After a night of steak-and-potato-fueled indulgence, I paid a morning visit to Ippodo to make amends. Not Ippudo of ramen fame, but Ippodo, a Japanese teahouse with a venerable history of nearly 300 years.
A New York outpost opened in 2013, steps away from Grand Central Station, but Ippodo has been operating in Kyoto near the Imperial Palace since 1717, garnering imperial patrons such as Prince Yamashina, who gave it its name.
The only giveaway as to the treasures of fine green teas inside the teahouse is a tiny flier outside that states, without any fanfare, “matcha to go.” Despite the humble little sign, the stream of visitors is almost constant—many in business suits. Strong is the call of antioxidants, surely. But so is the quality. If Ippodo is good enough for nobility you can be sure its teas are exceptional.
Tea has always been mythic in health benefits, of course. In China, Emperor Shennong, who documented the effects of hundreds of plants by testing them on himself, was said to eat tea leaves when he encountered a toxic one.
Ippodo offers fine Japanese green teas, which are made from steamed and dried tea leaves. The steaming inactivates the enzyme that causes oxidization and retains nutrition and fragrance.
Matcha is one of the most popular offerings—and the quality is exceptional. You could spring for one of those ubiquitous drinks like matcha almond latte, but if you want to experience the purity of matcha, I’d recommend trying the traditional matcha drinks.
There’s a thin matcha (“usucha”) and a thick matcha (“koicha”) made with twice as much powder and half as much water.
The usucha is light, fragrant, frothy, with a springlike green grassy quality. The koicha, on the other hand, is thick (like ganache), a vibrant dark green, and intense in flavor, with an umami, seaweed-like quality and, on the finish, bittersweet notes reminiscent of cacao. Within seconds of eating it—it’s so thick you need a spoon—I felt as though a current of energy coursed through my body. All day, I’d felt my head had been in the clouds, and that finally, it had been reattached to my body. That alertness lasted for hours, without any of the jitteriness nor the eventual crash from drinking coffee.
If it seems like there’s a Zen-like quality to this state, there’s certainly a historical connection between matcha and Zen. It was a Zen priest, Esai, who brought tea seeds to Japan back from China in 1191 and encouraged tea culture.
Kenichi Kano, president of Ippodo Tea USA, tells of a client of his, a neurosurgeon in Geneva, Switzerland, who drinks matcha before heading into hours of surgery. It’s certainly a comforting thought to know a surgeon won’t be getting the coffee jitters during surgery.
How can one tell if the matcha is of high quality? “The key word must be richness: the degree of deepness of color, flavor and taste,” said Kano. “Normally, it’s not easy for a lay person who can’t compare different grades at the same time on the spot. I recommend those people to get small amount of two or more different grades, and then compare especially if they can’t taste before purchasing. This is why at our Ippodo locations, we have many different grades that customers can try on the spot to see what they like.”
Besides matcha, Ippodo also serves and carries other Japanese green teas. A revelation is the luxurious—and luxuriously expensive—gyokuro, which, like matcha, comes from shade-grown tea leaves.
Is it right to call gyokuro a tea? It is more a like a sumptuous liquor to be savored slowly. The tea is full-bodied but elegantly smooth and surprisingly intense with umami.
With an amber liquor, hojicha may not seem like a green tea, but it is. Low in caffeine, hojicha is made from leaves of tea grown in open fields, then steamed, dried, and roasted, giving it a sultry smokiness.
Ippodo carries a variety of high-quality, refreshing senchas, very popular in Japan, that range from lighter to richer, and yet balanced in their qualities of astringency and sweetness.
The tea prices aren’t inexpensive, though there is a range of grades and prices offered (for matcha, prices range from $11 to $73 for a tin of 40 grams or 1.41 ounces, or 20 servings, for example). But for a tea-to-go, $4.25 will get you an usucha or a gyokuro, a fair price for the luxury of fine green tea in a cup.
In addition to different teas, Ippodo carries a range of tea accessories. Teas and accessories can also be ordered online.
125 E. 39th St. (at Lexington Avenue)
11 a.m.–7 p.m.