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Tea fit for royalty glows at L’Epicier

by David Chester

For the last three months, I have been inexplicably drawn to tea shops with yellow color schemes. Is there a magical connection? Maybe only in a subliminal desire for the very best.

In Chinese culture, yellow was reserved for royalty, and it is perhaps no accident that L’Epicier, a gourmet tea salon/boutique, is decorated in the same hue. Nestled on a quiet side street minutes from JR Sendagaya Station, the salon serves the finest tea in inviting surroundings: pale yellow walls, pastel yellow and green tablecloths, and golden yellow canopies floating overhead.

President Masaki Mizuguchi, who graduated from a French university, originally planned to open a gourmet goods shop, as the salon’s name (which means “The Grocer” in French) suggests. But since he already had a working knowledge of tea, he decided that it would be a better item to build a business around — and a wise decision it turned out to be. Since the first L’Epicier opened its doors in 1996, Mizuguchi has ridden the crest of Japan’s “tea boom” and opened a further 50 L’Epicier tea boutiques (four with tea salons).

But the desire to create a successful business was not the only motivation behind the birth of L’Epicier, as director and cofounder Yoko Niina explains. “Of course, Japan has a love affair with green tea, but we wanted to introduce people to teas from around the world; that’s why we decided to start this shop.”

Like Mariage Freres (Kissa Kultur, Jan. 2001), L’Epicier has hundreds of high-quality teas but sets itself apart by offering its own special blends, like the fruity “Wedding” or “Banane Chocolat” with marigold flowers.

“Fifteen years ago, when you ordered [black] tea in Japan, the waitress only asked if you wanted milk tea or lemon tea,” recalls Niina. “We don’t have that problem here.”

The teas are from India, Sri Lanka, China and Africa. A “World Tea Handbook” (in Japanese) is thoughtfully provided, which describes each tea in colorful detail. It also explains all those mysterious initials that tea lovers have been encountering on packaging lately, such as TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe), GBOP (Golden Broken Orange Pekoe) and many more. (These refer to grades of “leafy” or “broken” tea leaves. For more information on this subject, visit www.orientaided.com/pekoe.htm ) L’Epicier even has its own beautifully photographed coffee-table book, “Travel Around the Tea,” which is sure to inspire a visit or two to some of the world’s tea plantations.

L’Epicier is proud of its teas but also offers its own reminders of why expandable-waistline pants are now in vogue. The British Country Cakes Set is popular at 1,000 yen, and the Afternoon Tea Set includes a “dessert tower,” a combination of the day’s sweets “built” fresh on the premises.

One regret is that there isn’t a nonsmoking section — yet. “Soon!” promises Niina.

While every new kissaten feels compelled to offer a variety of cups, mugs and other items carrying the store’s logo, L’Epicier’s boutique somehow manages to capture one’s attention longer than most. The rich fragrance of hundreds of teas makes it easy to linger, but the unique iron teapots made in Yamagata Prefecture by the Kikuchi Hojudo Co. are a must-see.

These re-creations of old Japanese teapots in vibrant blues, greens and reds speak volumes about artistry and history. Until recently, they were produced mainly for export to France, but fortunately a L’Epicier staff member managed to convince Kikuchi Hojudo to allow L’Epicier to feature a few of the company’s works of art in the L’Epicier boutiques. (Though grateful, Niina points out that France gets the “larger” version of the teapots than Japan.)

Though L’Epicier does not yet feature the gourmet goods that Mizuguchi first envisioned, with 50 thriving shops it can only be a matter of time until it does. After all, with enough shades of yellow to entice the bluest of bloods, it will need to.