Concierge: Hot Tea

Like tea itself, the trend was subtle when it started. Green tea, that purported antioxidant darling, showed up occasionally in sorbets and ice creams. Then it moved into cocktails.

LIKE TEA ITSELF, THE TREND WAS SUBTLE when it started. Green tea, that purported antioxidant darling, showed up occasionally in sorbets and ice creams. Then it moved into cocktails. Soon the craze really started boiling. Now all kinds of tea—rich black teas, delicate herbal teas and yes, the ubiquitous green tea—are being employed in savory and sweet dishes that benefit from tea’s inimitable essence. When tea is in the creative hands of Boston’s most talented chefs, we’ll sip to that.

“Tea can add incredible flavor to food,” says Tony Maws, chef-owner of Craigie Street Bistrot. “And there’s a tremendous variety to the flavor elements of tea.” But, he warns, simply tossing a little tea in with food doesn’t work. “You have to be discriminating, and realize that all teas are not the same. Also, tea can have a lot of tannins and astringency that can screw up your palate and mess with the way you taste wine—the wrong way.”

At Craigie Street Bistrot, Maws makes sure he’s imparting desirable flavors by testing combinations and thinking carefully about how to extract tastes and aromas from the tea. “We do a lot of smoking with tea,” he says. “We do it in a wok, mixing tea leaves with spices, sugar and rice and then heating them to smoking.” The result, he says, is food that doesn’t taste typically smoked. “It’s faint, not overwhelming like barbecue,” he says. For fall, he might do tea-smoked squab or root vegetables as part of his oft-changing dinner menu. For dessert, he likes to use delicate tea infusions—often using rooibos tea, an herbal tea, rather than black tea—to create panna cottas and sorbets.

Harvest pastry chef Liz O’Connell is also playing around with teas in her desserts. “I’ve never done it before this year,” she says. “But I’ve learned that brewed tea is a wonderful poaching liquid for fruits. It makes them taste really fresh.” For early fall she might poach late-season peaches in Earl Grey, then serve them alongside a creamy cheesecake or a warmly spiced cake with a dollop of homemade ice cream.

As fall gets cooler, heartier dishes take center stage. That’s when executive chef and partner Geoff Gardner of Sel de la Terre uses crimson-berry tea to marinate grilled venison, which he serves with a foie gras brioche bread pudding. “The flavors and aromas found in tea are perfect for complementing the earthy qualities of venison and foie gras,” he explains. About tea as an ingredient, he says, “It’s interesting to take flavors we enjoy in one form, that we drink as a clear flavored liquid, and use them creatively in a different way. The flavors work well together; it’s just a matter of coming up with unique ways to combine them.”

Tea to Go

For would-be tea gourmets who want to play with leaves and brews at home—or sample a variety of teas on the way to becoming a connoisseur—tea bags from the supermarket aren’t the best bet. Look instead to gourmet stores that stock high-quality, preferably loose leaf, tea.

Timeless Teas (85 Newbury St., 2nd Floor, 617-236-5772, carries outstanding teas from around the world, with a focus on varieties of Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka.

Gourmet Boutique (Westin Copley Place, 10 Huntington Ave., 617-266-2906, has a selection of stylish brand-name teas, including Tea forté, Numi Tea and Tracy Stern SalonTea.

And Formaggio Kitchen (244 Huron Ave., 617-354-4750, features teas from Dammann Frères—both loose leaf and in fabric sachets (the best option if you’re going for the convenience of a bag)—in such flavors as Orange Sanguine, Chine Lapsang Souchong, Chinese White Tea, Caramel Pear and Bulgarian Rose.