Macha Teahouse is what it is. Take it or leave it, but "respect the zen," as the sign on the door says.
Soft conversation is permitted, but signs request that cell phone ringers be off and phone conversations be taken outside - along with, I imagine, screaming children. Upstairs, a sign suggests that patrons keep children with them at all times, as people downstairs enjoy quiet, not the sound of little feet. It's not for everyone, but it's my kind of place. Macha's mascot is a ninja, after all.
"For your glasses," manager Anthony Verbrick said, hand outstretched with a microfiber cloth for my bespectacled friend, whose glasses had fogged coming in from the cold. This is Macha's brand of service, helpful but devoid of superficial niceties at the risk of perhaps reading too reserved. Verbrick is more scholar than server, more adviser than host, and here, I'd give up bubbly service for this walking tea tome any day.
Each room in the house that houses Macha offers a different environment. A monk (a real monk) appropriately sits in the quietude of the closet-sized "zen cave"; our group settles in the Moroccan room, a plum and rust-orange treasure trove that, by virtue of its size, feels communal.
In a 2008 interview, Verbrick asserted: "We're foodists. We're picky. We created a menu we could eat every day." His culinary past included stints at L'Etoile and Coyote Capers. So I came with one burning question: How would the food stack up?
Macha's Asian-inspired menu seems to be under the radar of most people, and that's too bad. It's modest, but your senses will have plenty to devour. It's said that first, we eat with our eyes. Visually, Macha's presentation exceeds most café fare: It is colorful food, thoughtfully prepared. Equally satisfying is the balanced use of salt and pepper, a subtle but important success.
Everything is made from scratch, with the exception of the peanut butter and black sesame paste mochis. I was elated when my ceremonial matcha tea came with mochi (Japanese rice cake) and tea cookies. I am a fiend for rice cake. This sweet bonus isn't advertised, but that just added to my feeling of unlocking some secret level in my virtual food game.
The homemade pork buns are another win. The pork is sweet and fork-tender, the steamed dough supple through the last bite. The miso soup with wakame, bok choy and shiitakes is a satisfying, minimalist pick-me-up, as is the lotus bagel with cucumber, black sesame seeds and cream cheese.
For more substance, a donburi bowl with raw slivers of shiitakes, steamed bok choy and ribbons of daikon, with a smattering of togarashi, or Japanese pepper flakes, is available for lunch. At first I found the shiitakes too earthy in their raw form, but with the other elements, I enjoyed their umami, tamed by the sweet ribs of bok choy and the bitterness of its greens. Although soy sauce is served alongside, my marinated tofu needed no help. I wouldn't change a thing. The rice is also notably well prepared.
On weekends, events director Rachel Fox coordinates reservations for tea service. If you're the type of person who already drops several dollars on tea, try the full shebang: towers of plated scones, cookies, cupcakes and canapés. My favorite is the curried chicken salad sandwich. One thing I've noticed at Macha is that the kitchen doesn't back down on heat. The curry lingers boldly, without being a tearjerker. Against cooling cucumber sandwiches with a smidge of wasabi and hydrating Asian pear with a confetti of sweet Thai basil, the treats balance in their warming and cooling and spicy and sweet qualities. Creamy spreads are paired with enough crunch and sensation to keep your mouth interested.
The cupcakes come in a rotating array of flavors, including red velvet, matcha and even a vanilla cupcake with blue frosting that tastes like a blue slush puppy. They're a moist, basic cupcake, more cake than frosting. If you must choose only one bakery item, go for the delicate cardamom cookies, little glamour girls in a glittery dust of castor sugar that pack a distinctive wallop of a lusciously zingy relative of ginger. You can buy three for $1.