Samovar Tea Lounge

Sometimes it seems if you're not up on the latest, newest restaurant, or are lagging behind while chasing San Francisco's food wordsmiths about what's happening right now, you might miss what's incredible. In the Bay Area you could miss The Dish everyone's talking about if you're not in 30 places on one night. So many restaurants here change their menus daily, and seasonally-- more than any city/ region I've ever cooked in, that it can take years to taste it all, plus there's always another eatery opening-- it makes our heads spin trying to keep them all straight.

Whew! All the head-spinning can blur what's right in front of us: a neighborhood joint, a down-to-earth 50 seat house, or the corner place you pass by every day on your way to work. In these Off-Broadway or Off-Off Broadway stages there are great plates going out every day, every night, year after year. The food is good or great, or it's consistent. The chef is famous or not, and the cooks on the line want to be chefs one day or they continue to collect the paycheck that keeps their family fed.

As a professional cook it's important for me to read and eat and meet new restaurants. But the dishes I crave, the dining rooms I want to have a good conversation in, are rarely those I've eaten at once. Anything can be amazing once. But how does that dish taste month after month, year after year?

Samovar Tea Lounge was going strong at 18th and Sanchez at the edge of The Castro District when I "discovered it" a few years ago. It didn't need me to talk about it's specialness. It's busy morning, noon and evening. People inside are studying, knitting, reading, sipping, recovering, dating, scoping, listening and imbibing. Samovar's food menu is straightforward and small, changing slightly with the seasons. There are breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner and high tea offerings. Tea service menus include food and tea in a theme and they are always gracious about letting you order one of the components from these packages with another dish.

My absolute favorite dish is what Samovar calls their egg bowl. Two delicately poached eggs lay next to mounds of flavorful rice and are garnished with the protein of your choice; smoked duck, salmon and tofu are often in rotation, and there's a little ramekin of fresh ginger grated in soy sauce. I'm also a big fan of their house-made scones (some of the best in the Bay Area as far as I'm concerned!), not just because the little bowl of clotted cream for spreading is the real deal.


Of course tea is Samovar's main attraction. From their website,

"Our goal is to create a company that is good for this world. We partner with tea experts and suppliers from small family farms and estates, and local businesses and organizations. Through our service and environment we aim to embody the tea lifestyle and provide a place for our customers to escape, relax, and be healthy."

I know little about tea intellectually. But on a recent visit I drank a Keemun that silenced me. Not being a tea sophisticate I like my black tea with milk. Samovar's staff are well trained, thoroughly knowledgeable and never judgmental. The woman who brought me this tea for which I am not worthy poured hot water into a tiny clear glass dollhouse teapot filled with twiggy leaves and immediately upon filling it poured the barely steeped liquid into a small, handle-less tea cup. She explained that this Keemun was so strong, even a 5 second steep would render the flavor too strong!

I sit here before you to report that this Keemun was not made better by milk. Brew of the gods. Hot liquid like no other. I didn't want to tell you because then there would be less for me. But then I thought you might not believe that Samovar, the place you barely see, the place producing no beeps on your radar screen, was as special as I said, if I did not tell you about this hot elixir, this liquid manna.

At Samovar I have been introduced to two other favorite teas I drink weekly. I go for flavor profiles which list pine, dark, rich, earth, chocolaty, peat, smoky and velvet as possible evocations. If you and I have anything in common, I suggest Pu-erh or Black Velvet.

There's now a second location of Samovar Tea Lounge in the Yerba Buena Gardens. It's located on top of the Martin Luther King Jr. fountain and although encased in glass, this location is as warm an environment as their original. You can buy some of the teas they offer, although when I made an inquiry about the Keemun they said it was too new to the menu to have packaged it yet, and there was no promise that it would be. Samovar's commitment to freshness is amazing and some of the more rare teas will only ever be available if you are drinking them there.

Sometimes I want to go where it's quiet. I enjoy the trust I feel in these places and feel grateful that they continue to survive in San Francisco-- a city not known for it's ease when it comes to owning and operating food businesses. I desire familiar food that's consistently good and sometimes blows my mind. I have a hankering for a little sameness and a dash of surprise.

And when it's time to take a break of trying the latest thing, I hope you'll take cover from the hustle and bustle, or just the fog, and give Samovar a try, even if it's a pot of tea. I can {almost} guarantee your pleasure at doing so.