Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Argo tea cafe

I've recently noticed an Argo tea cafe in the upper reaches midtown, and haven't had the time to stop in. It's a good few blocks from my office, just far enough that I need to make a conscious effort to get there. When I was in Chicago a few years ago, I remember enjoying a full pot of tea at one of their locations while sitting and reading a book.

You can get your tea by the cup or the pot (they use cute little bee house teapots http://www.beehouseteapot.com/teapots). There is a 'self serve' area where you can create your own bags of bulk tea to take home. The staff will also brew these teas by the cup. The signs indicate the prices, and how long the tea needs to steep. I like that you could see each type of tea available, and smell them as well. But a pet peeve of mine is when a shop stores their tea in glass or other translucent containers. The light and heat from the sun will ruin the taste of the tea much quicker than if it was stored in an opaque container. I assume that the tea in these vessels has a high turnover rate, so it probably isn't much of an issue here. It's also a good way to showcase the tea. Argo also has a large menu of flavored and blended tea 'signature' drinks, both hot and iced. But I am going to focus on a simple cup of tea today.

PC and I spent a good few minutes inspecting the self-serve teas. After a long deliberation I selected the Nilgiri Black. I decided on this tea in order to get a baseline of what an everyday tea would taste like here. I've also never had this Indian black tea before. PC chose the oolong formosa, which turned out to be the better choice. My tea order was up rather quickly- it didn't feel like the 4-5 minute steep time that was suggested. PC's tea took much longer, even though it also has a suggested steep time of 4-5 minutes. I imagine an oolong would need more steeping than a black tea, so we did not complain. My black tea tasted like a generic bagged black tea. There was nothing about the tea or the aroma that jumped out at me. I do admit that it was brewed skilfully, because it was the perfect hue, and did not have any astringency. Perfectly smooth, just not very flavorful. But I guess that is typical of a generic black tea, especially at $2.25 per oz. It would probably work well as a base for the many flavored tea drinks that they have on the menu. PC's oolong was delicious, a very different cup. It's hard to tell from the picture, but it had a golden hue, and a pleasing toasty aroma. This semi-oxidized tea had a lovely nutty, slightly sweet, deep, roasted flavor. It reminds me of Japanese hojicha tea. Again, it was prepared expertly. The cup was smooth, without any bitterness.

As far as the atmosphere goes, this place feels very much like any other commercial 'cafe'. It's fine for a quick cup of tea, but it's not the type of place that you'd want to linger and slowly sip your beverage for a few hours. But in midtown, perhaps efficiency is the focus. When I visited one of their Chicago locations, I remember it having the same commercial feel. But the place was a little bigger, and felt more comfortable.

There was one glaring issue that I had with Argo. If you are going to call yourself a tea cafe, don't tell us how great your coffee is, and say it is better than your tea!? I do understand that it is more difficult for a tea cafe to make money alongside the myriad of coffee shops, but you are insulting your poor little tea leaves!
Despite this tea sadness, I will probably be back to try their darjeeling tea, which looked promising. I also noticed that they have bubble tea, which is a favorite of mine. I'm curious to see how theirs will stack up against some of the Chinatown stalwarts. I also wonder if they use brewed tea, instead of the powdered mixes that many of the bubble tea shops use. I am so torn, Argo tea! I hate your coffee signs, but I will have to come back and try your tempting darjeeling, and bubble tea. At least someone will give your tea the love it deserves!
Argo Tea Cafe- 1792 Broadway NY, NY 10019

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