Tea. The new coffee.




I am a coffee person. However, I have always had this romantic vision of tea and tea parties having grown up on Enid Blyton, P G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. The images which come to mind are those of dainty cups, summer jackets and frilly dresses, cane chairs, teas, scones and crumpets. A leisurely life far removed from my adopted city of Mumbai and its frenetic pace of life.

Within Mumbai, however, is Tea Centre, an oasis belonging to a world far away from Mumbai. You could easily mistake it for Bertie Wooster’s club, the Drones. You would hardly think that Churchgate, the busy heart of Mumbai local’s train netwok, is its neighbour.

I first went to Tea Centre in 1998 and fell in love with it. The wife is a regular there too. So we were very excited when we found out that we would be doing our first review together for www.feastguru.com over there. The two of us had last gone there when my mother had visited us from Calcutta. And she loved it too.

Tea Centre is a premise let out by the Indian Tea Board to promote Indian teas. It is run by TV persona, Rathikanta Basu, now, and ad film maker, Prahalad Kakkar, before this. Tea centre has the rare honour of being listed in the Lonely Planet Guide.

It has a certain old world feel to it with its round tables, white liveried chairs, high ceilings, vintage lamps hanging from the very high ceiling, the waiters who are in turbans and the little bells to attract their attention. There used to be a piano earlier which has now been removed due to the lack of a pianist. On the whole, you could be forgiven for mistaking the place for a Merchant Ivory film set.

The key to a tea drinking experience is the company you are with and the conversations you have. The wife and I were very lucky that evening to be hosted by Mr Bakul Shah. Bakul is a restaurant consultant who manages Tea Centre. He is what I call a ‘man of food’. While food was his profession, it was his passion too. And that passion showed in the restaurant, the service and the food. We chatted with him for two and a half hours without realising it.

Here are some of the gems he regaled us with. He summed up the entire history of the British rule in Indian in one sentence, “they came to India for the tea”. He told us about the fact that Darjeeling tea is so delicate that the entire taste goes the moment you add milk (a bit like vodka and mixers I guess). He told us about the ‘first flush’ of Darjeeling tea. How it was milder from the second flush as the plant had become tougher by the time the first leaves were plucked and the second flush grew. We got to know about the rare, 10,000 (sic) Rs a kilo, ‘white tea’ (made from buds) without which the MD of one of India’s leading banks cannot function. We also got a glimpse of his tough Rocky’ish side when he told us about how he tells unsure customers, “You can’t sit on the fence when it comes to tea, you should either look for flavour or for taste”. Bakul’s passion for food can be summed by the fact that he is a Jain (the purest of vegetarians) who became a non vegetarian to pursue his interests in food.

So was the evening all about the talk? What about the tea?

Having come in from the sun we started with the ice teas. We had a litchi ice tea (Rs 65) which was very refreshing. You got the taste of litchi AND the tea. There was nothing synthetic about it. It reminded the wife of the ice teas at her favourite tea place, Dolly’s of Calcutta.

We also had something called Mint tea Float (Rs 75) which to me was the “Gone With The Wind’ of the food world. Why? Well its taste changed as you sipped various parts of the drink. You first get the taste of vanilla as your straw hits the ice cream at the top. Then, as you probe below the surface, you get a taste of the cold tea. This changes when your straw hit the bottom of the glass and a sudden icy surge hits you as you reach the mint crème. I took a sip later in the evening when the layers mixed and it suddenly seemed like a mint milk shake. A sure Oscar winner when it came to drama and twists

We next had the hot teas. We tried the famed First Flush (Rs 95 for 2 cups) of Darjeeling tea – very delicate and light, best enjoyed without sugar or milk. We then had a unique Hot Buttered Apple Tea (Rs 55) which was Darjeeling tea with a slice of apple, apple sauce, butter (!) and a hint of honey. Ambrosial! Then we had the Qahwah (Rs 55). It had the spiciness of the famous Kashmiri Qahwah. The version here had milk unlike the Kashmiri version. The milk, Bakul explained, made it more palatable to the rest of us who are not lucky enough to live in Kashmir.

Food is a very important part of the tea drinking experience. Traditional eats vary from the cold cucumber sandwiches of England to the hot pakoras of India. I had always read about scones in British literature without knowing what they were. I asked Bakul about them who promptly presented Tea Centre’s in house scones (Rs 55). Scones are puff like bakes which as Bakul explained do not have a taste of their own. The magic happens when you slice them and fill them with condiments (strawberry jam and fresh cream in this case). The taste was amazing. The sweet fillings in the warm, soft scones took me to heaven. Imagine trying something you had always dreamt about and then discovering how wonderful it was! It was like a dream come true.

The food was excellent too. The wife and I are die hard non vegetarians. But we loved the Paneer kaalimirich (Rs 105) which were little cubes of paneer (cottage cheese) livened up by coarse grains of pepper. We also loved the chatpati bhindi (okra) Rs 95 – crisp slivers of okra in a tangy sauce. The chatapata chicken was a nice starter too and we loved the tender bites of chicken. We also ate something called chicken noodle casserole (Rs 175). The fragrance of cheese as the dish was brought to our table was heady as was the tangy, tomato sauce which Bakul lovingly doled on to our plates. It came with a very well flavoured mashed potato and some boiled vegetables.

The evening ended with Irish Tea (Rs 65). I have tried Irish coffee before and am yet to decide on whether I liked it. But this (alcohol less) drink, we loved. I loved the cardamom blend which the tea had. I loved sipping the hot tea through the vanilla ice cream. Bakul said that the only way to enjoy it was with a milk moustache. This was Gone With The Wind part 2 as the taste changed as the vanilla ice cream melted into the hot tea leaving a comforting, milky taste.

They have a little tea shop too where we bought a nice green tea and have been enjoying it at home since. It apparently has digestive, slimming and cholesterol fighting properties.

Cribs? The only cribs are the toilets which look like they are part of the neighbouring Churchgate station – leaky, smelly and governmentish. I hope they do something about it.

All in all, at the risk of sounding like an ad, head to Tea Centre, especially if you are a coffee person.
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