AN INTERNATIONAL TASTE Dobra's Kashmir blend in a fortel lantern pot.
For those who care about politics we are entering the most tension-filled fortnight in quite a while. Tea is a good ameliorative for political stress: cured leaves are stewed in hot water until they surrender their essence, something like what happens to the candidates. Two Portland teahouses offer an opportunity to soothe this fall's political anxieties.
I have been hearing about Homegrown and its proprietor for years now. "Sarah is just amazing" folks would say, voices breathy and earnest. Somehow it made me expect some sort of new-age retreat vibe, where a conversation about mood or ailments leads to some sort of restorative prescription, and professions of feeling better. But that is not what Homegrown is like. Instead the atmosphere in this teahouse is bit like the elusive Cheers-style New England bar-of-regulars, but without a bar's tinge of desperate alcoholism. At Homegrown inhibitions are not driven away by drink, but they gently recede.
This is largely due to Homegrown's calm but uninhibited proprietor. Sarah's voice is not breathy, and when it's just regulars her Maine accent can be heard at the center of a freewheeling conversation. The elegant teahouse is small enough that everyone could participate in the chatter, but large enough to find a nook to enjoy your cup. Customers do tell Sarah about their moods and ailments, but it all feels unforced, and she blends them a restorative without didacticism.
The tea is as good as the atmosphere. The leaves for each cup are hand-blended, placed in an artfully tied-off tea bag, and served in a wide plate-covered cup for stewing. A blend called "dark and sultry" featured a base of lapsang souchong, a Chinese black tea with a distinctive smokiness, paired with Vietnamese cinnamon, and licorice root. The dark anise-sweet notes mellowed the smokiness without fighting it. Another blend called "fall tonic" blended sarsaparilla, elder berries, lemongrass, fennel, ginger, and turmeric. The dominant notes were sweet and citrus, with a nice green vegetal undertone. The teahouse snacks are also terrific, from Rosemont scones, to great little sandwiches. The traditional teahouse cucumber sandwich is served open-faced on a toasted crumpet, with a pile of diced cucumber, whipped up in a light cream cheese with chives.
The vibe at Dobra Teahouse is more self-consciously calming than Homegrown. It is more of a quiet conversation or solitary sipping spot, except perhaps in the pillow-filled lounge where you drink your tea on the floor at low tables. Servers are happy to chat about tea, but inclined to give you some space. Dobra is descended from a Prague teahouse, and its emphasis is international, with a crazily comprehensive menu of imports, featuring down-to earth descriptions.