Dining Out - Three Women and a Cup of Tea

by Ann M. Colford, Jessica Moll, Suzanne Schreiner & r & & r & THE EMPYREAN & r & 154 S. Madison St. * 456-3676 & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & ea arrived in the English-speaking world around 1600, when the British first sampled Camellia Sinensis from China. Later, tea caused something of a stir in Boston; you might say the colonists harbored some resentments about the tea tax. Despite the history, though, many Americans still enjoy a fine cuppa late in the afternoon. The clock struck 4 pm as we trooped into the Empyrean, where coffee gets top billing but the tea can steal the spotlight. The six choices from Harney & amp; Sons (served in 20-ounce pots) all sounded tempting, and we negotiated heatedly to determine who would order what. With the late afternoon sun pouring in, the aesthetics hit the mark right up front. -- Ann C.

Ann, Florence ($2.50) & r & Green tea is my brew of choice generally, but I expanded my horizons (and opened my eyes) with this black tea blend. A rich intermingling of chocolate and hazelnut (and tea, of course), this caramel-hued nectar slipped over the tongue oh-so-smoothly, with none of the astringent tannins often associated with black tea. And the aroma? Heavenly. The taste lived up to the promise of that first whiff and stayed true through the last drop. And yes, I drank the whole thing myself. The only problem? I forgot about the caffeine content of black tea; that night I didn't fall asleep till the wee hours. Incidentally, the triple chocolate mousse makes a fine accompaniment -- this brew can stand up to a rich dessert.

Jessica, Peppermint Herbal ($2.50) & r & Rejoice! Empyrean has added peppermint herbal tea to their steadily expanding selection. And what a peppermint it is. Simple, pure, and elemental, the emerald leaves swirl in the French press and tint the water a beautiful amber, giving off the earthy smell of a rain-drenched pine forest. With a coolness that tingles in the nose, mouth, throat and chest, a cup of this stuff cleanses the palate way better than any Altoid. And it's an excellent complement to the refined elegance of the Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake. If three kinds of cake layered beneath vanilla cream and topped with dark chocolate sauce is your idea of heaven, this peppermint tea is the perfect way to come back down to earth.

Suzanne, Bangkok ($2.50) & r & When you think of Empyrean, you may think of coffee first, but there is tea to be had as well -- and while choices may be few, the concoctions are exotic. Bangkok tea, for instance, is a green tea that combines lemongrass, ginger and coconut; it steeps a yellow-green color, like new spring foliage. Ginger -- which is as sure a sign of a benevolent universe as we are likely to get, and usually the life of the party -- was strangely flavor-shy, but the lemongrass and coconut provided plenty of tropical Bangkokian delight. The fragrance beckoned so strongly to my companion she declared she could take a bubble bath in it. Try that with a cup of coffee.

NAMASKA & r & 421 W. First Ave. * 328-8283 & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & amaska just reopened last week in new digs near Thai on 1st, after getting bumped from their space on West Main Avenue. The new place is spacious, done up in luscious red-earth tones straight out of the Desert Southwest, with urbane counter seats near the front windows. Our teas arrived in clear 12-ounce glass pots so we could see and compare the colors of each infusion. Namaska stocks 30 to 40 teas and herbal blends, most from the Montana Tea and Spice Company in Missoula; in addition, Amanda will make a custom blend for you or add syrup or a topping to any tea. She features several special blended drinks including a matcha green tea smoothie ($3) that goes down like green tea ice cream. -- Ann C.

Ann, Pomegranate Green ($2) & r & After my bout of black tea insomnia, I opted for green tea this time. (Both black and green tea come from the same plant; green tea is dried quickly, while black tea is fermented first. Black tea has more caffeine than green but somewhat less than a cup of coffee.) I chose this blend with pomegranate simply because it sounded exotic. Pomegranate is a strong flavor, and I worried that it would overwhelm the delicacy of the green tea, but I needn't have been concerned. Tangy with some citrus overtones, this beverage had more body than most green teas. It was better on its own than when combined with a sweet pastry from HearthBread; this is a tea that asserts its independence.

Jessica, Mocha Double Chocolate ($2) & r & Namaska Fusion Caf & eacute; is a Gemini's nightmare, or wildest dream -- so many options, how to decide? To avoid getting lost in a whirlwind of possibilities, I ordered the first tea to catch my fancy. It's called "Mocha Double Chocolate," and though there's neither chocolate nor tea in the blend, the dried carob, barley malt, blackberry leaf, licorice root, chicory and vanilla extract give off an intensely chocolaty scent and brew up to a deep caramel color. After such enticing foreplay, the first sip is anticlimactic. There's a dusty, starchy flavor, and it isn't until the aftertaste that a fruity, chocolate fragrance blooms in my mouth. Delicate and strange, this is not the cup I'd come to for comfort, but it was definitely worth the ride.

Suzanne, Apricot Brandy ($2) & r & The tricky task at Namaska is choosing from among the dozens of teas. Sampling the heady fragrances of the leaf-packed jars is delightful but only leads to confusion. Somehow I settled on Apricot Brandy, a green tea, to take advantage of those health-boosting antioxidants, and because it just sounded exotic. It was a lovely pale brandy color in its little glass pot but my coarsened, coffee-quaffing taste buds could discern no apricot among the floral notes, and there was a distinct little bite at the end, which I took to be the antioxidants doing their godly work. As I sipped my tea, I gazed contentedly out the window at the art deco charm of the City Ramp Parking Garage across the street. Yup, I'll be back.

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