Tea reveals itself only to those who meditate upon it: That’s the message imparted by Celadon, Solano Avenue’s new tea store and cafe. Designer and co-owner Fu-Tung Cheng has made an oasis of molded concrete and bamboo planks; a stream of water flows down a groove in the countertop until it spills into a jar. Customers gather around a conical ceramic pillar for free tastings prepared by a “tea chef” Wednesday through Saturday evenings. I arrive too early for a tasting, so my friend and I order individual pots of tea.
The twenty or so teas on Celadon’s menu come from tea-growing regions in China, Taiwan, and other East Asian countries. Individual pots cost $4 to $9; two-ounce tins sell for $15 and up (and up). Chinese tea snacks and organic desserts are priced around $2.
Under the placid gaze of the Buddha on the back wall, my friend and I find ourselves whispering. We can’t tell whether we’re trying to keep our conversation secret in the almost-empty room, or responding to Celadon’s reverent aura. Certainly the three servers, thin and elegant, cultivate a hushed atmosphere.
Our server bends over the table to answer our questions in a quiet, singsong voice. Yes, the owner believes that monkey-picked tea was originally picked by monkeys. For the oolongs, she recommends the High Mountain Blend. Legend has it that Red Robe Tea got its name from a magistrate who was cured by drinking the tea, and hung the symbol of his office on the patch to honor its special properties. We’re sold.
She soon delivers two small, fluted eggshell cups on tiny saucers, and two one-shot clay teapots. Our two-ounce lemon pound cake has been baked in a half-size muffin tin. We are given two oyster forks to eat it with. The server instructs us to lift off the lids of our teapots when we need more water.
But the preciousness has a purpose. Tea steeped in tiny clay pots picks up all the grace notes and overtones that the leaves can impart, for tea is as complex a beverage as wine. The High Mountain Oolong tastes of flowers on a bed of fusty moss, the Red Robe of berries and twigs snatched from a fire, barely charred. I finish my cup quickly, exhaling deeply through my nose to carry the flavors to the furthest ends of my nostrils, and tilt my tiny pot for a second cup. Three drops spill out. “Well, I guess you can tip your lid up now,” advises Dina. Under the lid, the teapot is almost completely filled with swollen leaves, enough for several tea bags.
When the server comes over with a silver teapot of hot water, she explains that we can get three to five pourings from each pot. The flavor mutates with each cup, growing coarser and more bitter. The exquisiteness of the tea subsides, and I am as relieved as I am wistful to see it disappear.