Healdsburg’s Taste of Tea goes all-out for full Japanese experience

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I’m sitting in a quiet, gently lit room with a warm tea mask on my face, a warm tea wrap around my neck, and my feet swishing in a wonderfully hot tea bath. I’m drinking steaming tea, and a spa technician is murmuring soothing words, explaining how green tea is one of the world’s best antioxidants, rich in polyphenols to help reduce inflammation and ward off disease.

This makes me happy, as my face and feet feel so soft and relaxed that I’m sure I will leave the salon looking magically young and beautiful. I’m so calm and blissed. But most of all, I’m happy that the tea tastes so good. Because really, flavor is an important essence of a Taste of Tea experience, since the downtown Healdsburg spot operates as not just a mini-spa, but a restaurant.

And actually, since debuting four years ago, The Taste of Tea is now more of a restaurant than a lounge, as its owners have recently expanded the food menu from snacks to full-fledged lunch and dinner offerings.

These days, after feeding our souls with tea treatments in the back room, we can enjoy delicious nibbles in the front café, including beautifully arranged pickled vegetables ($7), or robustly seasoned grilled skewers like honey shoyu chicken and green onion, miso mustard pork and eggplant, and teriyaki beef-wrapped green pepper ($3 each).

Is it rude to steam my face over a piping hot bowl of ramen? Returning later after my spa immersion, I do just that, bending in to embrace the deep fragrance of the miso kombu broth ($14 lunch/$17 dinner for a larger portion plus miso soup and garden salad starters). It’s generously layered with thin sliced barbecue pork, half a creamy soy cured egg, tofu, black seaweed, bamboo shoots, microgreens, shallot, fish cake and thick, crunchy sprouts over the slippery noodles.

I’m a ramen fiend, and this superb stuff is the real deal. The miso recipe is Japanese-born chef-owner Nozomu “Nez” Tokugawa’s specialty, though his other varieties are excellent, too. So far, I’ve tried the miso pork ramen loaded with meat ($16/$19), the mild curry spiced pork ramen that the chef will adjust to extra-spicy if we like ($14/$17) and the ramen topped in three big, juicy pork gyoza, a whole soy cured egg and garlic chips ($17/$19).

There’s a vegetarian model as well, the vegan miso broth and noodles mixed with broccoli, sprouts and tofu ($13/$14), and a ramen I want to try next: scallops, shrimp, and squid bobbing in a shiso ponzu broth ($23).

Tokugawa makes his dishes to order, and changes his menu now and again. As the summer heat barrels in, he’s added a most wonderful thing, chilled ramen noodles topped in vegetables and raw tuna ($17). We take heaping chopsticks full, dunk them in rich black garlic vinaigrette, and feel the cool pleasure all the way through our insides.

Chirashi is another star, the bowl of sushi rice prettily arranged with sashimi-grade tuna, eel, shrimp, squid and the unusual delicacy of jellyfish, plus crisp-tender vegetables and Japanese style egg ($26). It’s delicate but filling, and I request a side of black garlic miso chile sauce for a bit of spicy punch.

By comparison, a bento box combo ($21/$26) seems more ordinary, bringing a small bowl of very good miso soup, a tiny bit of chirashi, my choice of pickled sea vegetable and wakame salads, a tiny garden salad and my choice of teriyaki chicken (we can also get beef or fried tofu). It’s quite nice, but with other terrific choices like fat, chewy udon noodles stir-fried with vegetables and tofu and slathered in rich oyster sauce ($14/$19), I’m noodles all the way.

So much thought goes into dishes, that even housemade desserts are noteworthy (not usually standouts in Asian restaurants). What a great use for strong flavored matcha, to turn it into white chocolate matcha mousse on a cookie crumb crust ($8). Earthy matcha also imbues cheesecake, alongside a scoop of black sesame gelato ($6.50), and ice cream anchoring a somewhat odd sundae studded with wafer cookie crumbles and sweet red bean ($6.50).

MarTeaNis are another clever touch, if you’re not drinking the café’s sake, sake cocktails or Japanese beers. The non-alcoholic concoctions come in flavors like the sweet Moonstone of cold dripped white tea, muddled mint, lavender syrup and a vanilla rim ($7).

There’s a lot going on in this cozy space, to be sure, but chef and his wife Donna Tokugawa aren’t new to the business. Back in 2003, the couple formed their Chado-En LLC to import and wholesale premium loose leaf teas. It grew into an online retail business in 2008, and by 2013, The Taste of Tea was a regular presence at the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmer’s Market.

Tea still takes center stage, as some 80 kinds of Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese and other artisanal blends served hot or iced ($4). It’s interesting to watch some of the specialty leaves go through the sci-fi looking glass tea beakers behind the bar, and read the tea descriptions: “Chinese Tribute Tea (Lung Ching Dragon Well Green Tea) is one of the Seven Necessities of Life! You will be allured by the intriguing, mysterious, always delicious liquor that has captivated so much of the world for thousands of years. Traditional Chinese Medicine tells us tea is a magical, medical plant that promotes vitality, controls weight and boosts immunity.”

I wonder what the other six Necessities of Life are … surely, one is ramen.

The fancy tea is $28 for a 15-serving box, but as Donna explains, it does come from the faraway West Lake Region of Hangzhou, where artists roll and press leaves in a hot wok creating a smooth leaf that is slick to the touch. OK, then.

I ask for cold dripped tea ($5.50), which is made with gemwater (real gems, selected for their vibrational energy) and served in a stem glass. I’m not sure if it’s just Donna’s power of suggestion, but I think I detect the silky-smooth mouth feel she says the gems impart; certainly I feel more vibrant with this elegant quaff.

On one quick visit, when I stop in for the ultimate summer cooler — a beer float of green tea ice cream with a dark Lager pour-over ($12) — I’ve got one of my dogs with me. We sit in the shade at a tiny sidewalk table under a giant, bright red hanging teapot sculpture, and Donna pops out to take my order. Is puppy thirsty, she asks? And a few minutes later, she returns with a bowl of cold, complimentary doggie tea. It’s chamomile, which is known as a mild tranquilizer or sleep inducer.

My pup laps up every last drop, and on the drive home, he conks out, content as can be. Like me, it seems, he’s found his Zen space in The Taste of Tea.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

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