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Five glass teapots are lined up on our table when we arrive at the Blue Duck Tavern. The woman pouring the tea, and who is willing to put up with my dinner-and-tea experiment, is Ardina Kievits, who would prefer not to be known as the restaurant’s “tea sommelier” (she prefers “tea master” or “tea expert”—something that is not as overwhelming, she says).
Still, the parallels between tea and wine are hard to ignore at Blue Duck, and not just because I’m here to see how brews from the restaurant’s tea cellar—actually a lounge with Kievits’ collection of 53 teas—go with its dishes. Terms like body, boldness, fruitiness, and tannins can all apply to tea, which, like wine, was once used to mask the blandness of food, a quality perhaps still necessary in, say, England. And, like wine, tea is a product of the region where it’s grown and the methods used to turn it into a beverage.
“Tea is one particular plant, Camellia sinensis,” says Linda Neumann, co-owner of Teaism, the local chain of teahouses. “[W]hether that plant grows in India or China or Japan…it can turn out quite different.”
Just like whether a wine is red or white depends on if the grape’s skin is part of the fermentation, whether a tea is black, oolong, green, or white depends on the oxidation and fermentation process. “Black tea is fully oxidized and fermented, and that’s what gives it the intensity,” says Neumann. “Green tea does not have an oxidation process. That’s why it’s green,” says Kievits, a Dutch native and a tea drinker for most of her life, although she only became serious about tea around a year ago. As a management trainee for Park Hyatt, her arrival at the D.C. hotel coincided with its renovation, which included the addition of Blue Duck and the tea cellar. “One day my boss asked me….‘Do you like tea?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I drink it everyday.’ He makes a phone call, and within two weeks I’m [at the Park Hyatt] in Chicago…training with their tea master and the purveyor.”
Kievits describes tea bags as “just dust and trash” and stocks only loose-leaf teas at Blue Duck. While guests of both the tavern and the hotel may have tea anytime during the day, the official teatime is from 2:30 to 4:30 and is accompanied by a buffet of sweets.
Amid the tea collection are Pu-Erh teas, of which Blue Duck carries 14 different vintages—one of which, the 1985 Royal Reserve, runs $300 a pot (Chef José Andrés is a fan: “Pu Erh was unique but also difficult to understand,” he writes in an e-mail. “A tea like Pu Erh, when I tasted it first, alone in my house, I enjoyed, but I’m not sure I understood everything a rare and ancient tea like this is able to tell me!”)
Yes, like wine, some teas are identified by year. Earthy, musty Pu-Erhs are aged in caves. “Young teas are very robust like with a young wine: It’s rough on your palate, it’s bright in color, and it washes away. There’s no aftertaste,” Kievits says. “Young teas, like 2003 or 1999…you swallow it, and it’s gone.” Older tea is of higher quality. “The taste is mellow. It’s softer on the edges. More subtle. The tannins balance out. Sometimes it leaves a little layer on your tongue when you drink it,” Kievits says.
So if concepts like terroir and age work as well with tea as with wine, why is tea still sequestered to afternoon snacking or evenings curled up on the couch with a book? My friend Amy and I sought to give tea a chance to play with the big boys. I proposed my idea of pairing courses of a dinner with tea, and Kievits was game. We sent her our food order the morning of the dinner so she could have time to prepare for the unprecedented meal.
The dinner begins with Blue Duck’s renowned oven-roasted marrowbone with garlic and country bread. The overwhelming quality of the gelatinous marrow is its greasiness. Kievits pairs it with Genmatcha. It’s a dry green tea with popped rice; she explains that the dryness should cut the grease and the roasted flavor of the rice should complement the roasted marrow.
Although the rice aspect sort of makes me think I’m drinking popcorn, it works. After a couple bites of the marrow, my throat feels like I just poured a ladle of olive oil down it. A sip or two of tea, and all is back to normal. While Amy thinks the tea works as well, she admits, “I don’t know if I would have thought so if she hadn’t explained why it works.”
For our entrees, I get the duck—a roasted breast and braised leg with cherry marinade. Amy goes vegetarian with a casserole of asparagus, fava beans, morel mushrooms, and goat cheese potato dumplings.
My dish is paired with a Chinese Blood Orange Green tea, a strong tea that is like eating the rind of a blood orange. Amy thinks it tastes like Pez. The flavor does indeed complement the halved cherries in the dish, but overall, the tea overwhelms the delicate duck. It’s one I would rather sip on its own.
Amy’s dish, however, shows the potential for what a tea pairing can be. Kievits pairs her dish with a 2003 Organic Ancient Tree Pu-Erh. “I didn’t even have to think about this one,” Kievits says. The cave-aged tea is an earthy tea, which naturally suits a plate of vegetables, particularly the mushrooms. “It’s a dirty, dirty tea,” Amy says. “This is totally a dinner tea.”
The bulk of the meal is over, and the problems of dining with tea are becoming clear. For one, I’m stuffed. My stomach’s full of water, and with no wine to dull my senses, I’ve eaten only a fraction of what I can usually put away. So much of my entree remains that it prompts one server to come over and ask, “What’s wrong with the duck?”
And I’m jittery. I’m perched in my chair, eyes darting around the room. Under the table, Amy’s foot has started tapping.
We rally for the final course. “Dessert is sweet on sweet,” Kievits says. We get a plum and blackberry crumble and a lemon mascarpone custard with marinated cherries. She pairs the desserts with herbal teas, which “are not real teas. But they’re sweet and go well.” The fruity crumble pairs perfectly with the South of France Rooibos, a soft tea that is basically a liquefied bouquet of flowers. The highlight of the meal is the pairing of the custard with the Berry Meritage. The sweet fruitiness of the tea counters the tartness of the lemon and accentuates the cherries.
In the end, I can’t deny that tea can pair beautifully with food. But I don’t see myself trading in my stemware for a teacup. Nor can Kievits herself. “I don’t do it actually,” she says about drinking tea with dinner. “I don’t like the hotness of tea with the hotness of the food. I don’t like that combination.”