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Once or twice a year I'll find myself, usually in the company of one or two girlfriends, having tea, in the British afternoon tradition, in a hotel or a rather quaint tearoom. It's a set meal, usually tripartite, including an assortment of finger sandwiches (cucumber and smoked salmon being two almost inevitable varieties); baked goods with butter and jam (scones, crumpets, or biscuits); and sweets (cakes, pastries, and cookies). Because tea, as poet William Cowper said, is "the cup that cheers but does not inebriate," many places suggest an optional glass of champagne or sherry. Usually you're offered a choice of a few teas, generally black or oolong, and possibly the misnamed "herbal tea," really infusions of herbs or fruit leaves. In the tonier places, you get brewed tea-ball tea, rather than the sad little tail of a teabag trailing from your pot or even worse, your cup.
It's a pleasant custom, and the little repast is often adorable, and it feels charmingly old-fashioned to pause for an hour or two and share dollhouse-sized treats while sipping a milky sugary brew. Despite the minor differences from place to place you might be offered clotted cream, as is usual in Devonshire the ritual is soothingly the same, whether it's observed in a plush hotel lobby or ye old tea shoppe.
At Modern Tea, as you might deduce from its name, "afternoon tea" is not ritualized. Tea itself is fetishized, delightfully. The changing menu of hot tea fair trade and organic, in most cases runs to more than a dozen-and-a-half different offerings, each identified by type, country of origin, and amount of caffeine (more, moderate, low, or none), and lovingly described in a few poetic lines. (Pots are $3.50 $5.25.) Modern Tea's owner, Alice Craven, is a Bay Area tea connoisseur who worked with the late, celebrated Helen Gustafson, who curated Chez Panisse's tea service, among other places. There's a separate menu of beverages that includes exotic chilled teas, spritzers, beer, and wine. And instead of a set meal of dainty, bite-sized treats, there are several menus of soups, salads, main dishes, and desserts, from which you can assemble a light snack or a several-course meal.
602 Hayes St.
San Francisco, CA 94102-4130
Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin
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Chicken quinoa chowder $6.50
Braised chicken $13.75
Salmon & farro $14.75
Creamy layered potatoes $10.75
Citrus buttermilk pudding cake $5.25
Chocolate pot de crème $6.50
Cookie plate $5.95
The room itself defies tearoom expectations: During the day, sunlight pours in from the two walls of uncurtained windows, bouncing off the creamy painted walls and the simple wood tables. There's no lace or flowered china in sight; abstract, flowing blue-and-green stained glass hovers atop the windows. When Joyce, little Violet, and I arrive for a late-afternoon lunch, the place is so full that we take three seats at one of the two eight-seat communal tables in the middle of the room. From the tea menu, I choose Assam, a black tea from India, described as hearty and malty, and with more caffeine; Joyce chooses a low-caffeine Pu-erh from China. My tea arrives in a small white pot, with a white china cup and saucer; Joyce's is in an even smaller pot, its finial decorated with a chain of beads, and comes with a tiny tea bowl. We're also brought cream, sugar, and an insulated chrome thermos full of hot water.
Our teas are so perfectly brewed that they're almost a different animal than any tea I've drunk before, whether at home or in a tearoom. We're told that they brew teas two different ways at Modern Tea, both using loose-leaf, unconfined tea leaves. The two-pot method is used for British-style teas, steeped in a large pot with lots of water and then strained into your individual pots. The other teas, suitable for multiple infusions, are brewed loose-leaf in individual pots, which you can top off with water from the thermos. This, I tell our eager and helpful young server, is what tea should always taste like. I'm more enamored of the tea than the savory food we try. Joyce's chicken meatloaf sandwich, two big slices on sturdy bread, is moist and gently herbed, a little recessive. My mildly cheesy strata, a kind of baked bread pudding, is rather a small portion (especially compared with the sandwich), sided by a salad of mixed greens in a good vinaigrette.
Our sweets, however, are astonishingly good. We devour a citrus buttermilk pudding cake, the confection served in a countrified mason jar, topped with whipped cream and a few shreds of candied ginger. It's kind of magical: mostly a lemony pudding, with a few cakey crumbs, tangy from the buttermilk, a little naive but perked up by the sophisticated sharp ginger. (The garnishes change seasonally; berries are popular in summer.) The chocolate pot de crème is seriously dense, seriously chocolatey (half Caillebaut, half Guittard, we're told), and seriously big.
I think I have Modern Tea figured out the exquisite tea and sweets take pride of place, especially since the kitchen eschews red meat and has a light and clean philosophy. Too light and clean for my tastes. But as we leave, Joyce is intrigued by the braised chicken on the dinner menu posted outside, and we make a date to return for an early family dinner in a week or so.