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The American Tea Room

Thinking Outside the Bag

by Kim Fay

"And the heart does not die when one thinks it should,
we smile, there is tea and bread on the table."

Weighing tea leaves

To true tea lovers, there is no need to explain the meaning of this poem, which was written by Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. For those of us who have fallen under the spell of a superior Lapsang Souchong or perfect Earl Grey, these few lines say it all. There is something inexplicably essential about tea. It is sustenance.

So, why does it have such an intoxicating affect on some of us? Perhaps it is the rituals that have been associated with it for centuries. Or perhaps it's because communing over a pot of tea has become a lost art, akin to typing a letter on an Hermes manual, as opposed to pecking out an email on your laptop.

These days, tea connoisseurs often feel like archaeologists, as they dig for an option or two at the bottom of a menu, beneath a lengthy listing of lattes and frappuccinos, or scour the shelves of the supermarket for something that doesn't come bagged. While Los Angeles does have a fair assortment of shops where you can buy good, loose tea, from the Zen-ish Elixir to the contemporary, hybrid Chado, none possesses the comprehensive stock or apothecary mystique of the Paris-originated The American Tea Room in Beverly Hills. This lovely corner shop belongs to the ranks of such classics as Keijzer in Amsterdam (their cinnamon tea is sublime), or Murchie's in Vancouver, B.C. (whose blackcurrant is worth the international shipping charges). These are the kind of places that inspire visions of the tea plantations in Darjeeling and Assam. And where, the moment you walk in, you know that alchemy has been invoked to create the blends on offer.

Green tea leaves

The brightly-lit, floor-to-ceiling shelves in Le Palais des Thés are lined with gleaming silver tins, each one elegantly labeled — from Fruits Rouges Wu Long to Pu Er Imperia l— to entice. Co-owner, Randy Arnold, is a gracious host, whose enthusiasm and enchanting friendliness will ensure that you'll leave the store well-stocked with tea: packets of your own choosing and samples he's sure you'll adore. Along with his partner David Barenholtz, the owner of the Apex Fine Art gallery, Randy (who dumped the major motion picture marketing biz for the exotic world of tea) spent two years wooing the French Le Palais des Thés company for North American rights. But this doesn't mean you'll soon find a shop on every upscale boulevard in the country. Randy and David intend to keep the shops exclusive in every way, with the exception of price (most teas are very reasonable) and customer service (you won't be greeted with any de rigueur haughtiness here.)

The store carries over 200 kinds of loose tea, including a cinnamon that competes with Keijzer's. As well, there is a selection of gifts such as tea candles and beautiful packaged boxed sets, which feature the "Introduction to the cultures of the world" series; this is a great place to do birthday and holiday shopping. And if you want to add a unique, stylish touch to your own event, buy a handful of the Grand Jasmin Mu Dan. These tightly woven balls of jasmine tea are served in Merlot glasses half-filled with hot water. As the glass is presented to your guest, the ball unfurls into a floating lotus blossom.

The American Tea Room contains the small Thés Bar, where you can sample brews; officially, though, this is not a café, as the emphasis here is on the teas you take home. And classes on technique, appreciation and rituals such as the Japanese Tea Ceremony are in the works (get on the mailing list). Best yet in crowded Beverly Hills, there is free, two-hour public parking less than a block away, giving enthusiasts the opportunity to browse and linger to their hearts' content.

The American Tea Room
401 N. Canon Dr.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
The American Tea Room official website
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. 12 p.m.-5 p.m.


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