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Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Alex Heard For The New Mex­i­can

Like many males, I’m some­times leery of tea­houses, thanks to an ex­pe­ri­ence I had in Al­bu­querque once: I walked inside the St. James Tea­room, a charm­ing but frilly place with a “high tea” style. It was full of women wear­ing big, col­or­ful hats, and I got out of there faster than Peter Rab­bit run­ning from Mr. McGregor.

That’s the wrong at­ti­tude. Tea-cen­tric restau­rants tend to serve good food, and if you like tea at all, you can be con­fi­dent that they’ll brew it and present it in a way that’s wor­thy of a bev­er­age with so much va­ri­ety, his­tory, and cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance. Both of th­ese at­tributes are on dis­play at The Tea­house, a popular spot tucked inside a pic­turesque, low-ceilinged old build­ing at the cor­ner of Canyon Road and East Palace Av­enue. The Tea­house has a dif­fer­ent at­mos­phere from that at a place like the St. James — it’s more world beat than Old World, more Santa Fe than UK. Two re­cent trips con­firmed that it re­mains a de­pend­able and af­ford­able des­ti­na­tion, es­pe­cially for break­fast.

Vis­it­ing The Tea­house is a fun way to ex­pand your knowl­edge of tea and tea-based drinks. It houses a vast se­lec­tion of im­ported teas from China, In­dia, Ja­pan, and Sri Lanka — along with blends mixed here in Santa Fe — which are served in a va­ri­ety of styles. Just look­ing at the menu is a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. For ex­am­ple, I’d never heard of pu-erh, a fer­mented tea from China that comes out look­ing almost as dark as cof­fee. And if tea isn’t what you want, you’re not boxed in. The Tea­house serves cof­fee and cof­fee drinks, too, along with beer, wine, Mex­i­can cokes, orange juice, mi­mosas, soda-based shandies, and sev­eral other choices.

Dur­ing a re­cent break­fast trip, we opened with a pot of Earl Grey Provence and a Si­cil­ian fog, a type of tea latte. The Earl Grey, with its dis­tinc­tive taste of berg­amot — with lavender added to the Provence blend — was rich, aro­matic, and not bit­ter in the least. A fog blends tea, steamed milk, and a fla­vor­ing like hazel­nut or vanilla to cre­ate a light-but-filling drink. The Si­cil­ian fog com­bines blood-orange black tea with vanilla, and it’s de­li­cious. The taste of the tea came through nice and strong — again with­out be­ing bit­ter — and the tex­ture was creamy and smooth.

Any tea restau­rant worth that la­bel can bake a good scone, and The Tea­house de­liv­ers. The one we tried had the crumbly, but­tery tex­ture of a drop bis­cuit, with baked-in cran­ber­ries and al­monds that gave it a crunchy sweet­ness that bal­anced the wel­come bite of bak­ing soda. Next up was a dish called con­fetti eggs — a sat­is­fy­ing light break­fast con­sist­ing of steamed scram­bled eggs with grated Parme­san, scal­lions, and toma­toes, with wheat toast and thin slices of ba­con on the side. (The ba­con is ex­tra, but it only costs $2.) My com­pan­ion tried the Nor­we­gian eggs Bene­dict, and this was a suc­cess, too, fea­tur­ing soft, runny poached eggs; gen­er­ous amounts of thin-sliced smoked sal­mon; a del­i­cate English muf­fin; a sa­vory hol­landaise sauce; and tiny shreds of tar­ragon.

Another visit, for din­ner, showed us more of The Tea­house’s range while re­veal­ing a cou­ple of mi­nor short­com­ings. We started by shar­ing a big salad fea­tur­ing mixed greens, cauliflower, pine nuts, and cur­rants. The cauliflower flo­rets had been par­tially black­ened and then cooled — an in­ter­est­ing con­cept, but the re­sult was on the bland, cold, and chewy side. I or­dered an Ital­ian chicken pot pie, which was topped with po­lenta in­stead of the more typ­i­cal lid of puff pas­try. The po­lenta oozed nicely into the pot-pie goo, which was gen­er­ously loaded with chicken, peas, potato chunks, and herbs.

My friend tried the po­lenta alla Norma, a vari­a­tion on the Si­cil­ian clas­sic, pasta alla Norma. (Fun fact: The dish is sup­pos­edly named after the Bellini opera Norma.) The recipe is sim­ple. A slice of warm po­lenta is topped with roasted egg­plant, tomato sauce, and the firm Ital­ian cheese ri­cotta salata. The po­lenta was dense, and it could have used some melted-in cheese and herbs. The egg­plant was fine, but there wasn’t enough sauce to bal­ance out the some­what-dry po­lenta base.

The dessert that fol­lowed was very good, a $10 trio that fea­tured gen­er­ous serv­ings of tiramisu, ginger­bread with whipped cream and le­mon curd, and a north­ern Ital­ianstyle ap­ple cake. The ap­ple cake is an all-star of­fer­ing, sim­i­lar in tex­ture to the al­mond cake that food writer Amanda Hesser has touted over the years. It’s de­signed to fall in the mid­dle, so each slice is dense and moist — tex­tu­rally half­way be­tween cake and pure al­mond paste (or, in this case, ap­ple­sauce). Is there such a thing as a des­ti­na­tion dessert? Ap­par­ently so, be­cause I’ll be go­ing back for that one.

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