Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party
Plus a visit to Doc Chey's in Grant Park
I'm sure you've had those moments when, holding something of value that doesn't belong to you, the thought flashes through your mind, "I could easily steal this."
Such was the case at Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party (1645 McLendon Ave., 404-474-1402) one recent afternoon. The shop, which looks like the perfect setting for the Mad Hatter's tea party, is so crammed with books and bric-a-brac that, entering the small restroom, I bumped into the wall and caused three or four books to fall from a shelf. I caught one in my hands on its way to the toilet.
It was an eerie synchronicity – a book whose subject was the very topic of something I'm writing about elsewhere. I carried the book out of the restroom to my table, wrestling with my conscience. But I looked around at the tables full of the young and the earnest, digging into cupcakes and sipping Darjeelings and oolongs, while pounding out class assignments on their MacBooks. I reminded myself that the owner, Katrell Christie, heads a project called the Learning Tea to help finance charitable projects for poor children living in Darjeeling. I put the book down. Later, I learned I could have bought it for next to nothing.
This little shop a few doors from the original Flying Biscuit is a real delight. It's a couple of years old, but I'd never visited before. I should probably warn you not to even bother to go on a Sunday, especially during the shop's daily high tea (3:30-5:30 p.m.) when two people can sample a lot of the baked goods, plus finger sandwiches, for $25. I did finally get a seat by visiting for lunch early in the week.
I was informed during that visit that the lunch menu, posted on a board, was no longer available. The only routinely available sandwiches now are egg salad and a three-cheese panino. I ordered the latter, with a cup of almost decadently rich pumpkin bisque – thick, creamy and mercifully free of the sweet spices that people usually overuse to mask the real taste of the pumpkin. The sandwich, though, was just a few notches above grilled cheese.
"I know I'm overeating," I said to the woman behind the cash register, "but I'd also like a orange-lavender cupcake and a toasted almond scone." In fact, I only got through the cupcake and saved the scone for later. I was not terribly enthusiastic about the cupcake. The taste of lavender was way too subtle for me, the cupcake itself was on the dry side and the icing – topped with one of those chewy candy orange slices – was tooth-achingly sweet and well on the way to crisp. The scone was much better.
I chose a green Darjeeling tea for my lunch. I don't know if it's a placebo effect or something in the tea, but I find most tea calming. In fact, I drink hot tea every night before bed. My grandfather was a violinist and a Brit, and I do vaguely remember him having tea most afternoons. But calling afternoon tea "high tea" is a specifically American practice. In the U.K., high tea is served in the early evening and substitutes for dinner, or used to, anyway.
Still, afternoon tea, high tea, and the more formal Japanese tea ceremony, all value essentially the same two things – the social and the aesthetic. In some traditions, like Zen, the tea is also a means of practicing mindfulness: full presence in the moment.
All the pastries and breads at Dr. Bombay's are baked on the premises. Don't let my whining about the cupcake keep you away. The vibe is magical. You get home baking, a full heart, good books, pleasant staff and exotic teas. And if that doesn't interest you, you can have coffee.
Doc Chey's opens in Grant Park
I wasn't happy when Stella, a pizzeria owned by the Doc Chey's people, closed a few months ago. It had already begun a decline because its excellent chef had left. I'm still pissed I won't be eating her fig and prosciutto pizza this summer.
But I still wasn't ready for a Doc Chey's (563 Memorial Drive, 404-688-4238) to open there. Despite the local chain's overall hipness, I have never enjoyed its food. I'm not going to rant about authenticity. I'm just going to talk about flavor.
It's not an entirely lost cause. I liked, for example, the crispy wok-seared green beans, salty and slightly sweet. I liked the Shanghai dumplings stuffed with pork and (not enough) fresh ginger. Despite the woeful presentation, I also liked the Korean beef tacos, a trendy item featuring barbecued flank steak, sesame seeds and various crispy greens.
But, mother-of-Jesus, the stir fries and noodle dishes remain exactly as I remember them at the original restaurant – dominated by heavy doses of soy sauce, causing everything to taste basically the same. A Chinese black-bean sauce over rice noodles with beef added was just plain shocking to me. It tasted nothing like a black-bean sauce. Oh, there were a few black beans scattered in the bowl, but ... whatever.
The plate of spicy Szechuan veggies to which I added fried tofu was – predictably – a testimonial to somebody's love of broccoli. Oh, there were other veggies – everything from red bell peppers to water chestnuts – but broccoli was king. The sauce was not remotely spicy and my brown rice was cooked so that it couldn't possibly be eaten with chopsticks.
I love the staff here. It's mostly the Stella staff back on the job. And I'll return for the tacos. I want to try the bánh mi (Vietnamese-style sandwiches), too. I'll also return for the amazing green tea, pu erh, that I ordered, featuring the flavors of mint, cinnamon and vanilla beans. But in an area of town where you can eat pho at So Ba, Thai rice and noodle dishes at Spoon, and, soon, Cambodian at a new restaurant on Edgewood, Doc Chey's will not be my first choice.
But that matters not a whit. During both my visits, the place has been packed like I never saw Stella. People love it!