The Samovar Tea Lounge, tucked away at the top of the Yerba Buena Gardens, is in an irresistible location. Hidden from both Mission and Howard streets, the glassed-in tea room looks out to the Museum of Modern Art and the construction site of the new Jewish and Mexican museums from a perch next to flower gardens and a cascading fountain. Tea-takers on the patio are surrounded by an exciting urban landscape, the tapering glass St. Regis tower in the foreground and receding layers of skyscrapers in the distance. Yet, even at the epicenter of The City, Samovar radiates serenity.
Tea service, whether traditional Japanese, Chinese, English or San Francisco eclectic, affords respite and relaxation. The ritual of brewing and sipping tea and having it with special foods confers a degree of civility and refreshment to the moment. I certainly felt this at Samovar, where every detail of the tea ritual had been affectionately and creatively addressed in signature tea service meals.
The Chinese tea service ($15) began with a wooden tray set with a lidded, barrel-shaped celadon tea cup fitted with a strainer holding rinsed Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong tea. I was instructed to pour hot water from a small cast-iron pot over the leaves, cover the cup, and let it steep for 45 seconds. Its flavor, midway in strength between delicate green and robust black tea, was balanced, restorative and complex.
Then, a conical wire stand was set on the table — steamed won ton filled with garlicky pumpkin purée; a ceramic hot pot of braised chicken breast and hearty vegetables in tasty brown gravy withbrown rice; and a pretty molded coconut milk pudding sprinkled with toasted coconut. Nothing about these dishes would have been exceptional if they had been served conventionally, but the delightful tiered presentation, and the way they worked with the tea, was charming.
Moorish tea service ($17), another best bet, starts with a blend of fresh mint and black tea, which completes the vaguely Middle Eastern dishes arranged on a pounded metal tray: baby greens and mint leaves in a sweet vinaigrette; an attractively charred skewer of chewy, white halloumi cheese in cubes alternating with vegetables; salty black olives with rice-filled grape leaves; and a goat cheese-stuffed date crowned with a cardamom-dusted walnut. Again, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
Though a full range of tea and a handful of Asian accented dishes can be ordered a la carte, I had to try the Russian tea service ($18). After all, the tea lounge is named after the Russian tea urn at the entryway, where this meal begins. From a metal pitcher on top of the samovar, I half-filled a glass cup and saucer with a smoky black tea concentrate sweetened with strawberry jam; I then added hot water from a spigot at the bottom of the samovar, as instructed by the server.
The indifferently executed food came on a huge scalloped glass plate. Best of all was a big lapsang souchong chocolate truffle that paired brilliantly with the tea.
The discoveries at Samovar are worth the lapses. Samovar invented the concept of tea and food pairings four years ago at its first location on Sanchez Street at 18th Street. When proprietors converted the Starbucks in the Yerba Buena Gardens a year ago, the tea lovers in this town joyfully claimed a victory.
Samovar Tea Lounge
Location: Yerba Buena Gardens, Upper Terrace, 730 Howard St., San Francisco; 498 Sanchez St. at 18th Street
Contact: (415) 227-9400; www.samovartea.com
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily
Price range: Tea service, $14-$18; a la carte teas, $5.75-$7.50; a la carte dishes $3-$12
Recommended dishes: Chinese tea service; Moorish tea service
Credit cards: All major except Discover
Reservations: Not accepted
Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at email@example.com.