When Keqi Meng moved from Hangzhou to Chicago, he had no plans to open a tea shop. That's despite the fact that his hometown in China is famous for its tea. The best known? Longjing, but its literal translation is "dragon well."
"It's a very classic Chinese green," said Meng. "It has a little toasty note, and is also very grassy and very refreshing."
But it's not just the tea that's special at his shop. Tea Bar by Easthill in Bucktown, which opened in November, performs what Meng calls a traditional Chinese tea ceremony, but it's really quite contemporary.
When you walk into the airy, light-washed space, take a seat at the blond-wood bar in front of a wall of hanging plants, or at a cafe table next to the Zen garden, or at a low table in back. Meng lists the tea on his menu as Dragonwell, though it is can also be spelled "dragon well." Regardless, order the tea, and pick up your tea pet, then sit back while your server prepares a slotted wooden tray.
What are tea pets, you ask? They are traditional clay figures, "fed" by pouring excess tea over them, kept for good luck and as a status symbol. If your tea pet gets shiny and aromatic, it means you've raised and fed your tea pet well.
Your server will pour the loose-leaf tea into a cup, add hot water at 176 degrees, then steep the tea for 30 seconds - by then, it's barely golden green. Next, it's strained into a teapot and finally poured into your drinking cup.
When you finish your first pot, the server will repeat the process, but steeping longer, for one full minute, deepening the color and flavor.
"Personally, I do about five steeps for Dragonwell," said Meng. One extreme tea drinker once did seven steeps just to test the tea's flavor limits.
Meng travels directly to tea farms in China, Taiwan and Japan to source his small-batch, premium teas. They are served straight up; no milk, sugar, lemon or honey.
$8 with unlimited steeps, or $18 per ounce. Tea Bar by Easthill, 1816 N. Milwaukee Ave., 872-802-4499, www.easthilltea.com