Ippodo (125 East 39th Street, 212-370-0609), a 300-year-old Kyoto-based haven for fine Japanese green teas (that’s not to be confused with international ramen chain Ippudo), debuted its first stateside shop earlier this year. The opening was so hushed, however, that only tea connoisseurs, homesick Japanese expats, and the occasional curious passerby from the neighborhood have really noticed, stopping by to sample its premium wares sourced from the finest tea fields surrounding Kyoto.
Anchored within Kajitsu, the serene dining temple to shojin ryori cusine, Ippodo’s teas are served to the sophisticated clientele of chef Ryota Ueshima, who also hails from Kyoto. Utilizing a sliver of groundfloor space in the Murray Hill townhouse, Ippodo stocks loose teas and accessories, and it offers tastings and take-away cups.
Ippodo’s range of green teas include sencha — known for balance between sweetness and sharpness; bancha — an everyday, casual category of tea, often with lower caffeine; and matcha — a classic powdered tea that’s whisked into a bright pea-green infusion. New Yorkers can find any of these green teas, albeit of varying quality, around the city, but unique to Ippodo is the additional focus on a class of tea called gyokuro, a ferociously expensive tea that, of course, I liked best.
Gyokuro is a category of shade-grown tea, technically a sencha, but it’s cultivated differently. Whereas less expensive sencha may be shaded for just a week, gyokuro sees two to three weeks of shade in its final growing phase, which occurs just before picking. The additional shade time increases the body, natural sweetness, and mellow flavors. This is definitely a tea to savor, particularly because of the price tag: Ippodo sells seven different kinds of gyokuro; I tasted the seaweed- and freshly cooked spinach-scented Kanro, which sells for $36 per 50-gram bag. The most expensive gyokuro, Tenka-ichi, commands $91 per 50-gram bag.
You aren’t obliged to spend oodles of dollars here, though — you can just learn. Ask to taste through the teas; the staff is pleased to put on a show and demonstrate preparation methods such as the art of brewing matcha, a synergy of wrist movement and bamboo whisk that creates a smooth, frothed tea of powder suspended in hot water. (Matcha doesn’t dissolve.) If the demo inspires you, the shop sells a matcha starter kit complete with delicately fashioned whisk, ceramic bowl, and the current seasonal tea.
Ippodo’s tenancy with Kajitsu makes perfect sense: The restaurant honors a centuries-old cuisine that was developed by Zen Buddhist monks to precede their tea ceremony, a spiritual experience and exercise in quiet refinement. Perhaps we can draw a lesson from these ancient customs and find a few minutes each night for an introspective tea ritual of our own.
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Lauren Mowery writes the Filtered column for Fork in the Road. Visit her blog, Chasing the Vine, for more on wine, drinks and travel.