Fitting Food to a Tea

Barbara Revsine - July/August 2006

In Chicago, a celebrated dining destination goes to pots.

Midway through a first course pairing of a crème brûlée of Hudson Valley foie gras with a rare mountain grown Oolong misted with a reduction of Wisconsin wild ginseng, any lingering doubts regarding the synergy between tea and food had vanished. And by the time guests attending the inaugural series of tea pairing dinners at NoMI in Park Hyatt Chicago reached the final course, a vanilla/citrus tart, they were eager to explore the earthy flavors of the rare vintage tea served with it.

Small and intimate, with reservations limited to six guests so everyone could be seated at the same table with the purveyor, the dinners were a follow-up to a series of tea tastings that had been held several months earlier. Priced at $50 per person, the tastings revolved around 11 teas provided by Chicagoan Rodrick Markus, founder of the locally based MITEA company.

At that time, the restaurant's tea list included a dozen fine quality teas and tisanes, virtually all of them familiar varieties like English Breakfast and Earl Grey. Sales were steady, but there was a growing consensus among staff members that the category had untapped potential.

Guests who experienced the initial tastings were so favorably impressed that MITEA became the restaurant's sole tea purveyor. A new tea list, now counting more than 30 options, was gradually introduced, and suggested tea pairings were added to the dessert menu. Bou Chu, a member of the f&b staff, became the hotel's first tea sommelier. A lifelong tea aficionado, Chu is especially adept at explaining the rarer aged teas, some of them as expensive as fine wines. His descriptives are classic wine-speak, an overlap that gives guests with even a passing knowledge of wine the vocabulary they need to navigate the complexities of tea.The South of France Rooibos paired with a cheese plate, for example, is described as "a deep red elixir exhibiting a sweet fruity edge," while Tieguanyin Oolong teamed with banana brûlée is said to have "complex flavor with orchid notes."

An orchestrated tea pairing dinner was deemed to be the logical next step. Executive chef Christophe David previously had done one when he was at the Park Hyatt in Paris, and Markus had been experimenting with pairings for years. In a single marathon tasting, David and Markus sampled every dish on the spring menu, pairing each with several different teas.

"A tea has to have a robust flavor to partner well with food," Markus notes. "Think about the assertive nature of most red wines and even some whites, and then contrast that flavor profile with the relatively mild, easily overwhelmed flavor of most teas. The pairings are tricky, but when they work, they come together like a symphony."

The final five course menu, priced at $110 per person, was repeated for all of the dinners in the first series, although turbot, on one occasion, was served in lieu of skate for the fish course. The substitution didn't alter the pairing, however, since both fish were poached in a briny oyster emulsion that worked nicely with a smoky Lapsang Souchong from China's Wuji region.

For the second course, Royal Tencha, a complex green tea with a relatively sweet flavor, made a fitting accompaniment to sushi and sashimi. The fish came next, followed by a lamb dish served with an appropriately minty tisane.

Intent on a strong finish, David and Markus partnered the vanilla/citrus tart with a 1978 Vintage Reserve tea, cellar aged for 25 years. Like the 2000 vintage on the tea menu, this was a Pu-Ehr tea, a designation applied to aged teas from the Yunnan province of China. Savoring the tea's delightfully musty flavor and woody aroma, a first time NoMI guest observed, "One thing's for sure: this dinner has totally changed the way I think about tea. I don't drink a lot of wine, and this event gave me some excellent ideas for using tea with a meal."