Volume 16 • Issue 54 | June 4 - 10, 2004

Brewing black, white and green in harmony

By Erica Stein

There’s something inherently civilized about tea. It’s not to be drunk quickly, solely for its caffeine like coffee, but to be slowly savored for the sense of calm and well being that it provides. It’s more a culture than a beverage.

That belief is what led Unni Moppan, 56, and Govindan Somaskanthan, 39, to open Tea Time last December. Dr. Moppan, a urologist at Brookdale Hospital Medical Center, and Somaskanthan, a computer engineer, met through the latter’s wife, who is an anesthesiologist at Brookdale. Their professional lives would seem to have ill-prepared them to open a small boutique business, but having both grown up near the vast tea estates of southern India, the tea trade is one to which they are well suited. The business is in the family, with Dr. Moppan’s cousin running a successful shop – which shares a name and suppliers with the Manhattan store – near Stanford University.

Tea Time, ensconced down the block from City Hall on 76 Chambers St., offers loose leaf tea by bulk and in the pot, English style high-tea snacks, and all kinds of tea paraphernalia. And detailed instructions on how to choose, eat, drink, or use everything you find there. The staff – especially the supervisor, Khadija, who trained for a month at the sister store in Palo Alto, Calif. before the New York location opened – is incredibly knowledgeable about their stock. They seem genuinely glad to see every customer, if only for the excuse to share their expertise. First time visitors are carefully guided through the 150 varieties of teas and tisanes, each of which is named and explained using both precise industry terminology and smell-tests. The staff’s enthusiasm saves them from pedantry, and, despite their attention to detail, they can have a customer served and out the door in three minutes flat.

But the owners, who have kept their day jobs, would much prefer that you stay. Tea, said Dr. Moppan, calls for a “slow process of drinking.” To give customers something to munch on while they drink, Tea Time offers traditional high-tea foods such as cranberry scones with lemon curd (which, resembling nothing so much as the filing of a first-rate lemon bar, should be an attraction on its own) and modern variations like the spicy shrimp and avocado crumpet. He said the food offered isn’t intended to be filling, it’s “an accessory, so you can sit and enjoy the tea,” which is brought out in a pot complete with a cozy.

While the most popular tea by the pot is Masala Chai –“‘chai’ means ‘tea’ in many Indian dialects,” Moppan explained, and the Masala Chai is marked with distinctive spices mixed with the tea leaves – the store’s core of aficionados prefers Green tea for its antioxidant and health properties. But then there’s the expensive white tea, the non-caffinated tisanes, and the wide range of black teas.

“We have a range of prices for every kind of tea, but white tea in general tends to be the most expensive,” said Moppan. “It’s made from the bud, not the leaf, so you need to pick more buds to make the tea.” Green and black tea are both made from the leaf, and black tea has the most caffeine. According to Moppan, Tea Time’s coffee converts – and there are a lot of them – tend to prefer black tea, which sells better for home use. Moppan and Somaskanthan say they want their customers to know tea and brew it at home – but properly. “The more knowledge you have, the better the tea will taste,” said Moppan

Green tea is harder to make at home than the best-selling Assam black tea, said Moppan, because the water must be heated to 189 degrees Fahrenheit, just off boil, while water for black tea is allowed to boil. While Tea Time’s menu already provides customers with this and other important information, Moppan and Somaskanthan plan to begin hosting in-depth tea seminars at the store beginning this summer.

“Never boil the water with the tea leaves. Boil the water first, take the tea, put it in a filter in a cup or pot, and then pour the water over the tea,” explained Moppan. Each class will focus on a different type of tea, and the tuition will help the owners offset the rent, which they say cannot be paid with onsite sales alone. Tea Time has also had success catering events for local businesses like NPR and offers a separate corporate menu.

Tea Time is located at 76 Chambers St. between Broadway and Church. The store is open Saturday from 11-6, and weekdays 10:30 a.m. –6 p.m.

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