In javaville, Blue Willow is a tea lover's oasis
Special to The Seattle Times
While there's endless debate over whose baristas pull the best macchiato, all the espresso in town is quite good compared with classic diner dishwater. If you go into a coffeehouse and order tea, however, you'll be handed the usual cup of scalding water and a tea bag.
If you want tea done right, you have to go to a teahouse. Because tea drinking isn't an established industry like espresso, Seattle's teahouses are a diverse bunch, and the opening of a new one is cause for celebration, especially when it's as inviting as the new Blue Willow Teahouse on Capitol Hill.
And especially when it serves food. The Blue Willow doesn't mind if you come just to drink tea and read, but why not recharge with an order of spicy fish cakes ($4.95), firm Thai-style patties of whitefish with green beans, served with cucumber salad?
Blue Willow isn't a new name in tea; its bagged and loose teas have been available for several years. But the teahouse has been a long time in the making, and Blue Willow has done an admirable job of adapting its space in the corner of a classic Capitol Hill edifice.
There is a soaring industrial ceiling and full-height windows, but attention to detail has made the place warm and relaxing. Though Blue Willow is a casual spot, there's a bit of the spirit of the Japanese tea ceremony in the integration and rhythm of food, drink and service. Even the serving pieces fit carefully into the overall aesthetic; each tea is served in an appropriate pot and cups, often on a matching ornamental serving tray. If you like your tea set, you can buy one just like it from the tea-supply store; naturally, the teas are also available in bulk.
The food at Blue Willow is generally excellent, with an occasional misstep, such as the gailan (Chinese broccoli, $3.95), which is nicely cooked but topped with an overpowering garlic sauce. There's a daily soup ($2.95 cup, $4.95 bowl), which on one visit was Thai-style hot and sour soup; on my next visit, it was Chinese-style hot and sour soup.
The tea menu runs into the dozens, including six Darjeelings alone. If you're more fluent in coffee drinks than the world's teas, the servers can act as tea sommelier for you. They've tried the teas and can suggest one that will match your meal.
There's a pastry case that abandons the pan-Asian motif for American cookies and brownies, and, just in case the tea left you in the mood for an equally civilized after-dinner drink, a selection of sherries is available.
The Blue Willow's other offerings include:
Mandarin roll: Served with a sweet dipping sauce on matching leaf-shape plates and halved on the diagonal, these crispy mushroom-vegetable spring rolls are almost too pretty to eat. Almost.
Ramayana: A simple, hearty Thai green curry with shrimp (chicken is also available) and perfectly cooked green pepper and eggplant, the vegetables neither mushy nor raw.
Teahouse bento box: "Everything tastes better in a bento box," our waiter observed, and she was definitely right about this grilled salmon fillet served in a lacquer box with a green salad and spicy rice (similar to an Indonesian nasi goreng).
Lapsang Souchong tea: My wife doesn't allow me to make this tea in our teapot at home because its smoky taste infects the next few pots of tea.
Luckily, I can drink this nice Lapsang at the Blue Willow and let them deal with the aftermath.
Chrysanthemum flower tea: The trouble with herbal tea in a bag is that you don't get to see what the herbs look like. In the case of chrysanthemum, that's a shame, since this mild infusion consists of a handful of dried flower blossoms, clearly visible through the glass of a French press.
Itemized bill, meal for two
Mandarin roll: $5.25
Teahouse bento box: $8.25
Lapsang Souchong tea: $3.00
Chrysanthemum flower tea: $3.50
Lemon bar: $2.25