If Romeo and Juliet had stopped at the tasting room at Steven Smith Teamaker on this Valentine’s Day weekend, they would have felt right at home.
In fact, they might have even shared a Lover’s Leap Latte.
Named for a 30-foot waterfall near the Sri Lankan hill town of Nuwara Eliya, where these tea leaves originated, the Lover’s Leap tea plantation produces an elegant, full-leaf black tea with a woody aroma and a smooth, mellow taste.
The estate flows across rolling hills at an elevation of 6,000 feet and looks down upon lower-altitude clouds and its namesake feature. According to legend, a Sinhalese prince and his lover, forbidden to marry, once leapt from the top of Lover’s Leap.
Steven Smith Teamaker, Portland’s premier producer of exotic teas, has taken Nuwara Eliya’s large, twisted leaves, blended them with other black teas from nearby India, added Chinese rose petals and Egyptian chamomile petals, and tossed in Calabrian bergamot oil (from an Italian orange) and natural black-currant flavor. Labeled as lot No. 2/14 (get it?), it is sold by the cup — in the tasting room — or by the box of 15 sachets.
The best way to enjoy it, I discovered on a recent visit, is with a unique blend of cow’s milk, sheep’s milk ricotta and goat’s milk caramel. That’s the way my barista offered it up at the Smith tasting room in Portland’s Central Eastside neighborhood, and I’ll request it be made the same way on my next visit.
Steven Smith Teamaker opened its east-side store, factory and warehouse in December 2015, having outgrown its original location in northwest Portland. It’s a perfect example of some of the new sights that may pique the interest of visitors who think they know everything there is to know about Oregon’s largest city.
Indeed, Travel Portland, the city’s tourism agency, has launched a promotion that encourages out-of-towners to explore all 145 square miles within the city’s urban growth boundary. Taking note of off-the-beaten-path attractions in far-flung corners of the city, it is being termed by some as “Portland for the Fourth Timer.”
Photographer Barb Gonzalez and I took it upon ourselves to seek out a few of Portland’s less visited attractions. We began with Steven Smith, the tea company that bears the name of its founder, Smith, who died in March 2015 at the age of 65.
Smith was just 23 and recently discharged from service in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War when he co-founded Stash Tea Co. in Tualatin in 1972. Stash’s herbal and specialty black teas became some of the most recognizable in North America. When Stash was bought by a large Japanese company in 1993, Smith started Tazo Tea and developed more than 60 proprietary blends often considered “New Age.” Tazo sold to Starbucks Coffee in early 1999, but Smith and his team continued to direct production for another seven years.
After a two-year hiatus with his family in Provence, France, Smith returned to Portland in 2008. He and his wife, Kim DeMent, co-founded Steven Smith Teamaker in a former blacksmith shop at NW 17th and Thurman streets; Kim, who now heads the company, directed the 2015 expansion.
A tour of the company’s new warehouse, at SE 2nd and Washington streets, reveals floor-to-ceiling stacks of full-leaf teas imported mainly from China, India and Sri Lanka. Black, green and white teas — 35 in all — are blended by head tea-maker Tony Tellin and his team and packaged in sachets along teas of Oregon-grown peppermint and spearmint leaves, and other herbal infusions.
In the tidy tasting room, a knowledgeable barista poured flights of tea. Each sample was accompanied by tasting notes, as if we were tasting wines.
Mao Feng green tea, for instance, comes from Zhejiang, China: Harvested in spring, it “has a slightly sweet vegetative taste and aroma with a lingering fresh aftertaste” and “is exceptionally rich in antioxidants for greater feng shui enhancement.”
Fez “artfully evokes old Morocco and tastes best when shared with friends while lounging on pillows,” although it seems to be from everywhere but the Arab world: “Rare green teas from China combined with aromatic spearmint grown in the Pacific Northwest and a hint of lemon myrtle from Australia.”
Bees and mead
Leaving Smith Tea, we kept ourselves as busy as bees. We had been told about an urban meadery in the Hawthorne District, but Bee Thinking turned out to be so much more than that.
Not only is this the largest bottle shop for honey mead in the Northwest; it also serves greater Portland’s beekeeping culture — which is the largest in the Western Hemisphere, according to customer service manager Cameron Larson.
If you’ve ever been curious about the hobby of beekeeping, this is the place to find out. Larson showed me several hive models made of Western red cedar and sugar pine, complete with multiple frames where honeybees can fashion their elaborate combs. Different models run in the $300 to $400 range with a beekeeping starter kit that includes “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping.”
Basic beekeeping requires a hat with a veil, ventilated leather gloves, a stainless-steel smoker (for mollifying aggressive bees), a bee brush (to move them off the comb) and “the ultimate hive tool,” a rod used to detach the comb, scrape bee resin and pry frames.
Mead is one of the most ancient fermented beverages known. Chinese pottery from 6500 B.C. shows traces of fermented honey. The sacred books of the pre-Hindu Vedic religion took note of this beverage, and Aristotle discussed it in ancient Greece. Medieval literature talks of Scots and Scandinavians enjoying their honey mead.
And the process, even today, is relatively simple, requiring only honey, water and yeast. Fruits, spices, grains and hops may be added, but fermentable sugar is typically derived only from the honey. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily sweet; dry mead is also produced. It may be still, carbonated or naturally sparkling.
The bottle shop at Bee Thinking offers an astounding 90 different meads from nearly half that many producers. Half a dozen of them are in Portland, but the inventory here extends overseas to such countries as Poland, Denmark and South Africa.
Larson offered a tasting of four very different meads, with alcohol content ranging from 6.5 to 8.5 percent, to show the range of flavors. (The blackboard menu is constantly changing.)
The Nectar Creek “Triple Brett,” made in Corvallis from Madras honey, was aged in a chardonnay barrel but had no fruit of its own; it was mildly sour on the palate. The Fringe “Orange Cardamom,” made in Portland, featured flavors of orange peel and cardamom with a touch of residual sugar. The Redstone “Black Raspberry,” made in Boulder, Colorado, was sweeter and lightly carbonated.
Most unusual was the “Free Press Cyser” from Oregon Mead & Cider Co. in Portland. This was a blend of 78 percent mead and 22 percent apple cider — Braeburn, Fuji and Gravenstein fruits. The apple flavor was evident. But I liked the Fringe the best.
An urban spa
Perhaps needless to say, we had a mild buzz on as we departed Bee Thinking. It was time for a massage and a soak.
Knot Springs fit the bill. The new urban day spa overlooks the Burnside Bridge from the fifth floor of the Yard building, a housing-and-office complex that includes 284 units and the burger-and-salads Tilt restaurant.
Knot Springs Spa & Fitness opened last August. The “Fitness” section has a gym and a fitness studio with classes that range from yoga and Pilates to interval training and kickboxing. But we focused on the spa offerings, beginning with one-hour massages.
Best of all, however, were the soaking pools, beautifully designed by Portland’s own Skylab Architecture. Located in the northwest corner of Yard, the pools looked across the Willamette River toward the Broadway Bridge, with the towers of the Convention Center to the north and the neon “Portland Oregon” sign, across the Burnside Bridge, to the west.
In the late afternoon, we watched bumper-to-bumper traffic creep along Interstate 5. In the evening, I suspect, the city lights would be spectacular.
Knot Springs recommends an invigorating hydrotherapy regimen that mixes heating and cooling. In fact, the ritual is posted in the soaking room. We followed it to a T: An exfoliating shower before plunging into the body-temperature (98-degree) Tepidarium. A transfer to the 103-degree Caldarium, where hydro jets work on sore muscles. Then a quick-step (30 seconds are recommended) into the 52-degree Cold Plunge. It’s really cold.
From here, a dry sauna and a steam room beckon. Each is supposed to be followed by another fast Cold Plunge, which really does get more bearable with each exposure. One last dip in the Tepidarium, and we were ready to change for dinner.
Portland is in the middle of a hotel boom, which will add more than 3,300 new rooms to the heart of the city before the end of next year. The Marriott corporation is at the head of the curve, with its 204-room AC Hotel by Marriott on schedule to open this month at SW Third and Taylor streets, and the 120-room Hi-Lo to follow in spring at Third and Stark. The boutique Hi-Lo occupies the 1910 Oregon Pioneer Building, home to the city’s oldest restaurant, Huber’s, which has a dining room on the National Register of Historic Places.
Scheduled to open later this year in the downtown area are the 243-room Hampton Inn, at Ninth and Everett in the Pearl District; the 112-room Grove Hotel, at Chinatown Gate on W. Burnside Street; and a 67-room expansion of the Jupiter Hotel, on E. Burnside.
For more adventurous stays, the nation’s first “tiny house” hotels have established a presence in northeast Portland. Caravan features a half-dozen custom-made houses, ranging in size from 120 to 170 square feet, in the heart of the Alberta Arts District. Each has a kitchen and bathroom as well as sleeping quarters. And near the Laurelhurst neighborhood at 28th and Burnside, 13 mobile houses make up the new Tiny Digs Hotel, which opened in October.
The burgeoning Provenance Hotels group will open the 205-room Dossier Hotel at SW Park Avenue and Alder Street this summer. In the meantime, Provenance has just taken over management of the iconic, 150-room Heathman Hotel on Broadway. Renowned for its collections of art and literature, the Heathman also has recently become home to the newest restaurant from acclaimed local chef Vitaly Paley.
Headwaters is a dramatic change from the French restaurant that commanded the Heathman’s ground floor for decades. Paley and his executive chef, Ken Norris, have made a dedicated step into the seafood arena, combining creativity with tradition. The menu changes daily, depending on the availability of fish and other marine denizens; but there’s always a selection of kippered fish (with a herring “schmear” that Paley credits to his grandmother) and a choice of caviars.
Paley’s nod to his Belarusian heritage extends into the Heathman’s Tea Court Lounge, where he has replaced the traditional English tea with a Russian Tea Experience on Saturdays. Along with Steven Smith teas, served in samovars, the prix fixe lunchtime menu offers a range of sweet and savory Russian pastries, including cheese blintzes, stuffed eggs, pierogi, latkes, bird’s milk tortes, steopka (sour-cream) cakes and khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread).
Also downtown, the late lamented Veritable Quandary closed last year after 45 years of business. But executive chef Annie Cuggino, general manager Erin Hokland and their staff re-emerged six weeks later at the new Q Restaurant at SW Second and Taylor, only a few blocks from their former location at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge. Our lunch included fried chickpeas with Moroccan spices, a spinach salad and a big bowl of green posole with chicken, followed by a chocolate souffle.
On the city’s east side, Tusk is the latest effort of Josh McFadden, executive chef at Ava Gene’s and consulting chef at the Suttle Lodge, and partner Luke Dirks. The food has a Middle Eastern theme with locally sourced ingredients, and we went all out ordering “The Magic Carpet Ride,” a chef’s choice dinner for $50 per person. The mezze appetizer featured the best hummus I’ve ever had. Trout, pork, lamb, cabbage and beet dishes rounded out an incredible dinner.
I’ve discovered two fine new places for lunch. Figlia Americana, on Grand Avenue, is a sandwich shop owned by one of Portland’s best Italian restaurants, Renata, and it’s especially interesting for its direct connection to the quirky Rejuvenation hardware store. Shizuku by Chef Naoko, on the west side of downtown, offers traditional Japanese food, including elaborate bento boxes and delicious ramen bowls.
Just for fun
“Keep Portland Weird” has been a city slogan for many years now, and on my most recent visit, I discovered two new businesses that support that view.
One is Purringtons Cat Lounge, in northeast Portland on Martin Luther King Boulevard. Kristen and Sergio Castillo’s feline rescue operation introduces shelter cats not only to potential owners, but also to people who just like to hang out with cats.
The first “cat cafe” in the Pacific Northwest offers a small-bite menu with Northwest wines and rotating beer and cider taps. Large windows look into a living-room environment where up to 15 cats, and as many humans, may relax and enjoy one another’s company. Reservations are encouraged, especially Wednesday evenings, when “Purr Yoga” takes over the lounge.
And then there’s the Freakybuttrue Peculiarium, located just a few blocks from the original Smith Tea facility in northwest Portland. In fact, it’s hard to tell how much of the collection here is real — models of alien probes, a zombie’s brain, a homicide-riddled dollhouse, a horned Krampus that invites big kids to sit in its lap like Santa Claus.
But the exhibits are unquestionably freaky. And the novelty shop sells all sorts of items that you never thought you wanted.
Still, it’s probably not the sort of place you’d want to take your Valentine.
— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .