Nicholas Luu admits that if asked such questions as, “What flush is your Darjeeling?” he can give the answer, but he’s far from a tea connoisseur. Yet in doing research before opening Oakland’s new Tearoom, he sampled at least 15 different brands before settling on New York-based Harney & Sons.
“It’s just excellent,” he said. “Before all of this, I was not quite a tea fanatic, and didn’t know that much about it, but when I tried it, I knew this is what I wanted.”
Luu is the operations manager of The Tearoom, which is adjacent to Great Wall on Rockridge’s College Avenue. It’s so adjacent, in fact, that the second room of the Chinese vegetarian restaurant has been redecorated and made into The Tearoom. While The Tearoom has its own entrance, the two spaces are only separated by a curtain inside, so sometimes the smell of garlic or ginger can waft over, commingling with the scent of Earl Grey.
Luu has put a lot of effort into redoing The Tearoom to differentiate it, including a fresh coat of paint, a banquette and upgraded seating.
The Tearoom is run by Luu and his mother, Alice Wong, who are part of the same family that has owned the Great Wall for the past two years.
While the Great Wall has its following, with regulars returning for its flavorful mock meat and vegetable dishes, the second room hasn’t been full to capacity in recent years. Since visiting Victoria, British Columbia, where many of the grander hotels offer British-style afternoon tea, Wong had a dream of opening a tea place of her own.
“Given that we had the space, and I’m still young, we cut the space in half,” said Luu.
Furthermore, as Luu put it, “if you look outside, there are four different coffee places but no tea place.”
Afternoon tea is, in fact, hard to come by in these parts. The Pardee Home in downtown Oakland’s Preservation Park — which gets rave reviews but sometimes takes months to secure a reservation — is one place to get your fix, as is Tyme for Tea & Co. in Fremont. But it seems the next closest tea rooms are only in larger luxury hotels in San Francisco. (While the East Bay has plenty of tea houses that specialize in everything from Chinese tea to bubble tea, there are none that specifically do an afternoon tea complete with savory, crustless sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and pastries.)
At The Tearoom, $28 gets you an “Entire Tea,” which includes a choice of two sandwiches, a scone with jam and cream, a choice of four pastries, and fresh fruit, along with a bottomless pot of tea or Blue Bottle Coffee. The $25 “High Tea” is the same menu with fewer pastries, and the $21 “Half-a-Tea” includes one sandwich, scone and one pastry, plus fresh fruit and tea. All are served on a three-tiered plate with the sandwiches (all crustless and some served open-faced) and scone on the bottom level; the pastries, cream and jam in the middle; and the fruit artfully arranged on top.
Pastries are sourced from the San Francisco-based Native Baking Company, which is run by Jennifer Kenny Nguyen, who worked as a pastry chef at some of the city’s top restaurants before striking out on her own. Luu admits he had almost given up, thinking he wouldn’t find scones up to his standards, but when he tried Native Baking Company’s, he was more than pleased. Nguyen sells the scones as raw dough to Luu, so he can bake them on site.
Luu shops at Berkeley Bowl for the produce and other items, with many, but not all of them, organic.
An important note on the cream: Luu emphasized that the cream he serves is not what’s known as Devonshire cream. “I believe that’s the most traditional, and it’s made from milk from cows in Devonshire, England,” he said. “Since I don’t have access to a cow in Devonshire, I had to come up with my own version.”
Luu adds a bit of vanilla, sugar and mascarpone to whipped cream to give it added thickness as well as richness. “It’s definitely not traditional, but if I can’t make it traditional, I can still make it good,” he said.
The Tearoom invited Berkeleyside in for an “Entire Tea,” and this reporter found that it was more than enough for one person. (With the prices being what they are, it makes sense to get the full shebang, even if it means taking some of the pastries home.)
The first choice to make is, obviously, what kind of tea you want. There are around 15 to choose from, ranging from black to herbal to green, and Luu will bring them to the table for you to smell before choosing. I had already come pre-caffeinated, so I chose an herbal variety: orange-passion fruit, which, after its proper steeping time in a glass pot, became a bright rosy hue with a glorious smell.
I tried the egg salad and curried chicken sandwiches. Both came on crustless whole-wheat bread, with a few baby spinach leaves garnishing the egg salad and toasted coconut and almonds garnishing the chicken. Both were perfectly good tea sandwiches, but then tea sandwiches aren’t something I often crave.
A scone isn’t something I usually crave, either. Still, I appreciated that it came out hot, and I enjoyed spreading it with the accompanying cream, which, as Luu promised, was a thicker version of whipped cream.
The pastries, however, were the star of the show. I chose a cream puff filled with strawberry cream, a raspberry cheesecake, a plum crumble and a salted caramel brownie. I loved how they were small enough (two bites, maybe) to allow me to have such variety in so few bites. And, while at first glance these looked like simple treats that could come from any bakery, a bite of each made me feel like I was in the hands of a master baker.
The Tearoom is an indulgence that can be had for not too much money, and makes one feel quite pampered — perfect for catching up with an old friend. And while the atmosphere can’t quite compete with the lobby of a stately hotel in the city, it’s definitely a plus to be able to raise your pinkies in Rockridge without having to cross the bridge.