Two more recent visits to Samovar in the Castro and Celadon on Solano in Albany confirm these as worthy destinations for tea drinkers or anyone looking to expand their repertoire.
Samovar offers roughly 30 quality teas, brewed by the pot and served with a variety of elegant accoutrements. Today I enjoyed their Keemun Mao Feng and the Citron Oolong. The latter was not a traditional oolong; it had a strong lemongrass scent and (according to the menu) a trace of bergamot. It would be lovely iced. My friend tried their rosehip "shizhandra" blend, which was sweet and fruity (and not caffinated). We also enjoyed some of their excellent tea snacks--"vanilla" flavored roasted pumpkin seeds, yummy mandarin orange almonds, and a few tea-flavored shortbread cookies, baked on site. The salmon tea toasts looked very appealing as they went by. Prices for food are reasonable, with a complete bento offered for $8.25 and most snacks for $2-3.
The teas can be pricey--most are $3.50-$5 a pot, with a range of Pu-erhs (including a 1930 Pu-erh) for up to $11.00. They also are offering joongjak and saejak, rare Korean green teas. However these people understand how to brew tea, and for that alone, they are worth visiting. The atmosphere is pleasant, with a lot of pillows and light.
They have a few specials worth noting. From 7-9 am on weekdays and 8-10 on weekends, you can have tea and a pastry from Sylvie's for $3. I'm looking forward to returning for this (on my way to the gym? or a stop at Tartine). There's also a weekend brunch for $10.95 that includes five small dishes and a pot of tea. I hope this will be a successful venture for them.
So many coffee shops that have begun to offer quality teas (for example, Been There is now serving Lindsay teas) ruin them by not rinsing green teas, using water at too high a temperature, or more commonly serving in tall glasses that get unbearably hot. A cheap metal tea pot would do the trick.
Samovar is at 18th and Sanchez, ample street parking at least during the week.
Across the bay on Solano, Chow Fun and I paid a visit to Frishman's to check out their pastrami. (We were not wowed, although the chicken soup and fresh-baked cookies were good, and the owners are lovely. We waited excitedly for challahs out of the over and while the texture was good, the taste was not as sweet as I would like.) We then walked down to Celadon and shared four pots of tea and two samples with my friends and their newborn daughter.
We tried the following teas: lychee red, a fragrant black tea; the dragonwell philosopher's blend A; the baochung oolong; a Korean green tea; the silver needle; and the King's oolong. Of these, the baochung Competition Oolong was superb. The silver needle was delicate and enjoyable. This was easily the best dragonwell I've tasted (far from the top of their premium selection) without the oppressive grassiness that dragonwell can have, but I'm still not a true dragonwell enthusiast.
The tea snacks were again a favorite. The thinly sliced cookies are what I wish biscotti were like, and the tea plums were tasty. Service was warm and knowledgeable. We spent about $9 including table service and tip, with two complimentary tastings.
Celadon is on Solano, just east of San Pablo.