Let's call this one Cheap Sips, because even if the name didn't give it away, it's obvious from the moment you enter The Tea House, a brand new Gillespie Park gathering spot, that the steeped stuff is what this place cares about the most. Reflective glass jars stuffed with tea samples are stacked on a vertical rack next to the counter, while tea paraphernalia crowds every available spot in the restaurant's Instagram-chic interior. Behind the counter, gleaming metal canisters bearing all kinds of exotic labels house the goods.
Perhaps this is a good time to disclose that some time last year I decided I hated tea. I was sipping it somewhere and I suddenly realized what I was drinking was disgusting, just weeds floating in hot water, and I was masking the bad flavor with additives. Why was I drinking tea instead of coffee anyway? What was wrong with me? So I flip through The Tea House's OED-sized tea menu with trepidation. I don't know what half the stuff even means. Jasmine Bai Hao? Tummy Tamer? Sea Shell? Sure, why not?
That's where the sampler rack comes in, to help idiots like me. I twist off the caps of several varieties and take a deep whiff, like I've seen people do with wine on TV. The variety of flavors is quite surprising! Grasshopper has hints of herbacious mint and unsweetened chocolate, while Smokey Rum smells more like loose-leaf tobacco than any tea I've tried before. I'm sold. I order a cup of the Smokey Rum ($2.90 an ounce).
The Tea House also serves sandwiches, salads and desserts, so I also pony up for a caprese sandwich ($5), despite its unnecessary inclusion of pesto and tapenade, and a side that mixes quinoa, raisins and parsley ($1.95). Oh, and a pumpkin cheesecake ($4.95). I am not above the lures of the season's insidious pumpkin lobby.
As I wait, I wander around the shop portion of the building, where all the tea equipment beckons me to join a new, tea-enhanced lifestyle. The space is beautiful, no doubt — a lovely spot to meet up with friends or to interview someone about America's increasing reliance on unpaid interns.
And then the tea arrives. The flavor is outstanding, delivering on that quick impression I got from sniffing the jar. The Smokey Rum balances hints of tobacco and even leather, and it's strong, stronger than any tea I've ever had. Is this what tea is supposed to taste like? Is this what I was missing when I swore off the beverage? I admit it: I'm impressed. Over a long conversation, I sip my cup slowly, actually savoring it.
Like I mentioned, The Tea House is brand new, so not everything about my visit is perfect. The tea and food takes 25 minutes to come out, for example. And lunch isn't really worth trying just yet. My sandwich and quinoa are tasty enough, but the portions are too tiny to make The Tea House a genuine meal destination. But oh that tea — I know I'll be back to try some other varieties. The restaurant is throwing a big grand opening bash at 6 p.m. Fri., Nov. 15, with live music from Passerine and Michael Miller, as well as belly dancers. Sounds like a great opportunity to oolong-gate the list of teas I've tried.