It's kind of sad that finding yourself sipping a fabulous cup of tea in a restaurant is such a surprise.
But that's what made my recent meal at Esselon Cafe (99 Russell St., Hadley, Mass.) so pleasant. It's mainly an eggs-and-light-lunch type place, but the care lavished on even the simple green salad (with nary a slimy or wilted leaf in the bunch) alongside my tuna sandwich- wisely made with citrus vinaigrette, no mayonnaise- piqued my interest in the cafe's extensive tea list.
I rarely even bother to order tea in a restaurant: It's almost always bagged, and if it's not black, the water is often the wrong temperature. And if you ask for a pot of plain hot water and pull your homemade bag of loose sencha out of your bag, your dining companions may get a little uncomfortable.
Perhaps the mercury was going to my head, but I was feeling brazen. I marched back up to the counter and ordered a pot of Silver Needles ($3.25), a Chinese white tea which requires careful brewing to avoid bitterness or worse, flavorlessness.
Within minutes, it was delivered to the table already brewed, with the loose leaves set on the side. My boldness paid off: the tea was sweet, light and faintly fragrant, and the pot had enough to share with my satisfied lunch dates.
Why can't cafes in New York get their shamisen together and serve tea like this?