M y fellow Americans, we don’t know tea.
We might know black from green from herbal, sort of. But what about white? Maté? Oolong? Pu-ehr? Had you even heard of pu-ehr before now?
The folks who work at The Green Teahouse—opened about six months ago on Chapel Street near College—definitely know their oolongs from their pu-ehrs. In addition to an interesting food menu, the establishment offers approximately 45 premium loose-leaf teas at any one time (39 listed on the menu and a handful of specials). Each has its own flavor, aroma, caffeine level, optimal steep time, harvest history and professed health benefits, and servers are expected to learn every last detail.
This degree of attention makes great sense after meeting with Ting Chaponis (pictured third above), who co-owns the Teahouse with her brother, Wei Luo. She’s serious about tea culture as a result of her upbringing in China, where fresh tea—as opposed to the old, flavorless, nutrient-sapped stuff we Americans apparently drink most of the time, which “Chinese people won’t even touch,” she says good-humoredly—is kept front-and-center “all day long,” consumed during family gatherings, business meetings, visits with friends and even alone time.
Perhaps in part as a result of our cultural differences on this front, the American English language doesn’t seem to have a good word to sum up a place like The Green Teahouse. Neither “cafe” nor “lounge” is quite right; the place is too proper, the service too impeccable, the decor too exacting. And yet, like a cafe or lounge, the setting is also inviting, the service calm, the decor warm.
It’s a very narrow path to walk, but somehow the Teahouse walks it. Can you imagine, for example, an upscale-feeling establishment inviting visitors to try free samples? After visiting here, you can; situated every day on a table towards the back is a rotating selection of teas in glass pots flanked by tiny little plastic cups. The day of my visit, options included a fruity Pink Cherry Cider, a leafy Golden Mango and a floral Strawberry Slim Pu-erh.
To get to the main sampling station (sometimes someone will stand outside the front door and offer tastes to passersby as well), you’ll walk through a “very traditional Chinese” space full of custom design elements: intricate carved wooden panels, burgundy curtains, framed artwork, hefty wooden tables. Two-seaters down the left side of the room and four-seaters down the right are spotlit by hanging lamps the color of turmeric (pictured sixth). In the front window is the mother of all teapots, rising like a four-tiered wedding cake forged of a brassy material. Near the back, there is literally a shrine to tea: spacious shelves dotted with clay pots and ceramic cups, artfully arranged with bamboo and other woody elements against an avocado-green wall.
Tea is so important here that it often costs more than the food. Pots range from $7 to $15, with a median price of $9 or $10. “This is not a regular pot of tea. It’s a culture. It’s an experience,” Chaponis explains as tranquil flute music floats through the air. “It’s also a premium product. Our green and oolong teas were picked just two months ago, which you can’t find” elsewhere.
The yellow-green Phoenix Oolong I tried, steeped for about 45 seconds according to a very polite and helpful server named Bryant (pronounced “Brian”), tasted and smelled pleasingly mellow. Even better, it had a mellowing effect, soothing the tempest inside the old noggin, and the liquid’s texture was smoother than water, as if the tea had softened it. Even though that particular tea rests at the higher end of the menu, going for $15, I could see myself ordering it again for a special treat.
Meanwhile, the two food dishes I tried carry very reasonable price tags of $11 and $9. The Peanut Sauce Noodles ($11, pictured second)—served warm, not hot—featured a generous portion of organic brown rice noodles, silken tofu, shelled edamame and a white tea broth with finely crushed peanut worked into it. The noodles, quite supple but retaining just a little pleasing bite, stuck together well enough for chopsticks to pick them up in hearty bundles, each comforting mouthful like a hug from an angel. The peanut sauce/white tea broth was savory, not sweet, and the edamame provided smart contrast with its solid texture and bright green color.
The nine-dollar dish I tried, Okra Rice (pictured fifth), was a riskier choice given its controversial headlining ingredient. Also served warm, other elements in the bowl included silken tofu, sliced cherry tomatoes, edamame, a blend of quinoa and brown rice and “organic black tea-infused soy sauce.” It was a vibrant mix of hues and textures; the flavor, on the other hand, was quite subtle—slightly sweet and mostly provided courtesy of the infused soy sauce, which held fast to the quinoa brown rice. As for the okra, it did retain some of its characteristic viscosity, and for me, it was nice to be able to soak some of that up with the dish’s starchy base.
As you can probably guess by now, The Green Teahouse accommodates vegans and vegetarians very well, with most dishes meriting a tiny “v” next to their titles on the menu. It also has some gluten-free possibilities, including those heavenly Peanut Sauce Noodles.
The general aim of The Green Teahouse, Chaponis says, “is very simple: nurturing both your body and spirit.” This is accomplished through healthy food and drink, and through the “human connection” these things can facilitate. Especially tea. In China, she says, “When someone visits your house, if you sit down, a cup of tea should be presented… And by drinking it, you stay longer. You have more time to talk and chat. You have a reason to stay, drinking a cup of tea.”
The Green Teahouse
1008 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Sun-Tues 11am-8pm, Wed-Thurs 11am-9pm, Fri-Sat 11am-10pm
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.