Let me tell you a little about my “Tea Uncle”, Austin Hodge.
Why is he wearing a Zhong Shan Zhuang, and how did someone convince me to wear a suit? I’ll get to that.
I first met Austin—owner of Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas—at World Tea Expo in 2013 (i.e. my first Expo). Since that meeting, we barely showed up on each other’s radar. Then, in November of that same year, he wrote an article about the demise Lapsang Souchong. That got us talking. A lot.
Since then, he became my go-to resource for all things Chinese tea. And, like an actual uncle, he provided an interesting (if sometimes salty) retrospective on various bits of tea minutiae. Think Stanford Pines from Gravity Falls . . .
Only for tea . . . and with less dimension hopping.
At the beginning of 2016, he put a bug in my ear about a fancy “tea pairing dinner” he helped to organize. It was dubbed “Tea Pairing in the Sky”, so named because the location for said dinner was the French-themed restaurant Alizé, which was situated at the very top of the Palms Casino in Las Vegas. It certainly earned the “Sky” label. I mean . . . that view!
Barbara Fairchild, former editor-in-chief at Bon Apetit, was hosting the event. Can’t say I’d heard of her or the magazine. Foodie things were way out of my jurisdiction. It was scheduled for the eve of June 16th, right after the second day of World Tea Expo. Austin assured me that it was all a big deal. The Los Angeles Times article on the event corroborated his claim. The price tag, though? Somewhere in the neighborhood of $200.
For my broke ass, that was a third of a paycheck.
I himmed-‘n-hawed over it for several months. Every few weeks he nudged me to break down and do it. In March, I finally broke down.
A couple of months after that, he informed me that he had an extra pass to the din-din so I could bring a date. The issue, then, was . . . who to bring? Who in my tea social circle was not married, would appreciate a fancy tea-and-pairing dinner, and had a bit of geek in ‘em to boot?
Oh, who am I kidding? There was no other choice.
My date for the evening was Nicole Schwartz, purveyor and master-blender of The Devotea USA. Blender, tea nerd, actual nerd. Yeah, she was the perfect companion for this sort of event. And, just maybe, she could keep me focused enough to remember the whole thing.
Right after day 2 of World Tea Expo, we both got changed and made our way to the Palms. We wound through the casino, following the appropriate signs. That is, until we had to stop and ask for directions. When we finally found where the signs ended, an attendant ushered us to follow her. Alizé had its own elevator.
When we arrived, there was an awards ceremony of some sort going on.
I later learned that these awards were in recognition for efforts in promoting and supporting Austin Hodge’s Specialty Tea Association.
“Tea Mom” Jo Johnson—who was also in attendance—spotted us as we came in and snapped a photo.
Yep, we looked good.
The website photo didn’t do the restaurant justice. One had to see it to believe it. Looking out at all of Las Vegas was a total trip.
Seriously, that view!
Even better? We had a seat by the window! Even better than that? Linda “Tea Stylist” Gaylard and Austin were at our table! But I’m getting too excited over the details, I should probably talk about the dinner courses.
The tea and dish pairings were decided upon by Alizé’s executive chef, Mark Purdy, and Austin’s wife and partner-in-tea, Zhuping Hodge. I confess, though, I had yet to attend a tea pairing of any sort that was note-perfect. Nor was I completely convinced that tea pairings were anything but a superfluous novelty. Did this event change my mind?
Let’s dig in.
Pairing #1: Chilled Cucumber Soup Paired with Jin Guan Yin.
For all intents and purposes, this looked like a tinier version of a soup and salad combo. The teensy-weensy soup was comprised of cucumber terrine, carrots and dill. The tea that accompanied it was an Anxi oolong, a more intense version of Tie Guan Yin.
Nicole noted that “the soup brought out the fruit in the tea (it was butter forward without).”
I mostly agreed, noting verbally, “I got the butter at first with the tea, but the soup UN-CAGED THE FRUITINESS!”
(Sidenote: As I was saying this throughout the pairing, both Nicole and Austin were telling me to take notes. I didn’t. So, I’m going off of some vague rendition of palate memory. Bear with me.)
Pairing #2: Angus Beef Carpaccio Paired with Lao Shu Hong Cha.
The second item was a meaty dish lathered and surrounded by quail egg yolk, parmesan cheese, pickled vegetables and mustard sauce. Everything about it screamed “’Merica”. Well, ‘Merica if it was in a tuxedo and on vacation in France.
The tea was an old favorite of mine, Lao Shu Hong Cha—a black tea that really wasn’t tea at all. Rather, it was made from a tree that was of a different Camellia species. I found it sharp, tart, malty, and just gosh-durned amazing. The sourness of the meal totally matched the oddity of the tea. Like floodgates of mysteries were unleashed.
The pairing was perfect; my mouth experienced meat and malt in equal measure. Nicole noted more nuance than I did, expressing that the pairing was woody, like fallen leaves, and that she also detected spice. Cinnamon, perhaps. I was too busy drooling to detect any of that.
Pairing #3: Foie Gras Terrine Paired with Bai Long Xu (“White Dragon Whisker”) Sheng Puerh.
Ingredients for the third dish included smoked duck and artichoke crepe, orange marmalade, candied pecans and basil. The center of attention? Foie Gras. More to the point: My first Foie Gras ever! The tea chosen to go with this momentous occasion was a sheng puerh.
Throughout the pairing, Nicole picked up on notes of olives, asparagus, and hints of stone fruit. Me? I pictured an entire olive tree pressed into a puerh cake that was then force-fed to a duck. Result: Forced flavor country!
Er . . . moving on.
Pairing #4: ‘Nduja Crusted Scallop Paired with Ming Quian Anji Bai Cha.
For so tiny a dish, this was the biggest cake o’ scallop I’d ever seen. And I was quite the fan of fat scallops. It was topped with orange-amaretto velouté (i.e. fancy velvet citrus sauce), and sided with roasted parsnip hash. The green tea paired with it was made from an albino tea tree cultivar, and—oddly enough—one I’d never tried before.
Nicole thought the green tea tasted a bit like buttered spinach, and that the pairing brought out a sweet cream butter, slightly-seared finish. Me? I fantasized about an albino shellfish accidentally finding its way into a hot tub full of green tea . . . and meeting an untimely demise.
Hey, like I said, I’m going off of dim memory, here!
Pairing #5: Tea Smoked Duck Breast Paired with Que She (“Sparrow’s Tongue”).
A second Foie Gras dish?!? Tea smoked, even?!?!? My excitement could not be contained. It was sautéed Foie Gras along with Gai-Lan, soba noodle cake, ginger confit, and duck jus. I didn’t even know what half that crap was, but it smelled sooooo good. And the tea paired with it all? A Wuyi rock oolong I adored.
Nicole’s thoughts? It smelled of caramelized wood and tasted like caramelized leaves. The pairing of both brought out notes of cherry and charred oak.
Er . . . my thoughts? I envisioned a duck stuffed in a whiskey micro-barrel filled with oolong leaves . . . that was lit on fire. Yes, the wires of my taste buds and imagination were a little crossed.
Okay . . . a lot crossed.
Pairing #6: Veal Wellington Paired with Jun Shan Yin Zhen.
This marked the second time in my life where veal was put in front of me. This time it was presented with smoked prosciutto, mushroom duxelles, asparagus, and truffle shallot jus. The tea choice for this was an odd one—Jun Shan Yin Zhen, my least favorite yellow tea. I still liked it, but it was really hard to brew correctly. And that had me worried.
Nicole observed the following: The smell of melon, a taste of sour citrus, and the pairing brought out notes of cantaloupe and flowers. Whereas I was too busy thinking of a baby cow being lured away with flowered mother’s milk by a butcher. Um . . . in short, the pairing worked. Yeah.
Pairing #7: Tete de Moine Paired with Wan Zhe Zhi Xiang (“Emperor’s Orchid”).
This was the first of two dessert-y dishes. It was topped with fennel jam, and paired with zucchini date bread lathered in white balsamic vinegar on the side. The green tea that accompanied it was an orchid-scented one. Yes . . . orchid scented. I nerded out over this fact to Austin. I’d never tried one before.
Nicole thought the meal matched the tea in the “orchid” department, and that it had a bit of a perfumy taste. Paired with the tea, the combo gave off a honey-nut sensation. I don’t quite remember what I thought, but I think the words “caged tribble” were used in between bites and sips. No clue in what context.
And last but not least . . . the coup de grace . . .
Myer Lemon Cheesecake Paired with Yin Hao Long Zhu (“Silver Dragon Jasmine Pearls”).
Unlike a lot of the items on the menu, I actually knew what a Myer lemon was! It was paired with a graham cracker crisp and topped with blood orange sauce. The tea chosen for its companion was a jasmine pearls green tea. That sounded . . . underwhelming. I wasn’t normally a fan of jasmine greens; I’d met two I liked in all my years in tea.
This time, though? Not only was it a good jasmine green tea, but it had the most unusual effect when paired with the cheesecake. I took a bite of the cheesecake first, and then took a swig of the green tea. Just as the notes of lemon and sweetness were about to fade off the tongue, the jasmine green tea took those notes, shot a grappling hook at ‘em, and said . . .
The green tea made the aftertaste just as strong as the foreground. I never ran into that with food pairings. Ever.
In summary, the Angus beef with the Lao Shu Hong Cha was my favorite overall pairing, but the cheesecake/jasmine pearl pairing was the biggest surprise.
During the dinner, Austin Hodge nudged me in the shoulder. He said, “Do you know who that is at the table across from us?”
I said, “No.”
“That’s Robin Leach.”
“Really,” he nodded.
There was a pause.
“You’re fuggin’ with me,” I said.
“I’m not fuggin’ with you.”
“I thought he was dead,” I finished.
Sure enough, it was him. Very much alive. And enjoying himself immensely.
Just as we all were.
After that Myer lemon cake, Nicole and I departed a little early-ish to meet up with some friends. I said some parting words to Austin, and I shook the hand of the executive chef for putting out such an amazing spread. I practically felt like I had to be rolled out of the restaurant.
That night . . . I was transported. To the sky and back. That’s all there is to say.
Thanks to Austin Hodge for convincing me to go. For any of his teas listed above, go HERE.
Thanks to Nicole Schwartz for being the best (and most patient) tea dinner date, ever. For her tasting tracking goodness, go HERE.
Oh, and thanks to Alizé . . . because . . . THAT VIEW!!!