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‘Round the world with ZenCha’s new teas
By Karen Edwards
© Photos Gus Brunsman III
Maureen Thomas stands with owner I Cheng Huang.
It’s winter in Columbus. The snowbirds and anyone with any sense have headed south by now. The rest of us slosh through what weather predictors euphemistically call “a wintry mix” and cling to our feeble, fleeting allotment of daylight.
Of course those of us who stay are not entirely without options. We can take a trip down the Silk Road, for example… watch a sunset over the Sahara desert… sniff the cinnamon-ginger smells of an Arabian market.
Those experiences aren’t as far-flung as they seem. It’s simply a matter of stepping inside the ZenCha tea salon, 982 N. High Street, and ordering the right cup of tea.
ZenCha owner I Cheng Huang expanded his tea menu just last month, adding forty-four new teas that span not only a broader geographic region (black teas from Arabia, for example, and red teas from Africa), but also a longer period of history.
Take the new Historic Chinese Tea Series, which offers the top 15 teas of China. (Huang’s current favorite tea, “Spiral Jade,” is in this category.) In a country that offers literally hundreds of teas, these are the award-winners, and many go back thousands of years. In other words, these teas are not the ones you find in an ordinary tea bag.
But none of the teas at ZenCha are ordinary. Whether it’s a white, green, yellow or black tea, a pu-erh (an aged, fermented tea) or one of ZenCha’s in-house blends, these are top-drawer teas that attract their own followings.
“The people who come here are adventurous,” says Huang. “They’re willing to try things.” Even teas you’re unlikely to find in teahouses in New York, Chicago and Washington D.C.
Most customers – Huang ventures to guess as many as 80% – are novice tea drinkers.
“They throw a tea bag in a cup and microwave it,” he says with a laugh.
But when introduced to select, fine teas, the kind of teas the rest of the world drinks, they’re quickly won over.
Chai, the spicy black Indian tea, has probably the greatest following at ZenCha. The original menu offered only two varieties – vanilla and masala. Huang has added five new flavors, including coconut, cinnamon mint, and mango green.
The new kid on the block
Bubble tea, the trendy beverage (Huang calls it “the new kid on the block”) that arrives with gummy tapioca pearls at the bottom of the cup, comes in 10 flavors at ZenCha – and a new, yogurt bubble tea has been added.
The teas listed in the Royaltea series are the ones we’re probably most familiar with – Earl Grey, for example (a new addition), Lady Londonderry, and English Breakfast. You’ll also find new teas here that are decidedly more exotic, like the smoky Russian Caravan, a new Assam, and Ceylon tea, and a “top-grade” black tea from Kenya.
French teas, as Huang describes them, are all milk and flowers blended into a creamy latte while German teas are all fruit and herbs. Think of apples, oranges and berries in fragrant, liquid form.
In keeping with today’s natural health movement, Huang has greatly expanded ZenCha’s herbal remedy teas as well.
“We’re careful in recommending these teas for specific ailments,” Huang says. “These aren’t miracle cures.”
Still, it’s hard to resist a tea called “Fountain of Youth,” “Sunny Energizer,” or “Zen Tranquility.” Just saying the names may provide the desired effects – the way that some placebos do.
Serious tea drinkers may want to focus attention on the Taiwan Tea Series featuring eight semi-fermented oolong teas, including “Oriental Beauty,” a rare, champagne oolong. Three green teas are included in this series as well.
For green tea lovers
And if green tea is (ahem) your cup of tea, you’ll be pleased to note that this variety has its own series at ZenCha. The Japanese Green Tea series features six green teas – two more than the previous menu, and now includes a wonderful white tea-green tea blend called “Silver Dew.” If you enjoy green tea, this one should be on your list.
The Arabic tea series is entirely new. These are rich black teas infused with spices, herbs and fruits - Cardaman Mint, Cardamon Ginger, Cinnamon Orange, Honey Lemon.
And if you prefer your teas decaffeinated, there’s the African Red Tea series. African red tea, or rooibos, is naturally decaffeinated and contains enough anti-aging antioxidants and minerals to provide other healthy benefits as well. And these teas are delicious. Try “Safari” with its hint of caramel and touch of cappuccino.
Finally, when winter doldrums simply become more than you can handle, ZenCha offers a perfect antidote in its milk and fresh fruit teas. The milk teas are comforting. Try caramel or pudding milk tea to indulge your inner child. The fresh fruit tea has been among ZenCha’s most popular offerings. Now, the fruit that is dropped into this blended, decaffeinated tea is based on a season: spring, summer, autumn, winter. Take your pick. Somehow, winter just seems better when you’re spooning fresh fruit out of your tea.
It’s not just the teas that make the ZenCha experience special, however. Each tea, depending on type, is served in the manner of its country of origin.
You’ll sip the Japanese green tea from a handleless pottery cup, for example, and the Arabic tea from the traditional tall, thin one.
The Chinese heritage tea is presented as a do-it-yourself package. It’s actually the same tea set that’s used in Chinese tea ceremonies. The tea, in a small, rectangular dish is poured into a diminutive teapot. Pour in hot water from the carafe, let it steep – and when you feel it’s done, pour it into a narrow cup that funnels the tea’s aroma and channels it directly to your nose. If your nose tells you it’s done (it will smell deliciously floral) then you pour it into your tasting cup. Such ritual forces you to take this tea seriously.
“Our mission at ZenCha is to promote tea culture,” says Huang.
It’s one of the reasons he increased the number of teas he serves.
“When I opened ZenCha two years ago, I had no idea what kind of teas would be popular,” says Huang. He prepared a prototype tea menu that has served him well – but since then, feedback from customers has enabled him to better refine his menu, reflecting their tastes. Yet make no mistake. Huang left plenty of room on his menu for his own recommendations as well. By exposing his customers to more varieties of tea, Huang reasons, they can’t help but learn more about tea culture in the process.
But tea culture doesn’t just appear on the menu. At ZenCha, it’s everywhere.
Step inside the clean, spare interior, decorated in all-natural woods, and you can’t help but notice the 11 display cases lining one wall, each housing a museum-quality teapot from Huang’s personal collection.
Many are made by today’s finest artists, like the Double Swan teapot, made by Taiwanese artist (and medical doctor) John Kuo. Be sure to look for the display case where a magnifying glass is propped next to the teapot. If you look through the glass, you’ll see SunTzu’s Art of War carved onto the teapot’s surface (in Chinese). Further back on the wall is a rare antique teapot, 400 years old, resplendent with hand-carved calligraphy.
Huang will sell some of the teapots right from the case. “If I know the artist, and he’s still making the teapot, I’ll sell it, and order another,” he says.
Certainly, when you’re making tea, the teapot is an important consideration, says Huang. “It is just as important as the quality of tea you use.” It doesn’t have to be expensive, or even artistic. It should be clean, however, and the best quality you can afford.
To make the perfect cup of tea, Huang says to weigh the tea instead of measuring by teaspoons. It means better control. Start with an ounce, then decide from there if you need more or less. It will depend on the type of tea you’re making.
ZenCha uses filtered water to make its tea, but whether your water is filtered or not, you should refrain from boiling it, says Huang. Instead, heat the water slowly, and keep it at a low temperature.
Brewing time will depend on the tea and on your personal taste. Experiment – and remember to be patient. Some teas will simply need to steep longer than others.
Huang says he and his staff have talked many a customer through the tea-making process.
“They’ll buy our loose tea, then go home to make it, but they’ll call and say, ‘What am I doing wrong? It doesn’t taste like yours,’” says Huang. “I’ll start from the beginning. I ask them what kind of teapot they’re using.” It doesn’t surprise Huang when callers tell him they’re making the tea in a ceramic mug and zapping it in the microwave. Old habits die hard.
But to a tea connoisseur like Huang, it’s a nightmare scenario.
Tea, after all, deserves the same kind of respect that wine is afforded. In fact, the two beverages are similar in several respects. Both have long histories, reaching back to antiquity. Both have developed in cultures all over the world.
“When learning about tea, you consider its origin, the soil it was grown in and the climate that affects it,” says Huang. And like wine, you judge tea on its body, texture and age.
“A tea connoisseur will understand the full width and depth of tea. They will know each of the tea categories and each type of tea in that category,” says Huang.
Not that you have to be a connoisseur to enjoy a cup of ZenCha tea.
Huang says one of the great delights of ZenCha’s Short North location is the diversity of clientele it brings. Tea connoisseurs sit beside tea novices, students beside seniors, Asians beside African-Americans, high-income people beside low-income people. Tea, as it turns out, is a great social leveler.
And a sure cure from Columbus’ wintertime blahs.
Recently, I sat at a table in ZenCha – a teapot before me – enjoying cup after cup of something from the African Red Tea series. It tasted of coconuts and pineapple, and for a while, it transported me to a sunnier, tropical clime. Columbus’ cold, leaden sky, the dripping rain, the sullen, wintry landscape just melted away. I was on a beach, the clear, blue seawater lapping lazily at my toes. Coconut trees swayed above me. A pineapple slice decorated the iced tea in my hand. I was at least a million miles away from home.
I glanced away from the window overlooking High Street, and poured myself another cup of tea.
Funny, I thought, as I sipped the warm brew that transported me back to the beach. The tea couldn’t have been more appropriately named.
It’s called “Mirage.”
A ZenCha Valentine
Every February 14, it’s a ZenCha tradition to present a special Valentine’s Day dinner. These are themed affairs, and ZenCha provides not only all the food and drink (tea, of course), but also the evening’s entertainment. Last year’s event had an Arabian theme. Appropriate food (kabobs and saffron rice, for example) was served; black Arabian tea was poured from Arabic teapots; and belly dancers provided the entertainment. Because the dinners are held at the ZenCha tea salon, 982 N. High Street, seating is limited to 22 guests and reservations fill quickly. “We will place people on a waiting list, but it’s unusual for a guest to cancel,” says I Cheng Huang, ZenCha’s owner. In fact, the weather last Valentine’s Day couldn’t have been worse, yet everyone who had made a reservation arrived. The evening ends early enough (ZenCha re-opens its doors to the public following the dinner), that if you wanted to go downtown to catch a play, or off to see a movie, there would be time. Although Huang is working on this year’s dinner, he didn’t have details by press time. Still, he says, this year’s Valentine’s Day dinner “won’t disappoint.” To make your reservation for this year’s dinner or for more information, call ZenCha at (614) 421-2140.
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