In its way, Samovar is as much of a San Francisco institution as Lovejoy’s, though with a decidedly different focus. With one location in Yerba Buena Gardens among the SoMa skyscrapers, and another location on hipster-epicenter Valencia Street, Samovar is clearly going for the young SF influencer crowd. (Fun fact: did you know that the Twitter handle @tea belongs to Samovar?)
We at H.A.T.S. opted for the SoMa location, which offers more full-service food options. Arriving there on an overcast and blustery Sunday with only a light smattering of ash falling from the sky (ahh, July in San Francisco), we had to take a table on the outdoor patio because the main restaurant space was reserved for a private party. The patio is separated from Yerba Buena Gardens by glass partitions, which block the wind but also diminish the expected “tea in a garden” ambiance. The indoor space, which we have visited on other occasions, is neat and tasteful but somewhat lacking in character — as Erica put it, “If you were to tell me to design a tea place to go in a shopping mall, this is what I’d design.”
Samovar has an extensive menu of a la carte teas, and also offers food and tea pairings. The “High Tea Party” provides an assortment of savory and sweet snacks, with your choice of 3 teas for 2 people or 6 teas for 4 people. The other food options consist of a pre-selected tea paired with food appropriate to that style of tea; for instance, the Japanese Pairing includes brown rice, seaweed salad, pickled veggies, and green tea. As might be expected from a hip tearoom in SF, vegetarian options are plentiful and there is even a “Paleolithic Pairing”.
The four H.A.T.S. members opted to order High Tea for Two, plus one Chinese Pairing and one English Pairing. This afforded us the following smorgasbord:
- Stir-fried veggies, brown rice, squash dumplings, and Blood Orange Pu-erh tea (Chinese pairing)
- Vegetable quiche, kale salad, carrot and celery sticks, a big oat scone with whipped cream and strawberry jam, and English Breakfast tea (English pairing)
- Tea-smoked chicken salad, toast, three cheeses, olives, sweet mochi cakes, chevre-stuffed dates, chia pudding with fruit, and three teas — we chose Green Ecstasy, Tart Peach, and Saffron Rapture (High Tea)
Samovar touts their “Tea Master” service, and overall we were very happy with the quality and presentation of the teas. The English Breakfast and Tart Peach teas came in pots, with the leaves already removed so that they would not oversteep; the other three teas came in small infusers. Although this meant that some of the tea got a bit cold before we had the chance to drink it all, we very much prefer this to tearooms that do not take brew time or oversteeping into account. (We did have to ask for cream and sugar, though.)
Our highest reviews went to the rich and spicy Blood Orange Pu-erh tea (with Hannah calling it the only pu-erh she’s ever liked) and the fruit-forward Tart Peach. The Green Ecstasy was a delicate blend of young green leaves with little matcha; the bright grassy notes shone clearly through a mellow savory body. However, the Saffron Rapture was a disappointment, especially as it is one of the most expensive teas on the menu ($14/pot, while most of the other teas are $10). Though it was an electric yellow color and smelled strongly of saffron, it tasted merely like apple-flavored water.
We enjoyed many of the food options, too, especially the vegetable quiche, chia pudding, spicy chicken salad, and yummy cheese plate. However, the portions were small and sometimes hard to share, and the sheer variety and incongruity of some of the food items didn’t match our desired afternoon tea experience. Obviously, tea should not feel like a hearty meal, but neither should it feel like a collection of trendy hors d’oeuvres. You can enjoy the flavors of Samovar’s mochi bites or chia pudding and yet also feel like those are odd things to serve at “high tea”.
Per our rules, we also must subtract points for Samovar’s use of the phrase “high tea” and lack of real clotted cream. (At least there wasn’t any false advertising: the menu listed it simply as “cream”.) Even more confusingly, the whipped cream and jam arrived in the same receptacle, cream on top, so that at first we assumed that our server had forgotten to bring the promised jam.
Samovar does some things right: their teas are high-quality and well-prepared, and their food is tasty. Nonetheless, it doesn’t quite add up. It feels like a place you’d go to for a blind date or with work colleagues — not with intimate friends or family. It has built its identity around the idea “tea can be young and hip” without recognizing the hollowness that lies at the heart of hipsterdom. When people lament what San Francisco has become, they are referring to places like Samovar: bars and restaurants that try just a little too hard to fit in.
Date attended: July 1, 2018
Attendees: Hannah, Erica, Marissa & Tom
Location: 730 Howard St, San Francisco