“When I first started in the food industry, I used to think pairings were a bunch of crap,” laughs Karen Dunlap, who manages the tea service and its associated pairings at Union Square Café on E. 16th Street, “but it’s not.”
Dunlap should know: She’s a 15-year veteran of the tea industry who joined Union Square as both a server and a tea consultant last spring. She co-founded Matcha Source, a Japanese tea importing business that she sold in 2006; has worked as a representative for In Pursuit of Tea, and worked as a tea consultant for Craft, Café Boulud and Gramercy Tavern, the latter also a member of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group.
“The power of a pairing,” says Dunlap, ” is that you remember that moment forever, and you look for ways to recreate it for yourself.”
To that end, she recommends Union Square Cafe diners combine Anji Baicha Green with Petit Billy French goat cheese from Union Square’s farmstead cheese assortment. “I love the fact that I’m pairing cheese from the Loire Valley with tea from Fujian, China,” says Dunlap. Her ultimate goal is that the pairing enhance the taste of the tea and that “both flavors stand out.”
“How many times when you pair tea with food or desserts does the tea ends up tasting like water” she asks: “The goal is to have a harmony, the symphony of different notes.” Here the “sweet grassy notes” in the Chinese green tea are “amazing” with the cheese, enthuses Dunlap, which she characterizes as “tangy” and “light.”
Another example is a pairing of Jasmine Pearls Green tea, also from Fujian, with a lemon cake served with Moscato d’Asti zabaglione and raspberry sherbet. “This lemon cake is delicate, with high acidity from the lemon” she says, “which matches with the smooth florals of the jasmine green tea.”
Union Square’s loose leaf tea menu is mainly single-lot, artisanal products sourced from The Ippodo Tea Company, which is based in Kyoto, and from In Pursuit of Tea, a New York outfit. The craftsmanship in which tea is grown and dried is important to Dunlap, who did a five-week spring sabbatical with Ippodo Tea in 2009 learning about calligraphy, the Japanese tea ceremony and the growing process. In return, Dunlap taught Ippodo Tea’s sales staff how to explain their products to the growing number of foreigners who wanted to buy it, but didn’t understand or use tea the way Japanese buyers would. The “tea language” of a Japanese consumer is different than American or French buyer’s, says Dunlap.
The beneficial cultural exchange continues at Union Square, which is one of two Manhattan restaurants that sells Ippudo teas. Their 2010 harvest hojicha tea (a green summer crop tea that is roasted until it browns) Dunlap reverently describes as one of the best hojichas she’s tasted. With In Pursuit of Tea, she also appreciates that they deal with “small farmers and artisan producers, ” and “often buy only enough tea to fit in their suitcases.” She changes the menu as she finds new teas she likes and with the seasons. “I believe we crave subtle, delicate, florals in the summer, and darker notes in the winter, things that heat us up and give us comfort.”
Dunlap’s fastidiousness extends to the diner’s table: When tea arrives, it’s in a 14-ounce For Life teapot, and it’s been prepared at the “optimum temperature,” which is 185 degrees for the Jasmine Pearls, and it’s seeped for the right amount of time for different teas and with the right amount of tea leaves. “It’s not true that you get more out of your tea if you stuff more leaves” into the cup, she says. “The truth is, if the whole leaf can’t open and be exposed to the oxygen in the water, you are not going to get the best tasting cup.”
“My passion is to bring good tea into cuisine level dining” says Dunlap, who conducts tea appreciation classes that train staff on the proper brewing methods and educate them on the tasting profiles or which teas work best with a particular dessert or entrée. Don’t be surprised if the next time you go the waitress recommends another of Dunlap’s suggestions: “that Darjeeling goes great with seafood.”