Tea might be yang to coffee's yin in the morning land of Caffeination Nation, but despite the presence, in yin as in yang, of humankind's favorite stimulant, tea is surely one of the most soothing ingestables known to us. It is what you have a cup of when it's raining, or you're feeling blue or a little achy; as with chicken soup, its healing powers are legendary. The very picture of a cup of tea, wreathed by wisps of delicate steam, tends to set the mind at ease. And, of course, this isn't just some gauzy, sentimental picture, since scientific investigation has found tea to be ample in the antioxidant compounds that help human beings resist disease.
It is beautifully appropriate, then, that we should find both chicken soup and a wealth of teas on the menu at Modern Tea, a gorgeous tea emporium and restaurant — rather in the mold of the Castro's Samovar Tea Lounge — that opened recently in a gorgeous Hayes Valley space, of exposed brickwork, plate glass, and warm wood, that once housed Terra Brazilis. After that Brazili-Cal bistro closed, there was a brief and misplaced intermezzo of South Asian cooking under the name Tandoori Grill, but with the advent of Modern Tea, all is again as it should be: a distinctive and worthy endeavor in a strikingly stylish setting.
Not many changes have been made to that setting, except that the steam tables for the Indian buffet have been removed from the area in front of the elevated exhibition kitchen and the walls have been painted the color of green tea ice cream. The layout is the same, the taverna-style wood tables and chairs the same — or, if not the same, so similar to their predecessors as to seem the same in memory. What has changed is the mood, the tempo; what was, not too many years ago, a bustling station of the night now has the slightly calmer, sunlit affect of a café, though a café that serves tea instead of coffee and is much better looking than its fellow cafés.
The animating spirit of Modern Tea belongs to Alice Cravens, whose pedigree as a teamonger is lofty. She has run the tea service for places like Chez Panisse, Delfina, and Zuni, and it is not surprising that, in opening her own place, she would adopt the ethos of those distinguished spots as her own, with an emphasis on sustainability, seasonality, and a certain earthy simplicity that manages to be consistent both with elegance and with tea. "We buy our ingredients direct from local farmers and businesses whenever possible," the bill of fare announces, "with preference towards organic and earth friendly farming methods."