TeaHaus: Go for the tea, stay for the food
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Ann Arbor is undeniably a coffee town, with crowds of the faithful paying daily obeisance (and treasure) to experience the mystic alchemy of artisan roasted single-origin expert preparations at any number of establishments. For the tea lovers among us, the pickings are slim. Just one place makes an attempt to elevate the tea drinking experience (minus the irritating self-consciousness of the coffee shrines), and that one place is TeaHaus on Fourth Avenue in Kerrytown.
By "elevate" I mean carefully selecting quality tea and focusing attention on its preparation and service. TeaHaus' 179 varieties of tea come from "Europe’s most reputable and highest-quality tea company, located in Germany," which is "the only tea company that has their own testing facility, testing for both pesticides and heavy metals residues," according to TeaHaus owner Lisa McDonald. She notes that she was trained as a "tea sommelier" and that in her shop they are "first tea connoisseurs, who also happen to have really great food."
While the tea is excellent, the food stands on its own merit. With interesting choices influenced by France, Germany, Sweden, and Africa, McDonald says she's chosen her menu based on "where I've lived and what I liked."
204-206 N. 4th Ave., Ann Arbor
- Hours: Mon-Sat: 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun: noon-5 p.m.; Tea Room Hours: Tues-Fri: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun and Mon: kitchen is closed.
- Plastic: All
- Liquor: None.
- Prices: Inexpensive to moderate options. Tea sandwiches $1.50 each. Two scones served with clotted cream, lemon curd and jam. $5.95.
- Noise level: Moderate
- Wheelchair access: Yes
The food at TeaHaus— including finger sandwiches, soup, salad, scones and other sweets, is all "Haus-made" as they punnily write on the menu, and it is well put together and delicious in an un-fussy way. No matching hat, handbag or gloves required.
I recently made a reservation for the "Full English Tea Service" with some of my lady friends. Although TeaHaus offers a "quickie tea service" option with no reservation required, a 1-2 day notice in advance is needed for the long-playing "full" version that comes with soup, savory finger sandwiches, scones (served with jam, lemon curd, and clotted cream), along with pastries and petit fours, and all the tea you can drink.
This full English tea is not the posh watered silk and hushed pinkie-curling experience of the iconic Fortnum and Mason in London. The vibe at TeaHaus reminds me more of Apartment Therapy, with a sort of organic, modern, euro slant. The space is painted a rich brown and has funky gold and crystal chandeliers suspended from the high ceiling. Bright euro-mod and Asian tea wares share space with antique leather tea caddies and a collection of white porcelain teapots in many shapes — my favorite is the elephant.
After a somewhat lengthy wait (10 or 15 minutes), our afternoon tea service started with a round of white porcelain mini-cocottes holding a richly flavored roasted red pepper soup, appealingly infused with coconut green tea. The soup, with its felicitous melding of warm tropical flavors and a hint of astringency from the tea, was just one example of many items that are made to include their teas.
After the soup and another significant wait (in which we wished for accompanying bread or crackers — and "Downton Abbey"-style attentiveness), my friends and I were thrilled with the triple-decker serving contraption that appeared, filled with layers of sandwiches, scones, and pastries.
Attempting to follow English tea etiquette in a manner that would have made Lady Grantham proud, we started with the petite open-faced and crustless sandwiches on the bottom layer and worked our way up to scones and finally to the tea sweets at the top.
It may not have been very traditional, but the spicy salami with black pepper served on an herb buttered baguette was particularly flavorful. The chicken salad — a scoop of finely chopped chicken with a sweet and sour poppy seed dressing and bits of dried strawberry and tarragon on a small toasted round of baguette — was also delicious. And I enjoyed a thick, melty slice of Brie topped with a confit of apricot stewed with their ginger rooibus on a sturdy slice of baguette. Both the egg salad on wheat and the triangles of cucumber and cream cheese on white were tasty — but in the way my grandmother likes: plain and very rich.
Lemon-blueberry and traditional scones were buttery with a tight, tender crumb. A bit on the dry side, they go well with the tea and also the "Haus-made" plate of delightful accompaniments — silky lemon curd, fresh clotted cream, a stewed berry jam, and an orange marmalade that our server told us they "doctor up with elderflower tea."
The ladylike portions meant that we still had room for a final layer of pastry sweets that included: chewy, buttercream-filled French-style macarons in Easter egg colors (also made with their teas); richly moist carrot cake balls covered in a white candy shell; and dark chocolate covered peanut butter petit fours with a triumvirate of dragees for decoration.
One friend exclaimed that our teatime was so delightful that she was adding it to her list of "top food experiences." Except for the lengthy waiting times, I was pleased with it too. The food was delicious, fresh, and abundant, the tea was excellent (if somewhat under brewed for my taste), and the company was excellent.
However, in my note to self for visiting on my own nickel, I could be just as satisfied with the "quickie," which comes with fewer sweets, no soup, and one pot of tea. Lots of tables seemed to be ordering it — and I would get it for the lemon curd alone.
On a follow-up visit to TeaHaus with other friends, we ordered from the regular menu, which McDonald says changes from week to week. I was curious about the North African "dukkah," a platter described as "nuts seasoned with coriander, fennel and other spices (including their Darjeeling or Assam tea). Served with bread, olive oil, dried fruit, olives and cheese," our server explained that you eat this dish by dipping the bread in the olive oil, then in the nuts, and choose a sweet or salty accompaniment with each bite.
Lisa McDonald explained that she offers this dish as a reminder that tea culture is worldwide, and that tea is second only to water as the most common beverage around the globe. She said dukkah is something that would often be on the tables at meetings in Europe, "a fun nosh that's filling yet healthy, and it's sustaining throughout the day." While I loved the crushed nuts with fennel and coriander, the cheese, olives and dried fruit may have been sustaining, but they weren't compelling.
We also tried the Swedish pannkakor, a large pancake folded in quarters like a crepe, but puffier. It was filled with frozen strawberries that had been stewed with their popular strawberry-mint-lavender tea. Topped with whipped cream, this would be phenomenal with the fresh berries that will be here in a few weeks.
What stood out for me on this visit were some of the sweets. In particular, a dark chocolate pot de creme was fantastically rich, thick, creamy and deeply chocolatey without being too sweet. The "oreo" macaron, two chocolate meringues sandwiching vanilla buttercream filling, was, according to my guest, "what an oreo should be like" and definitely on the order again list. But it was the delicately soft and buttery strawberry-mint-lavender infused house-made caramels that will keep me coming back again and again.
Tea Haus owner Lisa McDonald observes that tea culture in the world is ancient, with 1500 year old tea plants still under cultivation for teas that we drink today. "Tea is an agricultural product that should be revered just as much as a wine or scotch," she says, and at Tea Haus, "the food is just a pairing to our amazing tea." I agree that the tea is excellent, but the food is just as delicious — and you should go there for both.
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.