Last year, New Yorkers saw the first shop dedicated to matcha (a powdered green tea from Japan) open up in Williamsburg. While matcha hasn’t taken the city by storm — yet — we’ve seen the product creep on to the menus of national chain brands (Teavana, Peets) as well as into foods (matcha-infused pastries) and health food drinks (Liquiteria has added a matcha smoothie to its roster of seasonal concoctions).
And now, in a bright, windowed corner space straddling the intersection of West 4th and Christopher in the West Village, has come Chalait (224 West 4th Street), Manhattan’s first matcha-focused tea and coffee shop.
Proprietors Michelle Gardner and Ramon Puyane (engaged to be married this summer) have not dedicated the space entirely to the healthy, green drink; they prepare other loose-leaf teas from In Pursuit of Tea and have a Counter Culture coffee program (drip, pour-over, and espresso), too. But a journey to Japan, suffused with repeated indulgences in the calm and ceremony of expertly whisked matcha, led them to conclude New Yorkers deserve a spot dedicated to the daily ritual, too.
“We thought [matcha] was a beautiful drink,” says Gardner. “Our idea was to bring it back to New York and introduce it to people in a modern, Westernized setting. To that end, we spent the last two years tasting and researching different grades, locating the best local suppliers, and learning all we could about the health benefits of matcha.”
Until now, Gardner and Puyane had never been in the tea business. In fact, mirroring the footsteps of other local entrepreneurs now running cafés (Tiny Pinecone, The Elk), Gardner was in a high-paying finance job before calling it quits (Puyane still works in the banking world, but helps out with the non-operational side of the business).
The term “disillusionment” pops up often in these scenarios; the condition drives many white-collar professionals out of lucrative but soul-sucking jobs and into the turbulent, low-paying, long-hours slog of the food and drink world. Gardner wholly identified with this evolution of spirit.
Originally believing she wanted to pursue culinary school, she retreated at the sticker shock (it’s not only a lengthy commitment, but has become outrageously expensive relative to average incomes of chefs). Gardner revised her plan, instead earning a restaurant management degree at ICE in NYC.
Committed to the matcha concept, but having zero retail experience, Gardner took a job at Little Collins in Midtown East to learn the trade. She tasted her first bite of humble pie when a former banking client walked in and acted surprised to find her behind the counter. Gardner says the experience gave her a newfound respect for baristas. “They work extremely hard, and the act of pulling a shot — a good shot — is both art and experience and is seldom understood by the customer,” she says.
After a year with Little Collins, the space in the West Village popped up. Fortunately for neighbors, the landlord wasn’t interested in another chain store (Tasti D-Lite had been the previous tenant), so he gave Gardner and Puyane a crack at the lease.
The inviting space is spare and white, with light wood floors and accents, a color palette accentuated by hours of light streaming through the generous panes. Just a few low tables and bar stools provide seating in the small space. The angled bar features two sides: one intended for patrons of espresso-based drinks, the other dedicated exclusively to tea service.
Their place having only been open a few weeks now, Gardner and Puyane have already added food, including breakfast options, sandwiches, and the requisite “fancy toast” like the East, a Sriracha-egg-avocado smash with spinach, pickled carrots, and radish, to the menu.
The duo carefully sourced their matcha from the Uji tea fields in the Kyoto prefecture of Japan, considered the finest source for the product. They offer an everyday and a premium version (priced accordingly), each whisked and presented in glass instead of ceramic, in an effort to give a modern context to the age-old drink. They also serve matcha in milk-based drinks like the matcha latte, and have an iced version plus a seasonal matcha fizz: matcha iced tea topped off with a seasonal, homemade cordial, and sparkling water. Teas and coffee can be purchased for home preparation as well.
Due to limited seating, Wi-Fi won’t ever be an option (so the laptop army will have to soldier on elsewhere). The café is open every day: weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., weekends from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
For those who haven’t tried matcha, the intensity of the flavor can be compared to that of wine or even chocolate. The tea delivers strong vegetal notes and a lingering sweetness, often with a bit of astringency, and has a great range of nuance, depending on the source, grade, and preparation of the tea.
For those still skeptical of trying it, consider this: Matcha proponents believe its numerous health benefits include cancer-fighting, anti-aging, cholesterol-lowering, fat-burning, stress-reducing, energy-boosting, and detoxifying properties, making matcha the perfect drink for those suffering through New Year’s resolutions or, worse, Drynuary.