Flavor: English country, with a spot of tea
Ambiance: Soothing Victorian
Price: $10-$20 for brunch or lunch, $20-$40 for dinner. Bring your own alcoholic beverages.
Where: 188 St. John’s Road
Web site: www.kathleenstearoom.com
Hours: Tues-Sat, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sun, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Fri, 5 -8:30 p.m.
Drinking tea isn’t the only way to enjoy one of the world’s oldest beverages. Just ask Tami Halliman, who uses tea as a key ingredient when she cooks.
Halliman, co-owner and manager of Kathleen’s Tea Room in Fletcher, uses tea in some form in almost every item on the menu. She sprinkles Darjeeling on vegetables, adds Assam to cheese-based soups, marinates meats in Earl Grey and bakes a variety of tea leaves into quiche crusts, crackers and even croutons. Halliman uses tea as a spice, a marinade, a tenderizer and a syrup.
“What people don’t realize is cooking with tea is within the reach of the everyday person, but they can feel like, ‘Wow, this tastes like something really special,’” says. The point of cooking with tea, she adds, “isn’t to make your food taste like tea, but to add flavor—to make it taste a little different.”
Although the Chinese liberated tea leaves from the teapot centuries ago, American cooks only recently started incorporating tea leaves into their stew pots. Tea is an edible leaf, rich in natural antioxidants that help absorb substances that can cause damage to the body’s cells.
“It’s the health benefits of tea that catch people’s eye, but I believe that tea has tremendous culinary potential whether paired properly against food, or used well within food. It’s a palette of ingredients that should inspire every chef,” says Cynthia Gold, tea sommelier for the Boston Park Plaza Hotel and Towers in Boston. “Proper use of tea can add depth, complexity, balance and, of course, flavor to a dish.”
Gold was the keynote speaker at the Southern Association of Tea Businesses’ conference held at Kathleen’s Tea Room in mid-September. Her book, Culinary Tea, contains many of Gold’s personal recipes and will be published next year.
Halliman notes that the use of tea as a cooking ingredient is “exploding in the gourmet world,” although she’s been experimenting with tea in her recipes since she first opened Kathleen’s almost four years ago.
In fact, Halliman’s innovative use of tea has gained her worldwide recognition from the tea community. Halliman and her former pastry chef, Jon Kleigle, spoke at the 2008 World Tea Expo in Los Vegas in early June. Their presentation, “Using Tea as Culinary Ingredient,” drew a standing-room-only crowd, mostly of other tearoom owners who want to do in their tearooms what Halliman does at Kathleen’s. More than 5,000 people from around the world attended the Expo, which featured 27 speakers.
“We wanted to convey to other tearoom owners that cooking with tea is simple to do, but gives gourmet flair to food,” Halliman says. “The point of our talk is that cooking with tea is not precise. We tell the tearoom owners that they can take recipes they use already and ask, ‘How can I put tea in it?’”
Halliman has been invited back to speak at the 2009 World Tea Expo, which will be held in Las Vegas again. The 2010 Expo may take place in the great tea-drinking nation of India.
Halliman and husband, Daniel Halliman, first opened Kathleen’s Tea Room, named for Tami Halliman’s grandmother, in a strip mall on Hendersonville Road. Two years later, they discovered a century-old house for rent just behind the mall area. The Hallimans renovated the house into an old-fashioned tearoom, complete with old black-and-white family photographs, crocheted tablecloths and stacks of bone-china tea cups. The wide piazza encircling two sides of the house offers outside seating, weather permitting.
She wanted to do something different, Halliman says, when she developed the menu for Kathleen’s, so she started experimentally cooking with her 40 different varieties of tea.
She and Kleigle began with desserts and created the Tea Room’s most popular one—the Tea Lime Pie. Citron green tea is infused into the pie’s custard, and dried tea leaves are ground into the pie’s brazil-nut crust.
Another popular menu item the two developed is the grilled asparagus coated with Paris tea leaves. Paris is a black-currant, vanilla-based tea, which gives the asparagus a surprising sweetness, says Halliman.
“It looks pretty and tastes a bit different. People are blown away by how easy it is to make,” she says.
Halliman also grills salmon filet with Paris tea leaves—another customer favorite.
Other popular items at Kathleen’s are the Lapsang-Souchong smoked chicken and turkey, the homemade tea-leaf crackers, the spiced-tea walnuts, and the cinnamon-spice tea-infused Baklava.
“We sprinkle tea on everything. We use it like salt. And if we forget, our customers send it back to the kitchen for tea leaves,” Halliman says.
Cheryl and Doug Ferguson of Fletcher eat lunch at Kathleen’s about once a week.
“The tea gives everything a different flavor. They use complementary flavorings in each dish, like cinnamon-spice tea in baked apples,” Cheryl Ferguson says. “It’s a unique restaurant. There’s nothing else like it in the area.”
Halliman notes that she even puts tea in soup. Her chef, Enoch Weinstein, uses a “heavy, earthy tea called Pu-Erh” as a broth.
“I’m not usually a big soup fan, but I love their soups that use teas as the base. The cream-of-mushroom is delicious,” says Lori Blanco of Candler, who works in Fletcher and eats at Kathleen’s once or twice a week.
Halliman adds a warning that the caffeine in caffeinated teas does transfer into food, particularly if it’s used in liquid form.
“Sprinkling tea leaves on food adds hardly any caffeine,” she says. “But infusing it with liquid adds quite a bit. Our Tea Lime Pie probably has lots of caffeine, but people still love to eat it after dinner.”
[Anne Fitten Glenn writes the “Edgy Mama” column for Xpress.]