Sommelier wants dinner to be perfect to a tea

If you want to know which tea goes well with seafood, or why the leaves of a certain jasmine tea are curled tight like tiny snails, or why, when it’s hot outside, a cup of silver needle white tea will cool you off, Bou Chu is your man.

Chu is the tea sommelier at NoMI restaurant in the Park Hyatt hotel, charged with guiding diners through a two-page tea menu that reads much like a wine list, with rare teas from such far-flung locales as Sri Lanka and evocative phrases such as “full-bodied with complex, unsweetened toffee edge.”

“Most people think about tea after dinner, for digestion,” said Chu, a dining room manager at NoMI for three years before assuming his new title. “I want them to take it more seriously.”

Some food and tea pairings, as suggested by Bou Chu, tea sommelier at NoMI:

Deep-dish pizza
Pair with: Any oolong or Japanese green tea.
“Pizza has cheese, grease. That will wash it right off.”

Chicago-style hot dog
Pair with: Black tea, especially keemun.
“It has a special type of anisette type of flavor. Good with hot dogs.”

Pair with: Japanese tencha.
“It has a seaweed, green, very sea type of flavor. Oolong will ruin lobster. Too overpowering.”

Foie gras
Pair with: Chamomile or rooibos, a red tea.
“It’s sweet. Very sexy.”

Chocolate cake
Pair with: English breakfast or keemun.
“Go darker. Go with black tea.”

Which is to say, not just as a bag on a string, a sugared concoction over ice or a predictable partner for dainty cucumber sandwiches.

Health appeal
Tea sommeliers are a rare but growing breed of culinary expert taking up residence at chic restaurants and hotels nationwide, including New York, Boston and Atlanta, and taking tea to new heights — snipping leaves table-side, pairing teas with multicourse meals and even liqueurs.

While soft drinks are still the most-consumed beverage among Americans, accounting for about 28 percent of total U.S. beverage consumption, the recent buzz in the industry has been about tea.

Tea is thought to reduce the risk of heart attack and some cancers, lower cholesterol and boost immunity — attributes that apparently are music to the ears of a health-conscious American public.

Last year, total tea sales surpassed $6 billion, according to the Tea Association of the USA. Between 2002 and 2004 alone, sales jumped 7 percent, with much of that growth in ready-to-drink and specialty teas, according to the Mintel Group. “It’s viewed as a healthy beverage category,” said Gary Hemphill of research firm Beverage Marketing Corp.

Tea menu ‘upgrading’ in works
Tea is also getting a boost from chefs who cook with it and food-savvy consumers with well-traveled palates who know the origins of their coffee and chocolate and want to know the same about their tea. It’s showing up in everything from smoothies to baked goods and is served latte-style at trendy tea cafes.

“They don’t come here to drink regular sencha green teas,” said Philipp Real, food and beverage director at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago. “They really want to find out the difference between a black tea and a white tea.”

To that end, the Ritz brings in John Harney, a well-known tea blender from Connecticut, about four times a year to train staff. Real said an “upgrading” of the tea menu with vintage teas is in the works.

In coming months, the Peninsula Hotel will debut tea classes based on the Chinese tea ceremony, said Pradeep Raman, assistant food and beverage director.

Next month at NoMI, 800 N. Michigan, Chu leads a series of tea dinners. For $110, diners will get five courses, each paired with a different tea and a bit of history, courtesy of Chu.

“Tea is just like wine. You have to know what you’re drinking,” he said.

(By Janet Rausa Fuller, Sun Times, March 2006)
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