"For me, tea is a lifestyle," Theresa Wong says when asked what she wants customers to take away from her new Nolita teahouse, T Shop. "When I went to Taiwan, I saw how important tea is to everyday life, and I want to bring that to people here."
Before launching her own business, Wong worked at Flushing's Fang Gourmet Tea, considered by many connoisseurs the best place in New York for Chinese and Taiwanese teas. After six years there, Wong decided it was time to introduce a new audience to the joys of the drink.
T Shop, Wong says, is about broadening Americans' ideas of what tea can be. She works like a boutique coffee roaster, carefully sourcing her leaves after visiting farms and doing extensive tastings in Taiwan. And she's picky: "I'll only sell what I'll drink," Wong says. "Until I can get something that I love, I would rather wait to bring it to the shop."
Steeping Oolong tea (top) | Wong | Dried leaves | Guest seating
There are currently nine teas available at the shop, including four oolongs, each with a distinct flavor profile. The Four Seasons Spring ($10 for two ounces), for example, has a light and flowery aroma, while the oxidized, lightly roasted Red Water ($18 for two ounces) has a caramelized sweetness "like the surface layer of crème brulee." Terroir, Wong believes, is as important to tea as it is to wine. High altitudes can give a tea a light body, like the smooth, sweet Shan Lin Xi Oolong ($25 for two ounces), while heavy roasting can bring out nutty, malty flavors in teas like the High Mountain Black ($12 for one ounce).
In addition to purchasing tea for their homes, customers are encouraged to linger, either alone or with Wong, who offers two tasting formats. The entry-level Tea Tasting ($10) includes five steepings of the tea of your choice, while the Tea Journey ($70 for one or $50 each for two to five) is composed of three to four teas chosen by Wong. Often, she'll go off-menu, and if you're lucky, you may get something from her personal collection, like a 51-year-old oolong that smells like freshly pulled carrots.
For those who want to move at their own pace, there are private tables, where you can have a cup of tea brewed with your choice of teabag ($5; currently, oolong with wild gardenia flowers) or a pot ($25, one to four people). For the latter, you'll be presented with a tray of the shop's current leaves to choose from.
By the end of the year, Wong hopes to have expanded her selection of teas to 15. Eventually, she wants to cover all the basic styles, but what's available will be determined in part by seasonality. There's no green tea right now, for example, because it's freshest and tastes best in the spring during harvest.
Through T Shop, Wong wants to help people take a step back from their increasingly busy lives. "Tea, I realized, is almost like doing meditation at night," she says. "Like yoga, it helps you balance your life. If you need a break or just want to relax, we're here."