Anteaques

DISCLAIMER: For two weeks now I’ve been trying to write a review of Anteaques, but I keep running into a certain difficulty.  To be frank, as (just about) competent as I am with the English language, I worry that any attempt to recall my visit and then think of enough superlatives to do it justice would destroy my credibility as a reviewer.  The words, when I do think of them, all try to make it onto the page at once and end up stuck in the doorway from brain to fingertips like a verbal Three Stooges.  The result is a kind of semantic hysterical paroxysm; a lexical petit mort that I fear will leave my writing with all the self-assuredness of a virgin on his wedding night, and all the restraint of a prepubescent girl confronted with a life-size inflatable Justin Bieber.  So you’ll have to forgive me if this review is below par, and if I occasionally resort to mashing the keyboard whilst moaning in bliss. 

The Story of Anteaques

The year is 1864.  Five in the afternoon and the shadows are lengthening.  Somehow, you’ve wandered into Edinburgh’s Old Town, and the smell is beginning to turn your stomach.  Nevertheless, your inamorata turns to you, her lips slightly pale, her lovely hand placed upon her chest: “My dear, I have a sinking feeling.  May we stop for tea?”  Looking around, you are surprised to notice a paint-cracked sign above a shop: Anteaques.

A warm salutation by a softly-spoken gentlemen from America greets you as you step inside.  Consulting his pocket-watch, he sounds pleased to be able to offer you a place; albeit only for an hour or so, as they will be fully booked until closing time.  He ushers you and your paramour to a small square table and presents you both with an extensive and detailed menu.  Looking around, everything seems to be in its right place; the walls are lined with maroon and scarlet jars with exotic-sounding labels – tea from every corner of the Empire.  Light from the blinds stripes pale columns of dust onto the polished floor and the intermingled scents of tea, silver polish and the warm mustiness peculiar to anywhere selling antique goods wraps you in a blanket of familiarity.  Examples of fine silver tea services are arranged on the counter tops, as well as a small selection of delicate tarts and sweetmeats from local suppliers.  Taking advice from the unobtrusively knowledgeable waiter, you order single-estate Assam and scones for your companion and yourself.  Everything arrives quickly and does not disappoint.  After nearly an hour it’s sadly time to leave, so you stand up and fish in your wallet for your debit card to pay.

Wait, what?  It’s not 1864 after all, it’s 2012!  That’s not your doe-eyed inamorata, wan from a morning’s walk in heavy corsetry, it’s your hipster girlfriend who read about Anteaques on the Internet!  But stay your disappointment, I haven’t completely mislead you.  The best part about Anteaques, after the tea, is that there’s almost no part of the experience that would strike our Victorian couple as odd.  And yet, there are no airs, no stuffiness and nothing twee.  The tea is amazing, the cakes are great and the service is impeccable.  Just like it should be, regardless of the century we’re in.  So, the absolutely most important thing to take away from this review is tjhj ionf’snkgdnks knlsgnk ijji90u[w4jioj’io*moans*

Eteaket

As you may have gathered from my previous reviews, I am not the sort of person who enjoys things like cupcakes, dressing up like a 50s housewife or anything describable as “kooky”. That said, it might surprise you to learn that I’ve been visiting Eteaket since it opened.

Why is this? Well, part of the reason is it’s just so damn convenient. Nestled in a basement on Frederick Street, Eteaket attracts shoppers, students, tourists and locals alike to its unprepossessing white doors.  It’s always stuffed to the gills, though, especially at the weekends – we chose a relatively quiet Friday afternoon for our visit and it was still bustling.  Inside there’s a bright, bold colour scheme of white, teal and hot pink (it sounds worse than it is, really), ruined only by the phrase “Keep Calm And Have A Cup Of Tea” stuck to one wall.  If you can avoid looking at it and twitching – harder than it sounds, since the opposite wall is mirrored – then the rest of the decor won’t raise your blood pressure too much.   A nod to vintage of course, but done in a modern enough way not to come over as too mimsy.

Anyway, to the main event.  The tea at Eteaket is consistently excellent.  There’s a simple system in place; you order your tea and they bring it to your table with a sand-timer – when the sand runs out, it’s ready to drink.  (I honestly have no idea why other tea shops don’t do this, preferring to make you play some kind of tea-based cross between a game of chicken and Russian Roulette just to find out whether it’s brewed enough).  There are some rare and interesting varieties on offer; my tasting partner chose Organic Silver Needle, which had a floral bouquet with notes of melon and a lovely smooth finish.  I had my favourite Earl Gray Vert, a blend of sencha green tea with bergamot oil and citrus.  The classics are well-chosen too, the Royal Earl Gray in particular is light and fresh, with tiny blue cornflowers strewn throughout the leaves.

There’s a good selection of cakes, although in the past the quality has been inconsistent. Today’s scone was a delight, however, light and moist with a good amount of fruit and that all-important crispy brown top.  For a real treat, there’s afternoon tea, served on a three-tiered stand with sandwiches, scones, miniature patisserie desserts and the palpable envy of everyone in the café who isn’t having it too.  Tea with a side of schadenfreude, if you will.

What’s great about Eteaket is not only do they seem to really care about tea, even creating their own special blends (I’d recommend the Rooibos Creme Caramel in particular), but they’re also passionate about making it interesting and accessible to everyone.  I might take issue with the number of times the word “lovely” appears on the signs in their shop, but the effervescent passion it shows is contagious and when it’s paired with attention to detail, attentive staff and a sense of wanting to be part of the community, it becomes hard to fault.

http://www.eteaket.co.uk

Pekoe Tea

Although I’m still slightly grief-stricken from the loss of Tea Tree Tea, my tasting partner and I made our way to Pekoe Tea in Tollcross on a Saturday afternoon.  The experience was one of singular juxtaposition and I was left feeling more like I’d just come off my break in a warehouse than like I’d spent a pleasant hour in a tea bar.

Straightaway it’s obvious that Pekoe’s main focus is its wholesale business.  They offer a huge selection of teas online, as well as some interesting and odd tea ware, and it’s clear that all their stock comes through the same small premises.  The upshot is a cramped, somewhat untidy seating area crammed in front of the bar and under constant siege by cardboard boxes, strips of packing tape and shelf upon shelf of shiny packaged tea.  What made it worse still was the back room isn’t separate from the main part of the cafe, so we were treated to an overweight man puffing his way through unboxing and pricing up the latest delivery.  Think a white-haired Sal from Futurama and you’d be just about there (these gourmets teas ain’t gonna unboxes themselfs!).

All that aside, the decor itself (apart from a ghastly enormous golden light fitting in the centre of the ceiling) was all cool urban loft-style living; dark stone and light wood.  Magazines like “The Foodie” and “Homes And Interiors” ruined the 90s Manhatten vibe just a little, but all in all it worked and definitely makes a change from the ubiquitous “vintage chic”.

So after finding a seat and looking confused for a few minutes, we finally got around to placing our order.  I’m not sure how the man who served us managed to maintain such an unflappable air of smugness amongst the chaos, but maintain it he did, right down to the impeccably-styled hair and well-practiced lack of anything approaching customer service.  Although he did recommend a tea, it was done so perfunctorily and with at least five exhortions to “like us on Facebook” that I rather felt we’d have been better sticking a pin in the menu.

The Assam we chose (single estate broken orange pekoe) came in a beautiful Japan Zero teapot, with matching cups and milk jugs.  No timer, no advice on brewing time, just a suggestion to “take the leaves out if it gets too strong”.  Duh.  Obviously this meant the first cup was too weak, the second almost stewed.  I’m not sure why it’s so difficult to just brew the tea for the customer so they get the best possible experience; perhaps I’m missing something.  Excellent tea nonetheless; so good we took a bag of the tippy golden flowery  orange pekoe 1 from the same estate home.  It was overshadowed, however, by the best brownie I have ever eaten, ever.  Ever!  Crispy on the outside with a just-set, gooey  dark chocolate interior full of walnuts – not too sweet, insanely rich and aggressively decadent.  Better still, Pekoe’s cakes all come from a new local bakery; the selection is very small and there’s no savoury options, but Pekoe is not really set up to linger over a lunch.

In conclusion, a mixed review all round.  Pekoe is easily the best place to buy tea in Edinburgh, and it’s surprisingly reasonably priced for what it is.  I’ll be returning to top up my supplies (and I’ll be getting a brownie to go!), but I’m not sure I’ll want to tarry there again.

Pekoe Tea’s online shop can be found at http://www.pekoetea.co.uk/

Cakes by Love Crumbs bakery: http://www.lovecrumbs.co.uk/#

R.I.P. T.T.T.

Okay, so I’m aware that I haven’t updated this with any sort of regularity and also that that’s a massive understatement. The thing is, I went to Tea Tree Tea with the best intentions of doing a review and found it impossible. It’s been my regular tea-based haunt since I moved to Edinburgh nearly four years ago and was to all intents and purposes the perfect tea shop.  How could I pretend to try to find fault in a place I’ve come to love so much?  I just couldn’t, and so the whole project stalled, until now.  Last week I found out that it was closing forever, so I finally have the impetus to restart my quest to find the best tea shop in Edinburgh.

But first, if I may, a brief eulogy for Tea Tree Tea. I’m really going to miss it. The staff were incredible; friendly, knowledgeable and even ecclesiastically patient towards a big group of rowdy types that used to meet there in the basement once a month. Even when I hadn’t been there for a few weeks they would still greet me like a friend. Friendly staff make a friendly atmosphere, and it was the relaxed minimalist ambience of TTT that made it so perfect to work in, or just to hang out.

Not to mention the tea itself; like a fine restaurant, TTT didn’t have an exhaustive selection of teas, but everything on their menu was delicious. The fiery red Assam almost oozed rich caramel, Earl Gray was light and balanced with floral and citrus notes, and their example of my green tea of choice, Ti Quan Yin, was grassy and bright without any bitter edge. Hot chocolate with chilli was a surprisingly complex delight in winter, and in summer, their range of unique coconut milk-based blended iced drinks, called Fricetea were something I’d happily travel across town for.  What’s more, the pot of tea would arrive ready to drink with the leaves removed and a friendly suggestion to stick them back in if it’s too weak.

I have no idea why a business like TTT would fail, with its loyal customer base and winning formula, but I can’t pretend to know much about that sort of thing. All I know is that the best place to get tea in Edinburgh is gone, and I will have to find somewhere else to go on a Saturday afternoon.

Loopy Lorna’s

Do people visit tea shops because they love tea, or because they want to be seen to be doing something cool and retro?

Judging by the clientele at Loopy Lorna’s (almost entirely thirtysomething middle-class Mums who lust after Agas and relocating to the country, and self-conscious “vintage” students), it’s definitely the former.  Tea, like knitting and old clothes, has been fetishized into a lifestyle.  So what?  Well, if this place is anything to go by, the upshot is a terrible cup of tea.  And that simply will not do.

It wasn’t the cloyingly pink and cute decor, or even the over-zealous yet somehow perfunctory service that so completely ruined the experience.  Nor was it being charged nearly five pounds for a single pot.  No, it was the tea.  Literally – and I do mean literally – everything about the tea at Loopy Lorna’s was a travesty, wrapped in a disgrace, wrapped in an adorable knitted tea-cosy.

First, the range.  There weren’t many, and distressingly most of them were fruit or herbal infusions.  Plus, the black teas they did have were all blends.  No single-type, let alone single-estate stuff here; the choice was between the loopily named “Bricks and Mortar” (some kind of Assam-a-like my boyfriend opted for), Earl Gray or Breakfast Blend.

So far, so forgiveable.  Until the tea arrived.  In pots, with strainers.  No timers, no way of removing the leaves and worse, no advice on how long to leave it for until it was brewed.  My first cup of the insipid, vaguely chalky Earl Gray managed to contain all the charm and bright citrus notes of boiled cat’s piss; my second, stewed past the point of no return.  Somehow, it actually managed to taste like pretension.

Things got no better with the arrival of the food.  We were promised “scones, fresh from the oven!!”, but what we got were two vol-au-vent sized biscuity things, obviously made some time ago and shoved in the oven before serving.  They really couldn’t have tried to make scones this terrible – dry, tasteless and ridiculously minute.  Once again, style over substance.  Loopy Lorna’s is not a place where people care about tea, it’s a place where people go when they want to look like they care about tea.  So it’s no wonder it’s as popular as it is, since it’s staffed and frequented by people who clearly – surely – know nothing and care even less.

If you’re ever in Morningside, I urge you, just leave.  Leave immediately, and go somewhere else, somewhere where Waitrose doesn’t count as “slumming it” and people don’t flock to overpriced novelty tea houses just to be seen.