The Art of Tea (and Sandwiches) [Restaurant review]
The 100-page tea menu includes a guide to tea terminology and the art of reading tea leaves. The staff knows tea and will enhance your experience
by Richard Foss
When I asked the Chado Tea Room manager how many varieties of tea were available, he sadly told me that there were only 398. There are 405 on the menu, but seven are seasonal or were out of stock. I assured him that I expected to find something I liked even from that limited selection.
An inventory like that would bring tea fanatics to this side street in Old Torrance even if the place had the charm of a bus station, but Chado has much more going for it. This branch of a successful Pasadena business not only sells tea at retail, you can get a brunch or afternoon repast worthy of an English aristocrat.
The exterior is drab but a surprise awaits when you step inside. The warehouse-sized room has chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, a fountain and potted plants in the center, and rows of tables with crisp white linens. A mural of the history of tea is above shelves packed with china teacups and pots in both traditional and novelty versions. If you ever wanted to know where to find a teapot where the liquid comes out of a ceramic octopus tentacle, elephant’s trunk, or a goofy vehicle’s hood ornament, this is the place to come. Most guests wander around taking it all in before heading to a table.
Once seated, you will be handed a food menu and a tea menu. The latter has an even 100 pages and is actually more than a menu because it includes a guide to tea terminology, agriculture, and the art of reading tea leaves, among other things. It’s such absorbing reading that my wife and I spent at least 20 minutes thumbing through it before doing what any sensible person would do: asking our server Orlando for advice. He asked our flavor preferences and offered suggestions. My wife ended up with a pot of Brendan’s breakfast tea while I had a Taiwanese oolong called Jade Pearls. My wife likes her tea slightly tannic and astringent with floral notes on top while I was in the mood for something light that emphasized the fruitiness of the leaves. We both got what we wanted. We could have shared a pot because it could be refreshed with hot water, but we wanted to share and compare.
The food menu is smaller and less exotic, and stays close to classic tea room classics: scones, soup, salads, and sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off. (Looking at that on the menu brought up a question: why do they do this? The answer is that nobody knows. It has been suggested that the English cut off crusts to make the sandwiches uniform in size and shape, but that’s only a guess. I meant to ask our server what they do with the cut off bits, but I got distracted and forgot. I presume it involves making croutons or feeding birds.)
If you’re a traditionalist who loves the ritual you can order an afternoon tea here (yes, they serve it in the morning too, because afternoon tea is a thing, not strictly related to a time of day). This involves a pot of tea, a tiered rack of sandwiches and scones with accompaniments, and a macaron or sugar cookie for dessert. For 20 bucks a person, the experience is as close to dining with the Queen as most of us will get.
My wife and I decided on a more modest lunch and browsed the menu. All the usual tea sandwiches are here, such as egg salad; cucumber; and cream cheese, and salmon, but there are some stylish touches. It’s not just any egg salad, but one with tea-smoked eggs and the chicken salad has cranberry in the mayonnaise.
On a previous visit, I tried a chicken tikka masala sandwich, which had not a whisper of spiciness but was nicely savory. This time I had a ham and cheese panini with Waldorf salad while she had the smoked egg salad and the vegetarian soup.
The Waldorf salad is a relic of another era, having been invented in 1893. The original was composed of tart apples, celery, and grapes in a mayonnaise dressing. Walnuts were a later addition, and now raisins are often added. The version here is eccentric. It is served over lettuce and lacks grapes but does have chicken, and while it’s not a true Waldorf it is quite good. As for the sandwich, I ordered with it, it was a proper ham and cheese panini with a little lettuce and tomato, and there’s nothing else that can be said about it. It was a nice accompaniment to the salad and tea, which was its purpose.
My wife’s sandwich was another subtle item. The smoked tea marinade in the eggs added a mild tang that I would have found impossible to identify if I hadn’t known what it was from reading the menu. If you like your egg salad with only the barest hint of mustard and paprika for accent you’ll be delighted with this one. We were both more impressed with the vegetable soup, which had diced tomato, squash, potato, and onion in a rich, fruity broth.
Had we ended our meal there or ordered one of the old-fashioned desserts it would have been an enjoyable but not exceptional experience. But our server surprised us with an item we had overlooked. There’s a section called “Display Teas” on the tea menu, a category I had never heard of. We were therefore surprised when he brought over a glass teapot, dropped a plain-looking brown ball into it and advised us to wait about seven minutes. Before our eyes, the ball unfolded and bloomed, and a fragrant, fruity aroma filled the area. It kept unfolding, sending a five-inch stalk of blossoms upward through the hot water. It looked remarkably like a time lapse, nature documentary. The ball was made of different herbs and flowers, artfully tied together to achieve this startling and delightful effect. The light, sweet tea that resulted was delicious, and I can hardly wait to drag friends back there so I can watch the wonder on their faces.
Our filling and enjoyable lunch for two ran about $40, the same as we would have spent for their high tea, and everything about the experience put us in a serene world. The staff here knows their products and serves them with skill, and they enhance a unique experience. If you appreciate tea in any form, you owe it to yourself to visit.
The Chado Tea Room is at 1303 El Prado Avenue in Old Torrance. Open 11 a.m – 7 p.m. daily, street parking, wheelchair access good. No alcohol served. Reservations suggested for large parties. Menu at chadotearoom.com.(424) 757-5222.
by Richard Foss