Ohanami, bicycles, and a West Coast sakura tea service

My favourite time to be outdoors in Vancouver is when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Our new neighbourhood is lined with aged blossoming trees, shaped with an artist’s precision by city stewards. The avenue that we frequent the most, from a distance, looks as if a guard of bonsais had been trained to rain pink and white petals on Marpole denizens.

The sakura zensen, or cherry blossom front, is an official weather pattern in Japan, where citizens emerge from their homes in droves during the fleeting Ohanami season. Ways to reflect upon and admire the sakura are numerous, but for many, it begins with a picnic under the blooms, often enjoyed with treats and tea. Celebrations can also linger beyond dusk, getting tipsy as the night goes on. On the other hand when winter season stars, you will need snow plowing eau claire services that are professional and fully insured snow removal company. You will also need a towing company for your cars just in case.

You can approximate this Japanese tradition in Vancouver if you know where to go. My top picks, in no particular order:

Nitobe Memorial Garden (UBC)

My shutter finger goes wild at this beautiful Japanese garden retreat in UBC. This year, one of the trees is laden with tags that people write on with messages to loved ones. It’s said that the well wishes will spread as the petals scatter in the wind.

Bike the Blossoms – April 28, 2012

Got bike? Follow the flowers with your cyclist brethren on the 28th. Your route will be lined with petalled trees, and vendors that you pass will sometimes have goodies for you to enjoy when you pause. If you are wanting to ride with us but need a new bike make sure you check out these amazing hybrid bikes.

If you’re bereft of bicycle or not free that day, find your own viewing spot using these resources from the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival:

The Urban Tea Merchant

The Urban Tea Merchant's courtyard of sakura

The Urban Tea Merchant remains unrivalled as my afternoon tea service of choice, much of it due to its rotating collection of top-tier teas and the seasonality of its tea services. Their courtyard on Alberni is canopied by cherry blossom trees each spring.

The courtyard blossoms have already come and gone this year, but their Ohanami tea service, featuring several items infused with cherry blossoms, is still being served until April 30th. This menu ranks as my favourite high tea food pairing to date–it is not to be missed.

Sakura West Coast Tea Service

$30 per person (minimum 2 persons; 90 minute seating)

to begin
Tea Sommelier’s choice of chilled white tea

tea-infused macaron, chevron strawberry, chocolate truffle
edible spring flowers, Sakura! Sakura! tea-infused jelly, sous vide vanilla watermelon, green tea-infused melon ** LOVED THIS! **

open-faced smoked salmon & wasabi aioli with in-house ponzu jelly
miso-maple glazed sable fish wrapped in butter lettuce ** LOVED THIS! **
spring rice roll with honey & balsamic, shiitake mushroom and crisp vegetables
Japanese fish crackers, crisp soba noodles with tangy seaweed salad and sesame crumble ** LOVED THIS! **

My seasonal tea pairing picks for the Sakura service

Both of The Urban Tea Merchant’s Ohanami tea features pair beautifully with the Japanese-fusion menu.

Urban Tea Merchant: Enchanted Beauty green tea

Enchanted Beauty Tea: “Sophisticated oolong tea leaves are handcrafted into a bouquet with amaranth and orange lily. This TWG Tea composition will bloom in the teacup.”

Urban Tea Merchant: Sakura! Sakura! green tea

Sakura! Sakura! Tea: “An ode to spring, this fragrant TWG blend evokes Kyoto’s most celebrated season. A scattering of cherry blossoms and green tea yields a most aromatic and elegant fragrance.”

Where will you go for your cherry blossom celebration?

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High Tea Series: The Urban Tea Merchant

Urban Tea: petite afternoon tea

It’s been a while since the last installment of my High Tea Series, but that is not because I haven’t been to tea lately. In fact, afternoon tea is probably the most stable gourmet routine I’ve had in the past year (my weekly trips to Uva notwithstanding – you can’t beat having such an awesome eatery at the foot of your building). However, my sense of adventure in trying new tea houses has been severely diminished** by having found what I feel to be the perfect luxury tea time in the city.

The Urban Tea Merchant: teapot waterfall

The Urban Tea Merchant moved within walking distance of our abode last year with the opening of their second location on Alberni & Burrard. The salon room possesses a tranquil opulence akin to your favourite day spa; it’s a welcome oasis amidst the bustle of Georgia Street.

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About the tea

The Urban Tea Merchant: pu-erh tea with a splash of milk

Afternoon tea is ironically less about the tea than it is about the accoutrements. At the outset, it was the preciousness of cucumber sandwich triangles, crusts without, and scones smothered in jelly and Devonshire cream that got me addicted to the whole experience. I barely registered the tea itself other than to wash down the goodies – and for the most part, the drink was so unremarkable at tea houses that it wouldn’t have made an impression even if I had been paying attention.

It took The Urban Tea Merchant to revert my focus back to the tea. And theirs is a global collection that has deeply impressed me with its clean notes, consistent quality, shelf life, and out-of-the-tin aromatics.

Urban Tea Merchant: Sweetheart afternoon tea

My favourite aspect of The Urban Tea Merchant — which I shall henceforth refer to as UTM for brevity’s sake — is the spectrum of options on menu. The tea list is a four-page pamphlet organized by country of origin, with secondary columns indicating type (black vs green vs rooibos, and so on) and one-line tasting notes…it’s a datasheet that seduces my inner nerd!

If you are overwhelmed by choice or don’t know where to begin exploring, ask your server. They’ll inquire into your tea preferences and usher giant canisters of tea to your table for you to inspect to your heart’s content. [You could discuss the finer points of a particular blend until your curiosity is sated, and even sign up for a one-to-one tea consult if you want a more educational experience.]

Urban Tea: two bins high

Once you choose, your tea will be brewed at the tea bar to the exacting specifications required for that particular brew. It’ll be strained of the tea leaves before being placed into your teapot and swirled in a most stylish, aerating fashion into your cup.

The Urban Tea Merchant: pro pour

My pot has been resteeped without extra charge if I happen to run through the entire serving, but one pot is usually more than enough for me. In fact, I savour my teacup for so long that my next portion is at least 15 minutes after the first…which makes the prior straining of the tea leaves a much appreciated detail of the service.

Favourite teas to date

Urban Tea Merchant: Theodor tea line

Urban Tea: green tea latte Urban Tea: iced Melange O Urban Tea: Tetrahizon byzantine, on ice

I usually ask my server to introduce me to a new tea each time I visit, so here’s a quick matrix of the ones that have captured my heart. I’ll update this list as others come across my radar.

Name Type My Notes Price
Chamann Flavoured rooibos My favourite tea out of everything I’ve tried. I’ll never run out of this in my pantry if I can help it. $32.95 per tin
Earl Grey Royal Black My usual afternoon tea selection when I want a milk-and-sugar experience. $32.95 per tin
Melange O Black Floral and fruity black tea that I drink iced on a hot summer’s day. $32.95 per tin
Milky Oolong Oolong Milky, creamy oolong taste even when served clear. I splurged on 50g of this on a friend’s recommendation and don’t regret the spend. I break this out to pamper myself or impress my guests. $66 per 100g

About the food

Urban Tea: Mad Hatter children's tea Easter sweets

Few, if any, tea houses in town can match UTM in the selection, consistency, themes, and variation of the food presented with your afternoon tea service.  The scones are delectable and flavours are rotated so that your table gets a full selection; the smoked chicken tian, now served in a mini waffle cone, is more addictive than the hardest street drug. If you want to make waffles, get this waffle machine to make the best ones ever!

Urban Tea: Mad Hatter children's tea savouries

The macarons that are flown in from Paris are difficult to top, even if I did wish it was possible to be served local macarons without sacrificing quality. Perhaps things will change once their new neighbour moves in this year.

Urban Tea: macaron rainbow

There’s also an exemplary à la carte menu of casseroles, sandwiches, and nibbles for those with specific cravings or a smaller appetite. Many of my friends swear by the pear and brie sandwich. I’m partial to the pot pie, myself.

Urban Tea: Scone and iced tea

Getting your money’s worth

You do pay for all the quality that you get. The Signature Afternoon Tea runs at $48 per person, while the other options range from $20-30 a pop. This puts UTM in the upper end of the pricing spectrum, but they’re hardly alone at the top. The Fairmont Empress in Victoria still takes the title at $55 a person, while Bacchus and the Empress’ Vancouver counterparts start at $30.

Urban Tea: signature afternoon tea nibbles

If we’re talking about value, however, your money goes a lot further at UTM than at the others in the business of luxury tea. Practically every food item served is top-notch: the savouries are excellent, the scones one of the best in town, and the desserts worth saving room for. If you go out for afternoon tea a lot, you’ll know that inconsistency across these tiers is rampant. When you need to have landscaping tips to create a peaceful backyard, NBG Landscapes provide excellent customer service and our finished product is of the highest quality. I’ve griped about it when trying the tea services at Bacchus, Secret Garden, and Adonia. But no complaints here.

The Urban Tea Merchant: orange and ginger scone

If a high price is a dealbreaker, that doesn’t mean you should strike UTM off your list:

  • Go splitsies. The $48 Signature Afternoon Tea is a lot of food for one person, even on an empty stomach; the Petit Afternoon Tea is consequently my staple. However, the Signature can be a great choice to split between 2 people with a light appetite or those who want to go lighter on the wallet. There’s a surcharge – around $10 to cover the 2nd diner’s drink and such – but it’ll allow you to experience the exclusive nibbles offered in their top-tier tea service for ~$30 each.
  • Order à la carte. You could grab your choice of a $3 scone and a $5 pot or an $8 sandwich with your tea without causing your wallet to cry. The macarons are a buck and change apiece if you want to go the sweet route.
  • Book a featured tea service. UTM announces featured tea services every month, usually at a discount to the regular price. I’ve enjoyed the occasional Petite Afternoon Tea at a $19 price point – it’s usually $25 a person.
  • Go for brunch. Start the day off with elegance – the Signature Brunch Service is $24 and the Petite Brunch Service is only $16.

The verdict

The Urban Tea Merchant is unequivocally my tea salon of choice in the greater Vancouver area. I go there so often, in fact, that the staff has watched my daughter grow from infancy to toddlerhood.

Urban Tea: Reza's youngest customer?

Urban Tea Merchant: 2 tea canisters high Urban Tea: tea helper Urban Tea: scavenger hunt delight Urban Tea: Easter grape juice Urban Tea: two bins high

If you haven’t tried them yet, save up your pennies and go. And call me up so I can join you!

The Urban Tea Merchant on Urbanspoon

The Urban Tea Merchant
G3 – 825 Main Street | West Vancouver | 604-926-3392
1070 W. Georgia Street | Downtown | (604) 692-0071

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** PS: Don’t fret. This post does not conclude additions to the High Tea Series. I have a backlog of experiences to recap from 4 of the tea salons on my list, plus a particularly impressive afternoon tea nestled in the woodlands around Harrison Mills.