21 June 2010

A Peek Inside the Matcha Box

I haven't been on a tea hiatus, as much as the paucity of posts here may suggest. I've been drinking it every day as always, but I suspect some sort of creativity impairment is going on. Brain sprain, lack of inspiration, toxic environments- any one of them can strangle even the smallest seeds of ideas, and in combination, they're rather formidable distraction.

But when you hear word that your favorite matcha supplier has set up shop a quick subway ride away, somehow those crushing forces start to lose their power.

Stepping inside the quiet little shrine of Matcha Box (33 Crosby St.), I was instantly inspired. The expertly-prepared bowl of thick matcha ($5)- which I've never had before- followed by an iced matcha ($3.50) may have contributed a bit, of course. The matcha madeleine ($2.50) didn't hurt, either. And when I got to meet Matcha Source's founder, Alissa White, in person, the elements of anticreativity finally crumbled.

Alissa kindly agreed to an interview, so a few days later, I went back to find out more about the store. Matcha Source is based in L.A., so Matcha Box is pop-up shop- and one that was only about six weeks in the making, she explained to me. Earlier in the year, that whole volcanic-ash mess left her stranded with an unplanned week in New York. She started thinking about a cafe here- which would introduce more people to matcha as well as highlight this special tea's accessibility- made one call, happened upon a space, and with the help of her brother Benji, started setting up shop for the month of June.

"It was completely unplanned, so the concept of a pop-up shop- temporary, spontaneous- appealed to me," Alissa said. And it struck me, as we sat just outside and absorbed the somehow intimate, still-neighborhoody feel of this stretch of Soho (only a block away from Broadway's throngs of tourists and shoppers), what could be more fitting? One of the most central concepts of the Japanese tea ceremony- which is basically a paean to matcha- is ichigo ichie, or a celebration of the unique and ephemeral nature of every encounter. While I may wish Matcha Box would stay forever, there's something special about its fleeting presence, and a welcome beauty (or wabi sabi) in its impromptu, imperfect setup.

That's what I kept telling myself, at least, while Alissa set up a tasting flight of matcha for me.

She uses Matcha Source's gotcha ($28 for 80g) in the iced matcha and matcha lattes ($4). It's an ingredient-grade matcha, but it shines in these simple, cold preparations. I assumed most customers would order these, and Alissa and Benji did tell me many did- but others do come to sit with a bowl of the traditional-style tea.

Alissa then prepared a bowl of both morning ($33 for 30g; $3 for a serving) and kama ($45 for 30g) matcha, so I could taste them side by side. I've had Matcha Source's morning matcha before- it's what I often make at home- but under her experienced touch, the tea was transformed into a vibrant green, light and refreshing brew that sang of natural sweetness.

And the kama, somehow, was even better: made with more matcha, the tea had a thick, velvety feel in my mouth with a complex but balanced taste of sweet, bitter and intense greenness that lingered long after I put down the bowl.

This is matcha at its finest- outside of Japan, at any rate. If you've never experienced it, you must make a journey to the Matcha Box.

It's only around for a few more precious days- until June 30- but keep in mind there will be a "fire sale," as Alissa told me, during the last week. So while the drink may disappear all too quickly, you can stock up on matcha and everything you need to prepare it (like the matcha set with tea, $69) once Matcha Box is gone.

And if you can't get to New York by the end of June, you can still order matcha online and learn to make it yourself.

However you end up drinking it, may you find matcha as inspiring as I do.

Matcha Box is open 4pm- 7pm Thursday and Friday, and 11am- 7pm Saturday-Tuesday; it is closed on Wednesdays.