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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Reverb10, Day 26: What happens when three tea loving art enthusiasts descend upon San Francisco?

Prompt: Soul food. What did you eat this year that you will never forget? What went into your mouth & touched your soul?

The author of this prompt is Elise Marie Collins:
An A-Z Guide to Healing Foods: A Shopper's Reference

A few days ago I spent the day in San Francisco. For some reason, San Francisco does not feel quite real to me. Maybe it is how it is nestled into the lush, green, hills that slope sharply down to the Pacific Ocean. Maybe it is how all the houses look like rows of doll-houses or gingerbread houses, with their sloping gables, tall facades and ornate trim. Maybe it is how the city is frequently enveloped in a thick blanket of fog that visitors have to descend down through in order to enter the city, or that driving over the deep blue bay across one of the most well-known engineering icons of the west coast feels more like a rite of passage than the most direct route into the city. Whatever it is, San Francisco envelops me like a dream when ever I visit it, and I often find myself stumbling through my day like a wide-eyed child dropped suddenly into the swirling world of a surrealist painting.

 My parents and I wanted to see two art exhibits that were showing: An exhibit of post-impressionists that was showing at the De Young Museum, and a life retrospective of Henri Cartier Bresson's photography, which was showing at the MOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). We decided to make a day of it, and immerse ourselves in San Francisco for the day.

We started our day with lunch at De Young. The De Young is set in the middle of Golden Gate park, a lush green, intricately embroidered park that covers over 1,000 acres in north-western San Francisco. If you are in San Francisco, and happen to be in Golden Gate park, there are many sights worth seeing. I will not go into these in detail in this entry, but if you are interested in checking them out, a few of them worth checking out are: the Japanese Tea Garden, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the Academy of Sciences.

In order to get to the exhibit, we had to weave our way down paths that meandered beneath enormous redwoods, climb down steep stone staircases that were still damp from the recent rain storms that have descended upon northern California lately. We passed a large deep green pond alive with ducks, geese, and tourists in paddle boats, lazily gliding across the water's surface. Across the water, a Japanese gazebo rose gracefully out of the bulrushes growing at the water's edge. 

The exhibit we were interested in was an exhibit of post-impressionist paintings from the Musee d'Orsay. The paintings included work by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Bernard, Laval, Serusier, and Khnopff, among others. They were wide-ranging in their subject matter, from still lives to portraits to sweeping land and seascapes. The colours were rich, landscapes alive, fabrics luminous. Because there are no windows in the exhibit halls, I felt as though I was looking through the windows of time at the landscapes of the south of France, the ornate dance halls of Europe, the beaches and tropical jungles Tahiti, and the golden hay fields of Holland and France. My favourite paintings were Madeleine in the Bois D'amour, by Emile Bernard, The Harvest, by Emile Bernard, The Terrace, by Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Marie Monnom, or Miss M.M., by Fernand Khnopff.

The exhibit was far more extensive than I had imaged, and although I thoroughly enjoyed the exquisite art, I felt rather overwhelmed by the crowds that were packed into each room. If I were to do it again, I would go at a less busy time.

After leaving the museum, we headed out into an open piazza of sorts that separates the De Young from the Academy of Sciences, to enjoy the fountains, the grove of mossy trees, and the sea gulls that were playing in the pools of water. We filled our lungs with fresh air, and then got back into the car to make our way across the city to MOMA. By the time we arrived, the last light was fading. Carolers filled the streets with Christmas music, and shoppers were out doing last minute shopping. We were all getting hungry, so we decided to stop and have tea and a snack at Samovar, a tea lounge conveniently located in Yerba Buena, just across the street from MOMA.

Samovar, a tea lounge created by Jesse Jacobs in 2001, is, according to the company's website, "in the business of true, deep, positive human connection, aka Love." Samovar has three locations in San Francisco. The Yerba Buena location is, thus far, the only location that I have been fortunate enough to visit. The company's website describes itself as "a garden oasis, resting above an urban waterfall in the heart of the city...Nested beneath the city’s skyscrapers..." In order to reach Samovar Yerba Buena, we had to climb up a ramp that climbed upwards around a lit curtain of waterfalls behind which was a wall of illuminated quotes by Martin Luther King. Skyscrapers rose up all around us, an endless sea of towers glimmering with light. The entire front of Samovar is glass, which provided us with a fantastic view of the city while we enjoyed our tea. A warm light radiated out through the front windows, giving off a welcoming air that drew us inside. We were immediately welcomed and directed to a table near the front windows. Our waitress gave us menus and then proceeded to tell us the specials. We had not planned to eat a full meal there, but they did have a diverse and intriguing menu that I intend to explore further the next time I am in the city.

My parents both ordered Chai, and yes, I did taste it, and yes, it was delicious. Richly flavoured, with a creamy smooth consistency, with just enough sweetness to complement the spicy notes without undermining them. A rich, substantial drink. They ordered a plate of cookies, which Samovar calls "tea sweets." You can see an honest rendering of what their plate looked like here, but unfortunately they do not have a complete list of all of their sweets on their website.

I ordered one of their special teas of the day: Qingxing Oolong, which had notes of orchid, lily, apricot, wild rose, toasted grains and roasted sweet potato. It may be obvious, having read the previous sentence, why I ordered this tea, but let me tell you, just in case you did not fully appreciate the notes that play through this tea: I ordered it because it sounded like a poem, and being a poet, the idea that I could drink, as well as write poetry, was profoundly appealing!  I also love teas that have stories, and although I would have liked to have been told where this tea was grown, by whom, and what the precise landscapes in which it was grown, picked and processed look like, I nevertheless felt a story rising up out of this tea even before it was even delivered to our table by our obliging waitress (she hand-wrote the ingredients out for me before I left).

My tea came on a long, rectangular tray. The hot water was in the pot, the tea was in a small cup covered by a miniature ceramic saucer, and at the end closest to me sat the empty cup that I was to drink it from. Our waitress explained to me that I was to pour hot water into the "brewing cup," wait 30 seconds, and then pour the tea from the "brewing cup" into the cup I was to drink from, holding the miniature saucer over it to prevent the tea leaves from getting into my cup. I waited the advised 30 seconds and then attempted to pour my first cup of tea (never has 30 seconds felt so long!)...the result was not terribly successful. Holding to saucer over the "brewing cup" caused quite a lot of tea to spill on the table. I got better at maneuvering the cup and saucer, but I think they would do well to come up with a better setup at some point. Maybe they are already working on it. Once my cup was full, I re-filled the "brewing cup," and picked up my cup to inhale the aroma rising from the cup. The perfume was similar to what I might smell if I were to walk through a botanical garden on an early summer's day. It was lightly nutty and earthy, with a weightless sweetness to it that reminded me of nectar. The flavour of the notes in the tea were very subtle. I would not have been able to distinguish them if I had not been told beforehand what they were, but I did find that inhaling and sipping at the same time seemed to help integrate the sweetness with the more earthy taste of the tea. The first few cups tasted the best -- I was told that I could keep re-brewing the leaves, which I did, but I found that the later cups were rather bitter tasting. Would I recommend this tea? Absolutely. I would have liked it if the flavours that I could smell were slightly more evident in the flavour, but I felt pampered and well-loved by the time I had finished my cup of tea.

Although we had gone to Samovar for tea, my experience of the tea lounge was coloured by the "tea sweet" that I enjoyed with my luxurious tea. I ordered a plate of thick, creamy rose-water infused Greek yoghurt that was sprinkled with finely chopped fresh mint, dribbled with coconut syrup, and accompanied by toasted walnuts, fresh apple, and dates. Are you drooling yet? This "tea sweet" was one of the best desserts I have ever had, and that is no exaggeration. The flavours and textures complemented each other perfectly, and it felt as though someone was setting off fireworks in the vicinity of my taste buds (and in case you are wondering, this is a very good thing!)...If you ever happen to visit Samovar, order this dish! I promise that you will not regret it. The only drawback to eating something this good is that everything you taste for days afterward will seem bland and uninteresting.

The atmosphere in Samovar is laid back. Ethnic, rhythmic music played in the background: a combination of Mexican music and Middle Eastern tunes. I recognized a few of the songs on the soundtrack from the film Frida Kahlo, at one point. It seems like a great place to unwind after a long day of work or sightseeing in the city.

We left Samovar feeling pampered, happy, and, well...loved! I fully intend to visit one of their other locations the next time I am in San Francisco. The one drawback would have to be the price. You definitely pay for the experience. We did go all out, and my specialty tea was more than twice the price of the chai...my parents' teas were far more reasonably priced, but the total cost for the experience was approaching the cost of an average priced full meal for two people rather than just tea and snacks. Still, I have to say that for me the experience was worth it. I would definitely go back, and will be recommending the place to friends.

After our dreamy experience in Samovar, we felt completely refreshed, and were ready to tackle another gallery. We headed off to MOMA, and managed to skip the incredibly long line outside because my parents are, thankfully, members. Between the front door of the museum and the staircase leading up to the exhibits is a large atrium. I was standing, waiting for my parents, when a spotlight suddenly switched on right above me. Surprised, I stepped to the right to escape the attention and smiles that I was getting from the other museum visitors. The light followed me. I walked across the room, and again the light followed me. People were laughing now. Realizing that it was part of the experience, I finally stood still and fully embraced my moment in the spotlight! After a few minutes the light switched off, and went in search of another unsuspecting star.

The Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit was truly spectacular, and there were far fewer people taking in the exhibit than had been at the De Young exhibit, so it was much easier to fully enjoy the experience. The images begin in the 1930s and continue throughout his career as a photographer and photojournalist. It is an impressive and diverse range of photographs taken in Mexico, the United States, France, Spain, China, Russia, among other places. His photographs capture the personal stories and human suffering behind the political and social upheavals that have shaped the life experiences of every human being on the planet to some degree. His images are simple, and in their simplicity, they reflect the essence of what it means to be human. I especially enjoyed his images of the Chinese building a new economy and social movement, the suffering of the Russians as they became increasingly impoverished, the hauntingly defiant, penetrating gaze of prostitutes in Mexico, and the precise and powerful portraits of some of the world's most famous artists and writers. We left this exhibit buzzing with thoughts and reflections about the images that were playing through our minds. I would love to see more of Henri Cartier-Bresson's photography in the future.

We left the lights of San Francisco behind us and headed into Berkeley for supper at my parents' favourite restaurant, Pomegranate, a Mediterranean fusion restaurant. Unfortunately, much to my parents' dismay, we arrived to find that the restaurant had closed down, and been replaced by an Indian restaurant. We did not feel like curry, so we drove around for a while, and ended up eating at Sweet Basil, a Thai restaurant. I love Thai food, and the atmosphere and staff were both pleasant, but the food was just mediocre. It was an enjoyable meal, but I do not think that I would eat there again.

We drove home feeling sleepy, but very happy. Our gallery experiences, and our refreshing and rejuvenating tea time at Samovar were well worth the drive down to San Francisco. We felt inspired and invigorated. Definitely a day filled with food for the soul -- creative and culinary!

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