High Tea usually brings up images of cucumber sandwiches and ladyfingers. But in Portland, there is something new to experience on the tea scene. Noted Portland Chef Vitaly Paley and his staff add a Russian flare to tea that draws from Paley’s own Russian family heritage. The new Russian Tea Experience at Headwaters at the Heathman brings you specially formulated Smith Teamaker teas and dishes from Paley’s mother’s and grandmother’s recipe boxes.
The tea experience is held only on Saturdays with two seatings, thus the need for advance reservations. I had the fortune of enjoying tea with a friend who had traveled to the area serving as inspiration for many of Chef Paley’s dishes.
As we waited to enter the elegant tea court I noticed the massive crystal chandelier hanging above a centerpiece of teapots and traditional Russian matryoshka nesting dolls. The teapots, we were told, belonged to Paley’s mother. Huge oil paintings and tall windows anchored the room.
A fire burning in the fireplace welcomed us. The atmosphere took the edge off a chilly January afternoon. There was carefully planned seating for everyone… from families to couples. The room was intimate, yet it was easy to have a conversation with the person seated across from you.
We chose our tea from a menu ranging from Pacific Northwest peppermint tea to the Georgian Caravan, a locally formulated salute to the classic caravan teas of Russia. While you cold mix it with sugar or house-made jam, I liked it plain. Why the jam? Our waiter told us that in hard times, the Russians could not afford much sugar so used jam in their tea as a thrifty alternative. While you have a choice of teas, craft cocktails and vodka flights are offered too.
The waiters brought a triple tiered tea server to our table with small bites. The lower tiers offered the savories and then the beautifully presented bites moved on up to the sweet. As each of the little foods, most of which were foreign to me, were described by the waiter, I enjoyed learning the background of the cuisine. Many elements of the foods were common to areas of Russia and the adjoining countries. And it was not unusual to include preserved foods like pickles and nuts in the dishes.
Khachapouri, Georgian cheese bread topped with local honey, and salmon were included in the middle tier along with other savories.
Finally we made our way to the top tier and were rewarded with the sweets. The walnut cake, topped with freshly diced walnuts, was moist and served as a memorable dessert.
A quick two hours passed as our teapots were kept steaming and we savored every morsel. Chef Paley made the rounds to answer questions and talk about the foods we had experienced.
Soon it was time to leave the warmth of the beautifully decorated room and head out on the cold winter streets of Portland. We thoroughly enjoyed the Russian Tea Experience with a pot of Georgian Caravan tea and delights such as Khachapouri, Georgian cheese bread, Blini, small sweet pancakes served with house-cured caviar and sour cream, and sweets like Steopka, grandmother’s sour cream and walnut cake.
Za Vashe Zdorovie (To your health!).
When You Go
The Russian Tea Experience features a prix fixe menu, $38 for adults and $16 for children. Seatings are at 12 noon and 2:30 p.m. Reservations can be made by calling (503) 790-7752. Watch for special tea dates around holidays like Mother’s Day.
Address: 1001 SW Broadway, Portland, Oregon 97205 (two blocks from a MAX light rail station)