Love at First Sip

Photo by Matt Rose

Photo by Matt Rose

You can never predict when you’ll fall in love. Love is sneaky that way. You’re walking down the street on a very ordinary day and some instinct draws you into a doorway that you’ve passed a hundred times, but never entered. You find yourself having an unexpected encounter that intrigues you…draws you deeper and deeper until you find yourself surrendering completely.

I know…it happened to me when I invited two wonderful women friends to join me at Dobrá Tea on Lexington Avenue in Asheville.

The first hint that this was going to be an out-of-the-ordinary experience was the fragrance that greeted me when I walked through the door. It was intoxicating — like some exotic incense, but softer…more organic…more complex. It was, of course, the teas, stored in a bank of apothecary-style wooden drawers across one wall.

Small samples of the varietals and blends were displayed on the retail counter in a honeycomb arrangement of shallow pottery dishes — an astonishing array of colors and textures ranging from pale yellow to deep purplish black; frothy curls to tightly wound “pearls.” I sensed immediately that I would not be ordering up a pot of Earl Grey.

We settled in at one of the glass-top tables at the front of the establishment. Our server, Angela, placed a small bell on the table with which to summon her when we were ready to order and presented us with the menu: a volume about the size and thickness of a paperback novel. This proved to be a very comprehensive and informative guidebook to the myriad offerings — filled with clear and evocative descriptions of the teas, their growing regions and the processing that gives each its unique flavor.

The tome also offered some insight into Dobrá and its dedication to the exquisite culture of tea; the reverence for the rich and ancient traditions that have grown around it —steeped in ceremony and intimately intertwined with the ethos of the societies from which they evolved. Hence, the teas at Dobrá Tea are prepared using the customary implements and techniques of their area of origin in order to offer the most authentic presentation possible.

The tearoom itself reflects this ecumenical approach. It has a Bohemian vibe that is due in part to the prototypical Dobrá’s nascence in the Czech Republic (the real Bohemia), but also to a multi-ethnic aesthetic that embraces Asian influences (like the statue of Ganesh) and Middle-Eastern elements (a trickling Moroccan-style mosaic fountain and an abundance of Oriental carpets on the floors and walls). Seating areas range from the amiable, conventional table and chairs in the bright front room to banquette seating in the middle room to the intimacy of low-light and low tables with floor cushions and carpets in the rear.

It all had me feeling quite intrepid, so I jingled for Angela and, after a brief Q&A, she recommended the Jin Xuan, a Milk Oolong from Taiwan, indicating that Dobrá had just received the spring harvest and it was lovely. She was right — the brew was light, fragrant (yes, a bit like milk) and grassy…very delicate and subtly sweet.

My companions were more decisive than I, confidently ordering the Chinese Long Ting Tiger Spring (Dragonwell) green tea — classic and slightly nutty — and the Lychee Cha black tea — sweet, fruity, dark and intense. All were delivered to our table on wooden trays along with a small teapot for repeated infusions, a carafe of hot water warmed by a candle and instructions on how long to steep each variety for optimal flavor.

As might be expected, the light fare at Dobrá does not feature your standard cucumber sandwiches and biscuits. The locally sourced, organic and gluten-free treats are quite adventuresome. For the table, we chose Daifuku, a Japanese delicacy, which consists of a soft, fermented rice cake filled with sweet red bean paste. It looks a bit like an alien jelly-donut, has a rather squishy, doughy consistency but tastes divine.

The Matcha Green Tea Cheesecake from the Blue Door Bakery (made with the powdered tea used for the fabled tea ceremony) was creamy and nuanced, drizzled in chocolate and set on a pastry crust. Our savory side — Baba Ganouje — was rich and redolent of tahini, dressed in pools of olive oil, flecked with zaatar (a Lebanese seasoning) and served with crisp, fresh vegetables and pita bread.

Adding to our enjoyment was the decidedly unhurried atmosphere that Dobrá Tea engenders. Patrons are encouraged to linger and savor the moment. We certainly did — sipping away contentedly, refilling our cups and reveling in the sheer sensual delight of it all. When we were finally able to pry ourselves from the table and back out onto the street, I felt as if I had just returned from a journey…a tad more worldly, slightly off-balance and rather giddy in love.

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