $3.50) and tea sandwiches on homemade bread ($2.15 to $2.75).
2. Clipper Ship Tea Co.
80 Main St, Northport
HOURS 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily
THE TEA With 160 varieties, Clipper Ship has one of the largest selections of loose-leaf tea on Long Island, and you can see all the gleaming canisters along one long wall of this spacious shop. (Prices start at $4.50 an ounce.)
Owner Melissa Wawrzonek stocks everything from the highest-end greens and blacks to herbal infusions, Ayurvedic teas (Indian "health" teas) and flavored teas.
Tea to-go rules at Clipper Ship; there are no seats, but the staff will expertly brew any tea, hot or iced, for $2.75. There is also a wide range of tea-making equipment and accessories for sale.
THE EATS Clipper Ship sells tea-infused chocolates from Greenlawn's Azure Chocolat. At any time, there are about 16 different truffles (four for $7.50) and 12 barks ($8 for 1/4-pound shard of dark, milk or white chocolate). Also popular: a selection of 26 raw, single-variety honeys from Suffolk County, New Zealand and spots in between.
3. A New Leaf
152 Seventh St., Garden City
HOURS Monday to Thursday, 10a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 11a.m. to 5 p.m.
THE TEA Kimberly Orlic sells 60 varieties of loose tea, and she uses each sale as an opportunity to convince customers how easy it is to brew. At her 8-month-old shop, she also sells teapots and large teacups with removable strainers and, even simpler, disposable paper envelopes that you fill to make a custom tea bag. Every package of tea comes with instructions for how much tea to use, how long to brew and at what temperature.
Most teas cost $7 to $10 for 1.7 ounces, enough for 20 to 25 cups. Grab an easy chair in the store's sunny parlor for a fresh brewed mug ($3.65) or pot ($5.50). Three iced teas (green, black and rooibos) are always ready for takeout ($3.50 for 16 ounces, $3.60 for 20 ounces) and can be enhanced with flavored syrups.
THE EATS Scones ($2.25) from nearby Riesterer's Bakery and biscotti (75 cents) are served.
FORMAL AFTERNOON TEAS
A pot of tea, a plate of finger sandwiches and a selection of pastries and scones: In America, this wonderful way to wile away the afternoon is commonly, though mistakenly, known as "high tea." In Britain, where it originated, "high tea" is not a dainty affair, but simply an old-fashioned name for the evening meal; it's also called "meat tea." The light, elegant, scone-centric meal served at fancy hotels is called "low tea" or "afternoon tea."
Whatever you call it, here are four places to get afternoon tea on Long Island. Prices are per person:
Owner Emma Tso is a talented pastry chef, and her afternoon tea ($22) shows off her culinary chops. The tiered tea service includes sandwiches, miniature pastries, warm scones, clotted cream and jam and a pot of tea.
Robinson's Tea Room
97-E Main St., Stony Brook
Robinson's serves afternoon tea Tuesday to Sunday. $26 buys unlimited tea, about 10 finger sandwiches, fresh scones, cream and jam and desserts. Reservations required.
The Secret Garden Tea Cafe & Gift Shoppe
225 Main St., Port Jefferson
The Secret Garden's menu has more modest options, but the full afternoon tea, $26.95, includes scones, fresh fruit, tea sandwiches, mini desserts and a pot of tea.
The Hidden Oak Café
The cafe at Great River's lovely arboretum is open Tuesday to Sunday. Afternoon tea ($25.95) includes assorted tea sandwiches, desserts and pastries, scones with cream and jam and a pot of tea. Reservations required 24 hours in advance.
WHAT IS IT?
Tea is nothing more or less than the leaves of the Camellia sinensis bush. For green tea, the leaves are processed (steamed or roasted) as soon as they are picked; for black tea, the leaves are left to oxidize (and darken) before being processed. Pu-erh refers to a dark Chinese tea that has been fermented; white tea, to a lightly oxidized mixture of leaves and buds.
Tea is usually identified by where it was grown and/or how it was processed. For example, Darjeeling and Assam are regions of India that lend their names to their famous black teas, ditto Keemun in China. Ceylon tea is from Sri Lanka, whose former name was Ceylon. Sencha is a green tea grown, in full sunlight, in Japan. Sencha leaves are picked in the spring and then steamed.
Tisanes, or herbal teas, are not true teas, but rather infusions made with such aromatic plants as chamomile, mint, chrysanthemum, hibiscus, rose hips, verbena and rooibos (aka bush tea).