Traditionally, the Japanese have always appreciated insects, as reflected in their literature, art, and music. After all, the finest silk kimono starts with the humble silkworm. While Teaism is not a Japanese restaurant in the strictest sense, it is inspired by the Japanese philosophy gracefully revealed in Kakuzo Okakura's Book of Tea, which defines Teaism as "a religion of aestheticism…founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence."
There are three Teaism locations in D.C., but the one handiest to the Mall is located on the corner of 8th and D street, NW. It’s an oasis for Congressional interns, college students, museum curators, and suchlike, a refreshing change of pace from the tourist-driven eateries on the Mall. The décor is peaceful, the lighting is dim, and, if you snag a spot by the koi pond, the sound of water is soothing.
Essentially Japanese in inspiration, but with a Pan-Asian cuisine, the concept behind Teaism is simple: offer the world’s best teas in a tranquil setting and provide affordable, choice foods to complement them. A gentle word of warning: don’t go here expecting to find the standard ‘chicken Caesar salad’ chain-restaurant fare. Instead, prepare yourself for something new. Be adventurous.
Recently, I sampled a drink intriguingly named "Zhen Zhou Pearls," also known as "Bubble Tea" in Taiwan. It’s a delightful tea-and-milk concoction that features pearl-sized dark tapioca balls and is served with an oversized straw large enough to sip them. Sound yucky? It’s not. Just barely sweetened and served over ice, it’s unexpectedly appealing, the soft, chewy pearls contrasting nicely with the milky tea.
The quintessential Teaism meal is, of course, the bento box. I’ve had salmon and chicken-based bento boxes here, the compartments containing a nice balance of salads, soy noodle dishes, and piquant slices of pickled ginger. There are also Tandoori items, such as Naan bread, though not the puffy Indian restaurant version but lightly brushed with oil and grilled. And I always have edamame, lightly steamed green soy beans served in their pods.
Try seaweed salad, a not too salty but undeniably so blend of chopped cellophane rice noodles, crisp seaweed, red pepper flakes, and sesame seeds. Faintly crunchy and rubbery at the same time, this is another dish that is more enjoyable than it sounds. A bigger surprise, however, is the sweet potato salad. When most Americans think ‘sweet potato,’ they think of something awash in brown sugar, butter, and, perhaps, marshmallow topping. Instead, imagine unalloyed chunks of cooked sweet potato, served chilled with a creamy fermented soy dressing.
That’s right. Fermented soy. Before wrinkling your nose in disgust, give it a try. It’s quite liberating, actually, and goes surprisingly well with Dragon Well green tea, my favorite (so far) of the twenty-five teas on offer.
Insider Tip: To get a feel for Washington’s culinary internationalism and sophistication, get at least a few blocks away from the Mall to dine.