Tea might be yang to coffee’s yin in the morning land of Caffeination Nation, but despite the presence, in yin as in yang, of humankind’s favorite stimulant, tea is surely one of the most soothing ingestables known to us. It is what you have a cup of when it’s raining, or you’re feeling blue or a little achy; as with chicken soup, its healing powers are legendary. The very picture of a cup of tea, wreathed by wisps of delicate steam, tends to set the mind at ease. And, of course, this isn’t just some gauzy, sentimental picture, since scientific investigation has found tea to be ample in the antioxidant compounds that help human beings resist disease.
It is beautifully appropriate, then, that we should find both chicken soup and a wealth of teas on the menu at Modern Tea, a gorgeous tea emporium and restaurant — rather in the mold of the Castro’s Samovar Tea Lounge — that opened recently in a gorgeous Hayes Valley space, of exposed brickwork, plate glass, and warm wood, that once housed Terra Brazilis. After that Brazili-Cal bistro closed, there was a brief and misplaced intermezzo of South Asian cooking under the name Tandoori Grill, but with the advent of Modern Tea, all is again as it should be: a distinctive and worthy endeavor in a strikingly stylish setting.
Not many changes have been made to that setting, except that the steam tables for the Indian buffet have been removed from the area in front of the elevated exhibition kitchen and the walls have been painted the color of green tea ice cream. The layout is the same, the taverna-style wood tables and chairs the same — or, if not the same, so similar to their predecessors as to seem the same in memory. What has changed is the mood, the tempo; what was, not too many years ago, a bustling station of the night now has the slightly calmer, sunlit affect of a café, though a café that serves tea instead of coffee and is much better looking than its fellow cafés.
The animating spirit of Modern Tea belongs to Alice Cravens, whose pedigree as a teamonger is lofty. She has run the tea service for places like Chez Panisse, Delfina, and Zuni, and it is not surprising that, in opening her own place, she would adopt the ethos of those distinguished spots as her own, with an emphasis on sustainability, seasonality, and a certain earthy simplicity that manages to be consistent both with elegance and with tea. "We buy our ingredients direct from local farmers and businesses whenever possible," the bill of fare announces, "with preference towards organic and earth friendly farming methods."
I am a little surprised that there are no sandwiches on offer, even at lunch — but perhaps this reflects a fierce determination to avoid any echo of English-high-tea, hotel-lobby cliché, such as cucumber sandwiches on white bread trimmed of its crusts. On the other hand, the soups are uniformly excellent, from the Tuscan-style chicken soup ($5.95 for a bowl at lunch, $6.50 at dinner) — really almost a kind of minestrone, rich in carrots, onions, and chard, with shreds of chicken meat added — to a gratifyingly thick "old style" French lentil soup ($5.95/$6.50), made with Puy lentils. (These are the terriers of the lentil family: They are small, gray green, and tough, though they turn a rich camel color when cooked and, if cooked long enough, become appealingly toothsome while producing an almost gravylike broth.) For sheer dietary virtue it would be hard to beat the quinoa chowder ($5.95/$6.50), which floats the pebbly Inca grain in vegetable broth with chunks of potato and, if you like, a sprinkling of feta cheese on top for a bit of salty sharpness.
Although the menu offers no sandwiches, bread is not completely absent. It turns up in an excellent strata ($8.25 at dinner), a savory pudding with goat cheese and roasted tomatoes, and in the lemon bread pudding ($4.50), a tiramisu-like layering (in an open-topped jar) of bread crumbs, whipped cream, and intense lemon custard. Other starches also appear, including rice noodles as the bed for a carrot and kale "coleslaw" ($8.25), leavened with hijiki seaweed and a sesame vinaigrette; this is one of the few Asian-influenced items on the mainly Euro-Cali menu. Potatoes turn up, in gratin form, as an accompaniment to chicken and sausage meatloaf ($11.75), three hefty slices of ground, herbed flesh, mixed with Italian chicken sausage and topped with streaks of a barbecuey sauce, that will do justice to the heartiest appetite.
A cautionary note on this last point: Modern Tea is probably not the place to go if you’re in the market for a heavy-duty, high-calorie dinner. Lightness and delicacy are central themes, and even the most substantial courses are meant to keep harmony with such fine teas as osmanthus silver needle ($5.25), a gently floral white leaf from China, or the barely richer sevan blend ($3.50), an Armenian herbal mix of chamomile, lemon balm, oregano, basil, bean core, hawthorne berry, linden fruit, and St.-John’s-wort. If you find you do need some last-minute ballast, an opportune choice is the chocolate sheet cake, a moist sponge cake sold in brownielike one-inch squares, dusted with powdered sugar, for $1 per. Goes well with yin or yang. SFBG
Tues.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m.; Sat., 10:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m.; Sun., 10:30 a.m.–7 p.m.
602 Hayes, SF
Beer and wine pending