The members of the Highfalutin Afternoon Tea Society are certain that there is no such thing as too many finger sandwiches and scones. Still, it’s nice to have a different style of tea every once in a while. Imperial Tea Court marked our first official digression from British-style afternoon tea, and it proved delicious.
We had to make a difficult decision between two tea presentations: the less formal Gaiwan service (with the tea brewed in a single-serving cup) and the more intricate Gongfu service. Despite our love of ceremony, we chose the Gaiwan service in order to be able to sample more teas. (The Gongfu service would have forced us to pick a single tea for the whole table.) Even this “informal” presentation had an element of ritual: the server completed the first brew of each tea for us by pouring warm water over the leaves, offering them for us to smell, steeping them for just the right length of time, and then expertly pouring the tea into our drinking cups, using the Gaiwan cup’s lid as a strainer. (We had mixed success with those last two steps when we undertook the second and third brewings ourselves.)
Our favorite tea was the Monkey Picked Tie Guan Yin, an oolong with crisp notes of green apple. We also enjoyed the Imperial Jasmine Pearls, an intensely floral — almost perfume-like — blend. The Dragonwell smelled like boiled spinach and tasted too leafy for most of us, though Tom enjoyed it. The Imperial Yellow Tea was the only all-around disappointment. We were excited to try yellow tea, a rare variety that the menu claimed had less astringency than green tea. (It is made using a similar process, but with the leaves oxidized more slowly.) Unfortunately, it turned out quite bitter; we suspect it was brewed at too high of a temperature. Our server mentioned that it brewed best at lower temperatures and left our cups uncovered during the brewing accordingly, but that may have been insufficient.
Imperial Tea Court boasts two afternoon tea specials, available on weekdays: snacks and a cup of Gaiwan-style tea, or dumplings and Gaiwan tea. The snacks tray consisted of scrumptious green-tea pumpkin seeds, easily inhaled almond cookies, and plain almonds. The dumplings are available with chicken, pork, and lamb fillings. Our carnivorous members tried them all and deemed the cumin-spiced lamb variety a particular winner. We ordered additional food items a la carte, including disappointing red-bean steamed buns, solidly tasty barbecue pork steamed buns, flavorful shrimp-and-tea-leaf dumplings, and overcooked tea eggs with crumbly green yolks.
Our server was wonderfully attentive, answering our myriad questions cheerfully, demonstrating proper brewing technique, and giving us more hot water before we even realized that we were running low. Nonetheless, the ambience of Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco is marred by its location in the bustling Ferry Building. (The Berkeley branch has its own building, and its quiet location and back garden make for a far more pleasant experience.) Commanding carved-wood chairs and elegant Chinese decor couldn’t disguise the noise of the thoroughfare just steps away — or keep out the pigeons.
Date attended: April 20, 2018
Attendees: Erica, Ilana, Jasmine, Marissa & Tom
Price/seat: $14 with snacks / $15 with dumplings (weekday special)
Location: One Ferry Building, San Francisco