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.