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A Temple to the Tea God: Franchia

September 6, 2010

Today’s Tea House: Franchia in New York City
Frequented by: goodtea & friends

If you have time to visit only one tea house in New York, I’d highly recommend you stop by Franchia, a vegetarian restaurant with a remarkable selection of tea.  Conveniently located on Park Avenue between 34th and 35th Street, it’s just a short walk south of Grand Central Terminal and even closer to stops on the 4, 5, and 6 subway lines.

Franchia is actually a branch of the vegetarian restaurant HanGawi (which I haven’t visited yet).  While there is some overlap on the menus of HanGawi and Franchia, Franchia was specifically built to be a tea house, namely a place where people could experience the simple beauty and tranquility of a good cup of tea.  In the words of the owners, Franchia is “a haven for people to experience tea and healthy vegetarian dining.”  I consider it my personal temple to the Tea God, where I can go to meditate upon the simple joys of good food and good tea in very good company.

Franchia’s interior is dark, cool, and relaxing, with soothing Asian instrumental music playing softly in the background. A large temple bell in the window suggests the religious nature of the traditional tea ceremony.  Dark wood furniture and elegantly draped fabric give the space a comfortable but still slightly exotic feel.

The ever friendly staff will guide you to a table near the window or to a cozy booth upstairs and give you plenty of time to peruse the extensive menu. Franchia is certainly worth a visit for the food alone.  The dishes are heavily influenced by Korean and other Asian cuisines.  Most dishes appear to be vegan, and all are vegetarian.  Still, Franchia is the type of place to which you can safely invite people who are skeptical of vegetarian cooking, as the menu contains many delectable dishes with tofu prepared to mimic crispy Asian duck or other meats. The prix fixe or the Royal Tea Tray set menu are both excellent ways to sample the menu, though the unbelievably delicious soy “chicken” satay sticks and the amazing steamed dumplings are must-have appetizers for any meal. The dessert menu also contains some sweet treats–I’m a big fan of the banana fritters and the soy cheese cake.

But enough about food–this is a tea blog, after all! Franchia has an extensive tea menu–one that rivals the wine lists in many expensive restaurants. (Check out the menu on the website to get an idea of all that’s available.)  Your standard oolong, assam, and darjeeling are represented, but the true gems on the tea list are the herbal tisanes and the wild Korean green teas.

Herb Teas:

There are countless herbal tisanes on the tea menu, but I’ll describe a few here.

On a whim, I tried the Schisandra Chinensis tea, a bright red tea served hot with a few pine nuts floating in it.  It is extremely sweet, but also quite tart–practically a dessert in itself.  The pine nuts go very well with the sweet berry flavor, too.  I found it a bit too much for my tastes (especially in the summer time), but if you’d like a healthy way to satisfy your sweet tooth, this tea is one way to do it.

Friends and family have also raved about the plum tea on the menu. Franchia also serves “Tealattas”–a sort of tea frappucino or iced latte, I guess–and the Plum Tealatta is most refreshing and delicious.  If you like the green plum soda sold in many Asian countries, you’ll love this plum tea.

Speaking of tealattas, the Ginger Tealatta is amazing.  It is very spicy and invigorating (as a ginger tea should be), but the cold temperature of the tealatta gives it an icy finish and makes this quite possibly the perfect summer drink.

Korean Green Teas:

The green teas at Franchia are apparently “wild” teas handpicked from tea plants that have been left to grow virtually unattended, free of pesticides and the like.  The taste of these wild green teas is described as “subtle.” If you’re used to the green teas of Japan or elsewhere, you’d best throw aside your expectations for green teas and approach these wild green teas with an open mind.

Indeed, the first time I tried one of the green teas on the Franchia menu, I was surprised by how mild a green tea could be.  It was the Mt. Guhwa Green Tea (1st Picked), which was almost too bland for me, though it had a pleasant vegetal undertone.  People who don’t like strong teas might love to start with something so gentle and light, but if you’re like me and prefer your teas to be dense and flavorful, you might as well skip to one of the three “Wild Green Teas” on the menu.

My favorite tea on the menu is definitely the Royal Wild Green Tea. Although it is the most expensive tea on the menu, it is wll worth the price because (1) it comes served on a tea tray with the utensils of the traditional Korean tea ceremony and (2) you can easily get 5 to 12 cups of tea out of the same leaves.  If you order the Royal Wild Green Tea for the first time, don’t be afraid to admit that you haven’t ordered it before–the staff will provide a short demonstration of how to serve the tea so that you know exactly what to do with the array of beautiful cups, bowls, and strainers on your tea tray.  This green tea steeps very quickly, but leaves a very lightly colored liquor–not very green at all. The flavor is not nearly as astringent as other green teas, but instead is very smooth and pleasantly vegetal.  For some reason, it reminds me of water heavy with minerals, which might just be my imagination. It certainly tastes pure and healthy, and the idea that some little old leaves plucked off an old tree behind a Korean temple are the source of this light, refreshing flavor makes for a wonderful experience.

If you’re unsure of what to order, the friendly staff is happy to assist you without ever being condescending. The staff also makes sure you have an entire thermos of hot water at your table so that you can refill your tea as often as you like, whenever you like.

Franchia also offers some of its teas and tea cups for sale at the restaurant, so if rare Korean teas strike your fancy, be sure to drop by and pick some up.

Conclusion: A unique temple to peace and well-being in the midst of Manhattan, Franchia is my go-to spot for amazing, affordable vegetarian food and unbelievably good tea in New York.

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