Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Steeping Room

11410 Century Oaks Ter
Austin, TX 78758
(512) 977-8337

As the stock market continues to nose dive into oblivion, my month of eating cheaply continues. I haven't had a significant meal at a new restaurant in ages. I'm beginning to feel it too. The tedium of homemade baked ziti (FYI, don't add eggplant to baked ziti, it sounds like it would be good, but its not) is finally starting to catch up with me.

I haven't experienced the largess of an expensive night out in god knows how long. I get little whiffs of the good old life from time to time. Like when Laura and I had wine and dessert at Wink, or when I had a huge soft pretzel and a big pint of Sierra Nevada at the Saucer, or when Eric and I did the beer tasting at Specs (oh yes, 20 samples of beer AND sausages all for the incredibly low price of free). But from time to time I manage to escape from the monotony of (kosher German) bologna and (goats milk) provolone sandwiches with (stone ground) mustard into the fantastic world of restaurant dining. But this usually only happens on dates.. Mostly because someone else is paying.

I've been talking on and off with a nice gentleman for a month now. We've been trading witty e-mails back and forth for week. One particular e-mail mentioned having tea and crumpets on our first date. So when it came time to finally meet, I suggested, surprise surprise, tea and crumpets. He thought I was joking when I mentioned going to the Steeping Room for our first date, but I was deadly serious (well, mostly deadly). You all know by now, that when someone dates as much as I do, the normal date of dinner and drinks gets a little boring. I like to spice it up a little. I like to go to a good show, try some crazy ethnic food, play mini golf, go to a haunted house (my date on Wednesday), or have tea and crumpets.

My date and I met up on Friday night at the Domain. Now I know ALL of you have opinions about the Domain. People either love it or hate. You either think is the best high end mall in central Texas or you think its ground zero for the upper echelon of Austin's douchebag class. I have a rather love-hate relationship with the Domain. Its so clean and sparkly.

Every store holds some treasure of upper-classness that makes the inner girlie girl in my dance for joy. But, on the other hand, its the essence of that upper-class snobbery that makes it so unattractive. Go to any of the high end (chain!) restaurants and you'll find hundreds of "$30,000 Millionaires" in crisp button down shirts with too much gel in their hair peacocking wildly for the fake chested, bottle blond peahens carrying last years Prada handbag and knock-off Louboutins. The Domain manages to be both magical and fake all at the same time.

But one redeeming quality of the Domain is the Steeping Room. I've been here a half dozen times and consider it my peaceful haven when I feel overwhelmed by fakery and sparkle. The whole establishment has an air of cleanly organized that immediately makes me feel warm and at home.

Upon entry to the store, you'll immediately notice a wall of tea canisters with every variety of tea you'd ever want; everything from darjilings to herbal tisanes. They are neatly stacked and aligned like glass bottles in an apothecary shop with small tureens of loose tea in front of a few so you can smell and touch the tea. There is a small walk-up counter on one side of the shop and a dozen tables on the other, both sides being separated by a neat, geometric glass display case filled with every manor of tea pot. There are utilitarian white ceramic tea pots, brightly colored ones, ones with cups in the bottoms, cast iron ones, and even ones that look like animals. The wall of tea canisters and the pots in the display case really accentuate that this is a loose tea establishment.

Being a tea snob myself, I have a tendency to turn up my nose at the bagged "Celestial Seasonings" type teas that most people drink. I want a gunpowder green tea, a citrus white tea, or a strong triple steeped roasted oolong. And the Steeping Room provides those in spades. A look at their tea list quickly turns overwhelming with each new tea sounding tastier than the next. You have to go in wanting to try a specific type of tea: black, green, white, oolong, pu-erh (which I have no experience with) then pick from among those offered. But to be honest, I've never had a bad pot of tea here.

They have a tendency to brew their tea properly, at the correct water temperature and for the required amount of time which produces a milder, gentler tea than most of us are used to. Most people are used to the bitter punch in the mouth a cup of Luzianne iced tea produces. You won't find that at the Steeping Room, only subtle, finely flavored pots of tea.

But are you going to go to the Steeping Room for just a pot of tea? No, you're going to go for a nibble too. Some crumpets as it were. And the Steeping Room offers those in spades. They offer everything from light lunches to full tea service. When I go I generally opt for the Century Oaks full tea service. You get four small sandwich triangles, a scone, a piece of cake, a few cookies, a pot of tea, and for a small additional price you can get a small jar of evil, evil, tasty, but oh so bad for you clotted cream (don't knock it till you've tried it, its amazing). I usually get the Lapsang Souchong Chicken Salad and Goat Cheese sandwiches. They are nothing spectacular, but have a light delicate taste that goes well with the subtle (and not bitter) tea. The baked goods, particularly the scones are incredible. The scones are light and airy, not the usual dense hockey pucks. And the small cookies are melt in your mouth delicious.

When I went with my date to the Steeping Room last week we decided to try the Kasbah Express sampler - a generous plate of olives, feta, flatbread, dolmas, hummus, a pot of tea and honey drizzled fruit. I was less than impressed with this selection. The olives were good, but lets be honest, as long as you don't serve them out of a can, its hard to mess up olives. The goat's milk feta was good, but very.. pungent.. and seemed to wrestle with the delicate flavors of the darjeeling we were drinking (and a darjeeling is a heartier tea than most!). The dolmas were coarse and rather bland. And the honey drizzled fruit was messy. They served grapes still on the stem, covered in honey. My hands were thoroughly sticky from picking just one of the grapes. I wasn't at all impressed with this dish. We even ordered a side of "crumpets." Now when I was in England, crumpets were a sort of english muffin type bread. But at the Steeping room, crumpets are lox and creamed cheese on white bread with capers. Tasty, but not crumpets.

My date went well. We giggled and laughed, there seemed to be a mutual attraction, but the more we talked the more an odd distance grew between us. My date was an Artist with a capital A. He's a musician by trade, but had recently delved into the movie business. The more he talked about his art, the more I realized that it was his world and that he was wholly consumed by it. So I asked questions about things other than his "art" and I was met with a bit of resistance. His art was his life and I started to get the impression that he felt I wasn't fully engrossed in his Art. I wasn't so utterly entranced by his Art that he felt I wasn't into him. Which wasn't the case, he was pretty smokin. But, I'm not a muse, I'm not an art junkie. I won't give up a part of myself for the sake of someone else's art, no matter how good it is.

Bottom Line: Wonderful tea and scones in an upscale atmosphere

Mariah: 8.5