Everything about visiting Numi Tea Garden is a trip. First there's the location: right off 880 in an area that may well be home to more tractor-trailers than people, next door to a Ham Radio Outlet that's seemingly a magnet for middle-aged white men casting suspicious glances to and fro. Then, once inside, there's Numi's ritualized tea service, which involves something called the "perfect tea timer" (a trio of miniature hourglasses), two teapots (one ceramic to keep the water hot, and one glass, for pouring your tea into its tiny bowl) and the dousing with hot water of a small plastic fish rendered in the style of Pacific Northwest native art (to further bless your tea experience).
It's a good trip, thankfully — and it would have to be, to draw patrons to this quirky industrial spot. Numi, the company, was the brainchild of Ahmed Rahim and his sister, Reem, back in 1999. Two Prague teahouses that Ahmed co-owned and managed had served as the inspiration for launching a company specializing in organic, fair-trade, full-leaf teas. The Oakland tea garden, whose October grand opening featured live music, belly dancing, and speeches by local activists, is clearly an extension of values the siblings hold dear.
Striking a zen pose, the "garden" is actually an airy indoor space attached to the company's corporate offices. The front of the space is a retail section where tea is housed in a large chest of drawers complete with tasting notes. Both tea and tea-related sundries are for sale. Step inside a bit further and you notice walls awash in earth tones — soft yellows, oranges, and greens — and patrons settled comfortably into velvet-upholstered couches at burled wood tables. Skylights, a trickling fountain, Twin Peaks-y spa music, and exposed pipes painted a jaunty red complete the mood.
Numi's user-friendly flip-page menu is anchored, predictably, by tea: several dozen teas, divided conveniently into categories of white, green, oolong, black, herbal tisane, spa blends, flowering, and iced. In addition to tasting notes, there are helpful indicators of caffeine content and suggested brewing times. My companion and I especially liked the Golden Chrysanthemum herbal tisane, although I found the menu's description of this tea ("cooling sweet fragrance") a little misleading. Instead, it had a smoky flavor, and despite its caffeine-free status there was a bitterness to it that pleased this hardened coffee drinker.
Food items — which incidentally are cheaper than the teas, for the most part — are also listed on the flip menu and similarly divided into "healthy nibbling," "dipping around the Mediterranean," "exquisite cheeses," "light and satisfying," "baked items," and "a sweet touch." To critique Numi's culinary offerings is really to critique East Bay purveyors of some of the best noshing options around, as Numi has made an admirable effort to keep the menu local. Alameda's Feel Good Bakery is the place to thank for a rich and crumbly maple walnut scone that tasted gratifyingly virtuous; the bakery also provides Numi's pizza, scones, muffins, and dessert tarts. Toast is offered with organic coconut butter from Berkeley's Artisana, shortbread cookies hail from Oakland-based locavore e-commerce site Farmers' Village, and truffles for dessert come from Emeryville's Charles Chocolates.
We weren't thrilled by the pizza — not bad, but also not much better than frozen Trader Joe's, although it was somewhat redeemed by a topping of flavorful olives. More impressive was the house-made mushroom quiche — a rich, creamy delight with a strong woody-mushroom flavor. Perhaps the portion size was a bit large for a dish this rich, but I happily suffered through every last bite — and felt that it rivaled a piece of quiche I'd had at Grégoire earlier in the week for almost twice the price.
A Mediterranean dip plate featuring hummus and baba ghanoush was basic and satisfying, with the hummus having a nice lemon tang and a pungent olive oil base. The tea-infused butter cookies from Farmers' Village had a smokiness similar to the flavor we so enjoyed in our chrysanthemum tea — it was the perfect decadent nibble. The pumpkin muffin was also sublime — but let's call this what it is: cake. No matter the name, the spiciness of the pumpkin married perfectly with generous chunks of chocolate.
Numi Tea Garden promises to be more than just a venue for sipping and noshing. Available — and ideal — for private parties, the space also welcomes live performers, and during one of our visits preparations were underway to celebrate leap year with a flamenco dancer and a Portland band called Gypsy Moon. Upcoming events include a two-part Spring Equinox celebration on March 21, featuring a formal tea ceremony (RSVP required), and on March 29, featuring a fire dancer and live music.
On a more recent visit to Numi, a book called Tea Basics lay upon my table; thumbing through it I found this list of seven "tea rules" from Rikyu, a 16th-century originator of the Japanese tea ceremony. They are:
Make a delicious bowl of tea. Lay the charcoal so that it heats the water. Arrange the flowers as they are in the field. In summer suggest coolness; in winter, warmth. Do everything ahead of time. Prepare for rain. Give those with whom you find yourself every consideration.
It is these rules, it seems, that the Rahim siblings have chosen to follow — with great success. All the more reason Numi's worth the trip.
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