Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Teanj (& Tea & I)

 
Teanj has been opened a month. I’ve been going there at least five days a week.

I rarely write so directly about local businesses. Dislocations is not a commercial blog, it is more interested in ideas, observations and art than what you can buy in where most posts are set, Jersey City. I’m not into making recommendations.

But I am making a rare exception here. I love tea. I know tea. I drink tea. Teanj is a place worth writing about. In fact, I’ve been thinking of writing about my love affair with tea drinking for a while now, and the opening of Teanj served as catalyst to pour forth on ideas that have been steeping for a while now (yes, I know, smirk or wince).


 
Teanj sells tea as good, and in many cases, better, than any place in New York.

I am well qualified to judge. I’m a total tea head. On a weekly basis, I go to those New York establishments to get the loose-leaf tea I drink from dawn to dusk.


 
Now that tea purchase can be made here on the Jersey side.

Tea NJ is a warm and inviting. You can get coffee there too, and the food –it doubles as a lunch joint, with healthy sandwiches and salads – is really good and affordable. Two Vegan friends of mine unbeknownst to each other swear by the black bean burger and another vegan I do not know
came in when I was there and was getting a beverage but was praising the very same dish.

Teanj was founded about two years ago in Union City. The owner had been visiting downtown Jersey City for a while and when this spot on Newark Avenue opened, he seized the opportunity to access the local vegan hipster set.

William Toledo, the owner, runs the place with his son of the same name. Conner and Jen are also on the wait staff. They are all engaging conversationalists.
 
 
 
 








 

 
The atmosphere is comfy and inviting. Punk rock from multiple eras at a muted volume fills the space with an amiable and subdued energy. The chairs and tables are wood. A large square of ceramic tiles cover the slats of table tops. Teanj has a veranda feel, like you’ve discovered some hole in the wall café on the outskirts of a post colonial village.

Tasteful knick-knacks – selected by William’s wife – give Teanj an air of personal hospitality, but also echo an amiable obsession with tea drinking and tea accruements. A plant grows from a huge tea cup, dainty tea sets – pot and cups are on shelves. Hand-made statuettes of an angel, a water nymph strums a lute, a scare-crow plays a fife. Carved toy trucks and buses are in the wooden case where the sugar and stirrers are kept. The ornaments would not be out of place in the children’s playroom of a large estate, or a breakfast nook where the family was served breakfast. But the revolution is over and our oppressors have fled. Now we drink our tea in their abandoned parlors.

The space actually is a former barbershop – perhaps that accounts for the tangible neighborliness that seems instantaneously noticeable upon entering – and the barber reopened on the same block. One sign that is unmistakably Jersey City –art – available for sale – is on parts of the walls. Every other business here is a part-time gallery. Teanj has been opened a month, and the self-curated mini-exhibit just experienced its first rotation.








 
On the wall of the hall in the back that leads to the kitchen and rest room are some family pictures, drawings by William’s nine year old daughter. This further enhances the homey feel, emphasizing the family atmosphere that greets you yet they seem seamlessly interwoven with the other objects creating an ambiance of nonjudgmental comfort

Tiny details catch the eye. Clever and amusing, along with the tea encourages contemplation. A gentle and soft oasis; and however brief, Teanj makes worries fade and hectic Newark Avenue a memory.

A dorm-room refrigerator size glass case of cakes and other sweets is near the counter, on with displays of vegan cakes and cupcakes and granola bars. A steamer system is on the caddy corner wall behind the counter, on the wall directly behind the counter is the library of teas – about 40 and growing– with numbers and you look at a menu and pick a number – e.g. Almond Cookie # 7 – the counter ordering process is fun. The cans instill the impression of being in a friend’s pantry.




 
A rumor is circulating that Teanj is owned by the musician, Moby, the electronica DJ of whom I know next to nothing. One time, while enjoying a cuppa at Teanj, this woman, walking her dog, stepped up from the sidewalk, opened the door and stuck her head in, asking “are you owned by Moby?”

Several years ago, Moby founded Teany, a tea shop with vegan food, located in the lower east side. William, an IT manager at a Secaucus company, would hang out there with his wife and eventually worked part time there. A few years later he was inspired to leave the corporate world and open up Teanj in Union City – the name wasn’t licensed; Moby lost the shop to his now ex-wife in their divorce agreement. She eventually sold the lower east side shop and Teany is under new ownership. Teanj is not an extension or new location of a chain, but Moby’s shop bred the conceptual impetus.

Teanj offers dozens of flavors, the majority custom-blended by William. Herbal and non-caffeinated tea are rare beverages for me. Black tea– that is definitely my thing. I love black tea.

Two other downtown establishments – Basic Café on Erie and the Warehouse Café on Bay – have great ambience, reasonable prices, wonderful food and a quality, respectable cup of tea. But selection is limited to two or three flavors of black tea. Star Bucks offers the same number of options. Like Star Bucks, Basic Café and Warehouse Café makes a sincere effort and offer an atmosphere conducive to solitude or conversation, but their tea takes a back seat to their coffee.

Teanj, like newcomers David’s Tea and Argo Tea offers original blends of the leaf combined with other flavors. Teavina does the same thing, except there’s no place for seating at that establishment.

Teanj is the least expensive of those competitors, offers as good – in some cases slightly better and I say slightly because the tea product offered is high quality from the other providers – a tea.

I both hang out there to sip tea and buy their blends –mainly their Vanilla and Chocolate chai and their roasted Matte – to keep at home for daily consumption . An almond flavored infused tea – Almond Cookie –is rich, a desert-like flavor, a perfect afternoon blend. A Ceylon with dried lime is an innovation I have not seen elsewhere, as is a chai with lemon grass and coconut, a more delicate balance but genuinely thirst quenching.

I know my tea.



 
I had my first and last cup of coffee at five years old

I’ve been a committed tea drinker ever since.

My parents and family are serious coffee drinkers. Hot coffee was always either available or being made in our home. The brewing process was a percolator, which would hiss and clatter. An electrical contraption, a metal pitcher plugged into an outlet on the kitchen counter, a clear plastic knob on top of the lid where spurts of coffee would spit up and flow back down into the pot.

Inside was this metal cylindrical filter device connected to a long stem, which held the coffee. I remember mostly cans of Maxwell House. Nobody ground their own coffee back then. A tiny bag for kitchen scraps was kept in its small stand by the sink; alongside peels from onions and carrots and other vegetables was always a lump of soggy coffee grounds.

My father got up early to catch the train to Wall Street and he would prepare the coffee the night before, ready to be plugged in, minutes after waking but before taking the shower. He got up before us kids, my mother drove him to the train station and then got us out of bed and off to school. Any coffee she didn’t’ drink, she put in a glass with ice and the glass in the refrigerator so Dad could have ice coffee when he got home. My mother worked as a sectary at our parochial grammar school and she would drink coffee at home before she went to pick up my father at the Oradell train station. A fresh pot would percolate during dinner, after which coffee was always served. Holidays there was always this long drawn out lull between main course and desert as we waited for the percolator to work its magic.

That machine fascinated me as a child, it would shake and make noise, a simple machine, no on/off switch, you turned it on by plugging it in, when the coffee was ready, you unplugged it. At some point, my parents switched to the dripping philosophy of a Mr. Coffee-like device, but not until I was in college I think. I remember most that tin metal pot with the clear knob on top where mini-geysers of coffee periodically erupted as it clicked and murmured. The coffee aroma thickened in the kitchen and spread throughout the house.

I was fascinated by the percolator, an R2D2 unit that seemed from another era even during my analog era Wonder Bread years. Once plugged in, invisible fumes of coffee filled the air, but the beverages inside were forbidden to children. My teenager older siblings were allowed coffee, which they drank in the morning and after dinner, but not I. The smell of coffee permeated life in our house, from dawn to after dusk, the source of that lush aroma – which I still love – was my childhood tree of knowledge of whose fruit could be indulged in by everyone but me (and my littler sister).

I kept nagging my father, let me try it, let me drink some coffee.

Now, Kimball’s Coffee (Kimball was my father’s first name) was renowned by the family as being thick as mud with a flavor akin to brimstone. It was the kind of coffee they drank in the Marine Corps, he would say. The aunts on holidays insisted on making the coffee to accompany holiday pies and cake. Even among coffee drinkers, Kimball’s Coffee was an acquired taste few acquired.

Finally he gave into my nagging, made me a cup with milk and sugar. It was awful. I can still remember gagging, involuntary spewing it from my mouth. I then vomited (or least as I remember). The revulsion was total, racing through my entire body. My father laughed at my reaction. It was the last cup of coffee I ever had. Even when I tried something coffee-flavored, like coffee ice cream, that sense memory surges back. Ironically, I make a great cup of coffee – during the live-in relationships, since I usually woke up first, I made the coffee – but I have never been able to overcome my reaction to Kimball’s Coffee. Coffee was ruined for me forever.

Instead, it was tea for me. In high school, I remember earl gray and Lipton. Early Grey was the only tea other than Orange Pekoe (Lipton, Red Rose, Tetley, etc.) that was sold, soon maybe Darjeeling. I had a tea pot during college, and I would brew pots and pots of tea while writing papers and studying for exams. When I went to England I was fascinated they actually served tea without a bag. Before then, I never even conceived how that could be possible.

It would be decades before loose leaf brewing would become the staple of my life it now is.

By the late 90s, the world of tea started changing. Tea began a universe-wide upgrade. Before then, there was Lipton, Tetley and Red Rose and the basic orange pekoe.



 
PAUSE

You want to read about why varieties of different teas exist or the hokum about how the tannic acid enhances your tantric Tao, go to a more insipid blog. I have little patience for tea mythos. I do not really like green or herbal teas, I love caffeine and the main purpose of tea is as caffeine delivery system.

 
Herbal teas began to proliferate in the 1970s and 1980s, with the company Celestial Seasonings. Health Food Stores cornered that market, but as the forces of capitalism always have it, supermarkets expanded their selections to compete against independent stores. For black tea, there was Bigelow and Twinning, with their Constant Comment, Early Grey, Darjeeling’s –these were around when I was a kid and became more prominent in the subsequent decades.

But it really wasn’t until the 1990s when you started seeing English Breakfast with its hardy flavor and instantly noticable higher caffeine level. With my suasage and egg on a roll at the bodega before work I could now get an English breakfast tea. More brands began to appear.

That’s the funny thing about being a tea drinker. Tea was limited to a Lipton or Lipton copycat brand for years. Waiters would ignore my request for tea instead of coffee, or bring me coffee than give off attitude because I was different. Sometimes the water was tepid not hot. Mediocre tea was the rule.

We no longer live in that Tea-verse. Unlike so many things –like music or movies! – tea has gotten better as the 20th century ended and the 21st century dawned.

First Starbucks came. I loved – and love – Starbucks. Soon after they began to appear around these parts, 1995 or so – the one at Pavonia Newport was the first in Jersey City – it was announced they acquired Teazo, the first tea brand that pointed to a world of tea flavor well beyond Twinning.

Star Bucks was where I had my first Chai Latte – my first introduction to the land of chai, that spicy mix of Assam tea leaves, cinnamon, nutmeg and spices with steamed milk. I never had steamed milk before. I would always be served some limp Tetley while my companions gleefully quaffed their cappuccinos. I was obsessed with the chai latte for a while, overdosing on them to such an extent that I took a break for years. Teanj makes a great latte – they use dried ingredients, not a syrup, and they dry them into a powder themselves. I recommend the Vanilla Chai latte.

But the tea bags of chai or Awake, a high-quality English Breakfast tea, served at Starbucks would give a me reason to meet friends there or read, enjoying their unique atmosphere that combines rustic coziness –echoing Seattle, the northwest port city where it was founded – and impersonal on the go service efficiency of a corporate restaurant chain. The premium brand market expanded as did the price points.

Then, sometime towards the end of the first or beginning years of the second decade of the 21st century the tea boom bomb was detonated. Bush II might have ruined most aspects of America, Tbut ea was the exception. New brands and flavors abounded. Chocolate tea appeared. Then I discovered loose tea, to serve at home. Somebody had given me a coffee of the month gift for Christmas from Zabars, and I called them up, and using a white lie to strengthen my request, explained my doctor forbids me to drink coffee can you change this to tea. They were very nice, sent me a new bag of loose tea and a new bag every month. English Breakfast or a decaffeinated herbal they asked.

English Breakfast of course – they and a very limited selection of flavors then – I wonder of that has changed. I went to the Zabars location and bought a tea scoop, which measures out a typical per serving portion and a tea ball, where I could put the leaves into for steeping. I haven’t gone back to store-bought bags since.

But as the Coffee now Tea of the month program ended – and it took more than a month to go through the entire pound of loose leaf tea I was sent – I discovered Tea & Sympathy, this emporium of British food stuffs in Greenwich village. Tea & Sympathy is a British Store and adjacent British restaurant, which has great tea by the pot, served in the overly fussy British style of clever pots and dainty cups, but you have to order the high cholesterol bad food, like Bangers & Mash or Bangers & Baked Beans (bangers are serious, incredibly delish and artery hardening sausage). I once had their custard cake, a pound cake stuck in a bowl of custard like a dying mastodon in a tar pit. I immediately went home to lay down and sleep off the diabetic shock.

The store though, besides these selection of digestives –which are cookies or crackers or some British delicacies – and Cadbury chocolates unavailable elsewhere in the states. Tea & Sympathy is a paradise for anglophiles and a way for ex-pat Brits to indulge their munchies and fight off homesickness. But they also had great loose leaf – a golden tea I pick up once in a while, still – and quality black and chias. You can also get a cuppa to go, there’s a park nearby and when the weather is nice and I am in the neighborhood and have some time, Tea & Sympathy fits the bill. Even though I have now bought my loose leaf home stash elsewhere for a good three years at least, I still go to this tory outpost for to get the best tea balls in the tea-verse.

I use bags in the travel mug – sachets is a popular, $10 word for them – but for the home drinking, like the mug I am working on now as I type – it’s the tea ball, a kind of miniature tin colander attached to a thin chain, so you can lift it out of the mug. At Tea & Sympathy – and I do not know of another store that offers these made in England steeping devices – the tea balls have a small ceramic ornament – a tulip or rose, I’ve seen a red London phone booth and a friend who lives nearby gave me a ball with a holiday-themed, ceramic holly leaf. The ornament is a counter-balance to the ball filled with tea, dangles over the lip of the mug, enabling lifting out ball and making it easier to move the ball up and down, as one does a tea bag that has a string attached. I am positive this does nothing to advance steeping, but this mindless gesture enhances contemplation.

Sometimes you need to let the mind wander. Tea encourages reflection and contemplation and this slight hand movement of dipping the ball or bag is often part of that experience. Why tea balls are still made without the counter-balance ornament baffles me, the fact the concept has not been widely accepted by other tea ball manufacturers is criminal. With the counter-balance, the chain falls into the tea, then you have to go fishing with a spoon. Focusing on the tea and mug momentarily shatters any chance at reverie. Tea should be more about the tea drinker than the tea. Tea & Sympathy is a fun store, the brits very nice so at least I’m glad I have an excuse to visit and tarry.

I found other places in New York that sold loose-leaf tea. They sold coffee too. Nothing that made me want to become a regular, no way to taste the teas and were basically limited in their offerings. You couldn’t sit down and linger over a cup. Also, the shops were off my beaten paths.

Argo Tea came into town around 2011 or so. It’s a Star Bucks for Tea and they sell loose tea. The tea is excellent and their black tea is a morning staple for me – it is called Nelegri and grown in Africa – going to their Union Square location is just about a weekly occurrence for me – I am in that neighborhood very often – I can always find a seat. The staff is usually friendly with some notable exceptions. For the loose tea, you self-serve, like the bulk sales of dates or nuts at a health food store. You fill up these paper bags, but then you bring the bags to the cashier and they turn on the scale. They keep the tip jar on the scale and remove the tip jar. Anyone with any experience with scales knows how delicate the mechanisms are, even the most digitized models and every other week there is a problem with getting the right weight or price – there is a system of codes and the cashier has to enter the codes into the register. The turnover of employees is high at Argo, the scale training is not a priority. The system is tragically inefficient, sometimes it is accurate, other times they round it up. I always feel I a little ripped off. Argo has an entire wall of these clear, cylindrical loose leaf teas – inviting all to self-serve and then when you get to the cash register, nobody knows how to use the scale, the manager is called over, the system of codes is explained– it is probably easier to launch a missile attack than it is to get 1.5 ounces of hazelnut chai at Argo.

But they have a loyalty card, you get free cups the more you spend and the tea is pretty superb. The ambiance is similar to Star Bucks, I keep going back. They steep the teas before they are served. I love the black tea tea-paccino with two percent milk and a shot of vanilla flavor, but the inanity of some 20 year old kid saying it will be $13 for my loose leaf tea when I know it’s about four dollars since I buy it every week and the manager, who now knows me, has to cancel the order, re-weigh the tea then re-enter the secret ARGO tea codes gets really annoying. I’ve been at the register 20 minutes some times talking some friendly but ineptly trained front line worker through the complex tea weighing process, not exactly the optimum prelude to drinking of a cup of tea. I love the tea and enjoy the place, but this part of the Argo concept seriously needs re-evaluation.

David’s Tea is down on Bleeker Street. The atmosphere is like an aggressively friendly medical marijuana dispensary. It is cleaner than Argo, bordering on antiseptic. Enthusiasm overflows from the staff, who show you the teas – the tears are kept in large canisters, which they bring out for you to smell. The CFO was once at the Bleeker location and he and I got into a tea chat – as this blog indicates, when prompted I can rattle on about tea – he said Argo is in the restaurant business, David’s Tea is in the tea business and the Bleeker Street location is the rare one where there is a place to sit and drink the tea. The lights are bright, but it is a little sterile and the tea is treated a little too much like a quasi-pharmaceutical. They give you no reason to linger. The staff, many of them are struggling actors and performers, are extreme extroverts. Their intensely bright cheerfulness takes some getting used to. But I love going there and the have some great teas. I they have some chocolate yerba mattes that are unique and some chai teas worth noting. I will often have a cup of their citron oolong – I never make oolong at home, it is an afternoon tea I only drink out – and they have a gurana chai, which I mix with other chais, that will push you from zero to sixty, with a nice peaty accent that can be nice note to the spicy symphony chai exudes.

Teavina opened a location in Jersey City. The tea is quality, Morning Matte was given to me as a gift, long before Teavina came to the Newport Mall, and that got me to include a matte in my morning repertoire. I had never been in one before the Newport shop opened. The atmosphere is high-priced, luxury store – a Harry & David’s – and it is way over the top in that regard. Their canisters are large and instead of opening them and holding them up to you sniff, they wave the lid over the canister pushing the aroma towards you. Teavina is the most pretentious tea store in the tea-verse. They sell the teas in two ounces, not one, allotments, but the prices are for one ounce on the cans and they constantly push their canisters, so whatever is on the canister is double at the register. I’m sorry, I’m not going to buy $50 dollars worth of one tea just to have a metal contained with your company’s logo in my kitchen. Teavina sales practices is needlessly confusing, a bait and switch. If you care how much you spend for tea Teaavina is not the place to shop. It’s for really not for people who like tea but for people who like buying luxury items but cannot afford a new Porsche. It is really not for the serious – i.e., obsessive like me – tea drinker. You can buy cups of tea here, and they make a big deal of using a pure rock sugar – and they make a big deal of steep time and the temperature of the water – boiling hot is not good enough– what pretentious nonsense. But apparently Jersey City health laws prohibit serving milk, so they put in creamora. A cup of tea can cost $4.99 there and you can’t even get it with milk.

Last time I was there, they were out of the teas that I wanted, I got a cup of tea that was terrible and they were out of the sugar and the creamora. Go to the Starbucks, they own us now, I was told. It was just an escalator ride away, but I tried this new tea but it had a fruity flavor, which I did not know by the name and I don’t like fruity teas. A waste of money and time. I’m not saying I’ll never go back, but I haven’t since.
 
Enter Teanj in 2014, not just a small but noteworthy improvement over the current phase of the tea-verse, but competitively priced and with a tea that is equal to others, superior to most. Did I mention, it’s about a five minute walk from the apartment.

That’s the other thing I cannot quite believe. Not only is the dark ages of tea over – uninspired flavors and mass-produced brands – but now the best tea place in the known teaverse is right in my neighborhood.


 
 

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