Steeped in Authenticity

Berkeley's Imperial Tea Court is part restaurant, part interactive museum.

You reach a certain point at which you think you’ve tried everything — at least, everything major. Sure, eyeballs — fish, pig, goat — await. But tongue? Tried it. Knuckles? Check. Durian sherbet, cockroach wine, thrush pâté? Check, check, check. So when a new taste comes along after you’ve passed that point, you’re stunned. You want to stand and sing like someone in a musical. You second-guess yourself, snorting: Was it really that good?

Uh, yes.

And — like Jesus, as converts would say — it’s been there all along.

The Imperial Tea Court, tucked at the leafy end of that Gourmet Ghetto experiment called the Epicurious Garden — a fancy indoor-outdoor food court featuring sushi and Italian Wedding Soup and four-dollar ice-cream cones — offers a one-page food menu, while its tea menu goes on for page after page: from orchid oolong to silver-needle jasmine to Heaven’s Gift to Gold Rings to “monkey-picked” tieguanyin that isn’t really picked by monkeys anymore. Ordering at the counter in this brick-walled, tassel-lanterned former garage, I chose keemun mao feng: a famous black. Always seeking the unfamiliar, Tuffy picked topaz puerh.

Mechanically, pretentiously, I corrected his pronunciation, barking “Poo-ARRR.” Yet although I could say it, I’d never tried it. Traditionally sold in bricks or hard convex bowl shapes, long ago used as a form of currency, it’s one of those Pacific Rim ubiquities. At our table, after it had steeped for two minutes Ming Dynasty gaiwan-style to a near-opaque brown in a lidded, chrysanthemum-patterned cup, Tuffy found it too strong. We switched. He seized my keemun, whose golden smokiness evoked hot sunsets and rawhide (but in a good way). I sipped his puerh.

Oh. Man.

An ancient tang. A wild ferment. Mellow and sharp in alternating sparks, this is tannic acid’s answer to stout, its large leaves forest-plucked from fuzzy trees in Yunnan, home to elephants and tigers. Splendor.

And it kept up, cup after cup. In gaiwan tradition, the same handful of tea leaves is re-infused repeatedly with dousings of hot water from a pot. Their intensity ebbs only ever so slightly with every refill. (An even fancier service, the gong fu service, is also available.) It’s a far cry, philosophically, from Lipton teabags tossed away after one quick dip. This is one of many lessons learned in a place that is part restaurant, part interactive museum, where non-Asian patrons fall all too easily into sophisticatedly-awestruck-by-exotica mode: palms pressed together, nodding too hard, fawning while showing off. I did not need to say “Yunnan” out loud but did, in decent Mandarin: a slightly rising tone on both vowels. What a jerk.

Businessman and ordained Taoist priest Roy Fong opened the original Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1993, then added another in the Ferry Building and then, two years ago, this one. The Chinatown court closed last year.

Entered through a round “moon gate” doorway that you reach by crossing a bridge over a horsetail-fringed brook, the Berkeley court’s interior provides few modern-world clues: The huge lanterns hang over massive carved rosewood tables and high-backed chairs whose dark, rigid Raise the Red Lantern formality evokes multiconcubine upper-class-family meals. Alcoves lining the walls display tea ware: character-incised cups, sea foam-hued celadon, “purple sand” yixing pots shaped like rabbits, pigs, and puffer fish. On a counter are teas sold by the leaf, brick, and ball. A chalkboard over the exposed kitchen lists daily specials.

You don’t have to be claustrophobic to want to eat outside. Shaded by dun-colored canvas umbrellas, tables on two levels overlook the brook and its waterfall, where corkscrewy plants bob and shirr. Shattuck Avenue feels miles, not mere yards, away.

And while the interior decor is somber, the food — a sly, sprightly surprise — is as fresh and bright as what some barefoot hermit might whip up for a picnic on a windswept peak, immortalized in a Tang Dynasty poem: fresh noodles and organic seasonal produce, prepared almost macrobiotically, with practically no oil, tasting like sunshine.

Made on the premises from organic flour and organic tea-seed oil, the hand-pulled noodles are thick and earthily chewy, reminiscent of chow fun but rougher-hewn and wheat-based rather than rice-based, revealing their northwestern Chinese roots. A bit of savory broth rests at the bottom of the bowl, steamed vegetables and a palm-sized burst of ground red pepper flakes on top. Slender, almost-sweet Tea House Spicy Noodles — studded with slabs of fried garlic and tinted faintly red by the house-special sauce — resemble spaghetti, making you think that Marco Polo must surely have sampled a dish very similar to this.

A protein powerhouse thick with julienned cabbage, carrot, and mushrooms, the Tofu Soup is over 50 percent tofu, its broth — like all the others we tried here — poised at a curiously perfect point of piquancy. Even one added drop of soy sauce would not so much spoil but insult it. Soy sauce and vinegar do complement the traditional teahouse dim sum such as steamed buns and plump steamed potstickers in jade-green wrappers. Ours were vegetarian, but, like most items here, these can also be ordered with chicken or pork. In a daily-special curry dish, coral-bright carrots and kabucha pumpkin were long-cooked to tender sweetness, drenched along with lightly fried fresh tofu in a thick mild Mom’s-home-cooking sauce. Sharing a plate with steamed cabbage, chard, and a scoop of brown rice, it almost murmured: Good. Good for you, too.

Pour more water on those leaves, because you’ll want to stay.

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