If you are a tea seeker like I am whenever you travel, you cannot miss out on the unique Portland experience of the teahouse in Lan Su Chinese Garden's Tower of Cosmic Reflections. Operated by Tao of Tea, the teahouse within the gardens offers traditional Chinese tea service set in as tranquil a location as you might be able to find within the downtown city walls. The two-story building where this spot of respite rests is structured in line with the rest of the beautiful architecture in the gardens - gleaming shingled roof, dark wood accents, and features of teas and their assorted accessories. I made my way upstairs to situate next to an open window overlooking the gardens and happened to also be able to see parts of the cityscape beyond the peaceful walls. The teahouse offers tea in several types of services whether you are seeking casual, traditional, individual, or even group enjoyment.
You will have to consider that venturing to this tea spot involves an admission ticket to the gardens themselves. However, what is there to lose by entering such a place? It is built with peacefulness and tranquility in mind. We often miss out on quiet moments with the hustle and bustle of the real world that we seek these types of havens. Visit these gardens to get a taste of that calm. Not only is this a garden in Chinese fashion but it is actually nearly the mirror of another garden in China itself, built by the same planners and with the same intent of introspection. As I moved from section to section in the gardens before reaching the teahouse, I could see each of the essential five elements of Chinese garden planning laid out - rocks, water, plants, architecture, and poetry.
Inside the teahouse, I realized the menu was more than just a menu; it documented processes of growing, cultivating, and processing teas to form the various types we know and love. Extensive descriptions of tea types and flavor profiles followed with each listing, informing the ignorant but eager tea learner of what to expect and what to look for. There was also a separate menu for the tea drinker who was looking for accompanying bites both sweet and savory. I saw the likes of moon cakes and tea eggs alongside each other. Personally, my intent was to turn this experience into my lunch for the day too so I opted for food with my view.
I decided that my inability to make a concrete decision was due to my fascination with all of the types and serving styles there so to sate that interest, I chose to do a flight. Their flights focus on different categories (white teas, green teas, etc) and my pick referenced my setting. A Pu-erh Tea Flight ($16 for one person) it was in Gaiwan Ceremony Style. This traditional method gives one the ability to brew according to individual taste and uses a gaiwan (specific cup). There were several vessels presented once the setting was placed in front of me so I immediately looked lost and had to ask for direction. My server was kind enough to demonstrate and throughout the demonstration, emphasized the importance of keeping all of the vessels hot to "warm the soul."
The steps were hypnotic to watch. A black cast iron teapot with a raised patterned exterior set upon an open flame tea warmer housed just-below-boiling water. One wash is needed from the loose leaves which is dumped into a rinse bowl. The second pour over the leaves is agitated with the gaiwan lid several times so the liqueur leeching from the leaves can properly be infused. You pour the tea from the gaiwan to a spouted vessel, using the lid as your strainer. This miniature pitcher then pours into a petite teacup into which approximately four to five pours can be made. Each loose leaf tea bundle in the flight produced four gaiwans-worth which each produced four to five cups worth. To say I had a lot of tea is an understatement. I believe I had refilled my teapot thrice by then end of the service.
With each pour, the intricacy of each tea changed. I savored each cup as best I could, sipping gently and letting each initial mouthful wash over all of my inner cheeks and tongue to best understand every nuance. It was easy to slip into a contemplative mode when directly in my line of sight was the view of calming, beautiful rock and plant formations surrounding lotus-topped placid lakes. I haven't been versed in pu-erh teas before but there is an allure to these types because of their history.
Romantics aside, the tea here is fantastic and appeals to the dreamer, the relaxer, the creative. Cursory glances told me they were curated well with enough of variety to touch on any drinker's preferences. They also feature so many plates that can meet your needs. I enjoyed the cool Taoist Delight Noodles ($8 - Chinese rice noodles, longevity mushroom, garlic sauce, roasted sesame, ginger carrot, and soybean topping) with their pressed tofu triangles because of the generous amounts of vegetables included, sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, and flavored subtly in sesame oil. Slivers of mushrooms added additional umami to each bite and the grated carrots lent satisfying crunchiness. I also eagerly asked for Pickled Bamboo Shoots ($4 -young shoots of tropical bamboo) and Chinese Steamed Dumplings ($6 - six vegetable dumplings seasoned with ginger and fermented black bean sauce). Finger foods really but soul satisfying.
How else should one enjoy tea? I eagerly anticipate my next return. I don't think I could ever make a future trip to Portland without coming back here. If you'd like to visit them yourself, they are located at 239 Northwest Everett Street, Portland, OR 97209.