Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Eating my Way Through Portland: Temptation in a Tea Cup

How it came to be that I found myself with a couple of hours to myself one afternoon during our trip to Portland is not really clear. What was clear, however, was that I wasn't going to waste it by sitting around inside. The sun was shining, it was warm out, and there was adventure to be had. So I headed off to the Classical Chinese Gardens, an urban oasis of calm, to indulge in some "me time."

The gardens themselves are beautiful and meticulously manicured, and it's very peaceful just to walk around. Especially on a late weekday afternoon when the place is not crowded. So I wandered through the blooming magnolias and peonies, and generally was in a very serene mood - the perfect state of mind to enjoy a Chinese tea ceremony at the gardens' tea house, run by the Tao of Tea.

I got a table outside overlooking a pond, and was quite content to spend the last hour before closing time enjoying a light meal, tasting some new teas and soaking up the atmosphere. They had a wonderful menu of Chinese goodies, both savory and sweet to accompany their huge selection of teas which were described in-depth - tasting notes and all - in a lovely illustrated menu (copies of which, unfortunately, are not available to take home, even just a stripped down version that would give you a description of the teas; luckily, they are all available on their website).

I opted to do a full-on Gaiwan tea ceremony, and chose one tea each from the white, green and Oolong categories: Jing Mai (white); Jasmine Pearls (green), and Deluxe Tieguanyin (Oolong). And to eat, I ordered Bao Zi (steamed buns stuffed with vegetables and mushrooms, served with pickles and a soy-based dipping sauce), and Lo Bo Gao (turnip cakes made with daikon/rice flour - sort of like a Chinese polenta - with black mushrooms, salted cabbage, green onion, a basil/sesame sauce and a hot red chili sauce).

I was set. Set to enjoy my solitary afternoon, set to have a lovely little meal, set to take my time enjoying the tea and the ceremony of it all.

And that's when it all went a bit downhill.

Thankfully, I was in that serene, centered mood, because my experience there was not altogether stellar. If I had not been in a great mood, the remainder of my time there could have been completely soured. The food and the tea were excellent - I have absolutely no complaints there, and in fact, would recommend it to anyone. What was sadly lacking was good customer service.

As I sat there, happily reading the wonderful tome that was their menu, I asked a passing server if I could borrow a pen to make some notes (you'll recall that they don't have descriptions available to take home). Her answer was a flat-out No. Not "let me see if I can find you one" - not "I'm sorry, it appears that we don't have a spare" - not even "I'll get you one when one becomes available." Just NO. I'm sure my gaping jaw at her answer was comical, but I was floored. Really? No?

At any rate, by then I was starting to notice that there were long stretches of time between when I was being paid any attention by the staff. It took a long time to be seated, a long time to have my order taken, and now, and inordinately long amount of time for my snacks and tea to arrive. And the place was not busy - in the slightest. Mind you, I was in a happy place - reading, people watching - from my account, I had at least an hour to enjoy this experience and was totally content with the leisurely pace. I figured it was just part of the whole deal, and totally appreciated it. But when my tea and food were finally delivered (mind you, 40 minutes after I was seated), the first thing out of the server's mouth was: "We close in 20 minutes." Sigh. After that comment, I couldn't help but think that her walk-through with me of the whole tea ceremony was rushed, and that she was only concerned about the time - not my enjoyment. I actually couldn't wait for her to leave so that I could take back my final 15 minutes in silence and return to my meditative state.

If only that had been the case. Unfortunately for me, a family of tourists had been seated at a nearby table, and they were "loud talkers" - you know the kind. And it wasn't enough that they were loud, they were complainers. They balked at the $4 price tag for a pot of tea ("It's just fancy hot water!"); they really balked at the $18 price tag for a three-tea ceremony. The didn't understand the food menu, and they were not pleased with the small chairs and table. Sheesh - I couldn't win.

But I did win. I actually had a lovely time overall, and let the distractions just roll off my back. I'd just had some wonderful food, learned about some fabulous teas, all amid beautiful surroundings. It just goes to show that sometimes the experience is what we make it, and I'm grateful that I made the best of it.

The tea ceremony

Jasmine Pearls

Jasmine Pearls, unfurled

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