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Modern Tea

Where Old is New Again

To believe in anything requires a leap of faith. At Modern Tea, a new restaurant and tea shop owned by Alice Cravens, a former tea purveyor to Chez Panisse and Zuni Cafe, the belief seems to be that tea can drive a full-service restaurant. To take the leap means overcoming the fact that many of the teas are too fragile to stand up to the food, namely the desserts.

But in almost every other respect, Modern Tea delivers a singularly unpretentious and pleasing experience. The dining room is small yet spacious. The east-facing windows let in far more light than the exterior awnings and shady trees suggest. In fact, once seated, it becomes apparent that Modern Tea has created one of the most comfortable rooms in the city.

The tables are solid, made of reclaimed Douglas Fir, decorated with miniature flower pots. The water is served in sleek carafes. Wispy glass mosaics float overhead in kaleidoscopic colors, and the one brick wall sports a lime green paint so ethereal it makes you wonder if all bricks shouldn’t look that way.

Teas are steeped along a copper-topped bar by the entrance. Some, such as the Osmanthus Silver Needle ($5), a white tea, the green Lu Shan Clouds & Mist ($5), or the unctuous and earthy, almost fishy, Seven Sons Beencha Pu-erh ($6), come in a pot so diminutive it could be cradled in the palm of the hand. There is a little bowl to drink from and an extra pot of hot water for replenishing.

Other teas, such as the Assam Breakfast ($4), the color of a rich consommé, or the Fresh Local Herbs ($4), which was chocolate mint on our visit, are served in a more traditional teapot with a cup and saucer. Lift the lid and encounter the whole leaves in all their unusual shapes and colors. On both of our visits we had the same server, who was generally very good, enthusiastic, and educated about the tea list.

In the afternoon, many guests seemed to be meeting a close friend for tea, when the dessert list seems a natural place to look for something to nibble on (the lunch menu is mainly soups and salads). Desserts here are, in general, impeccably executed, and exude a kind of regional American charm -- unfortunately this charm can also include a touch of county fair sweetness that will steamroll right over the delicacy of the teas they are presumably intended to support.

The Texas sheet cake ($1 per square inch), is toothsome and cute. Simple tea and cake ($7) includes any tea, and on our visit was a butter cake with a wonderful crumb that was cloying even before spreading on the house made peach jam. It pairs better with a black tea. The sugar seared fruit ($6) was a nectarine whose sugar coating fell off like a piece of sheet metal, though it was well contrasted by loose mascarpone and crunchy walnuts. The most popular dessert is the citrus buttermilk pudding cake ($5), light, creamy and served in a glass jar.

There were more blissful moments, but they came at a price. The summer tomato sandwich ($8) was more cucumber and chevre spread than Early Girl tomato, though the side salad with its playful whiffs of orange oil was a lesson in balance. And the tortillas that came with the cast-iron sheared eggs ($8) were so hard the knife slid off the table, at which point we ignominiously gave up. And our server informed us that we would receive store-bought salsa instead of the chili Colorado sauce, which made us realize why a young dishwasher carrying a plastic bag had almost run us over on the sidewalk before we came in.

However, Modern Tea excels in cast-iron cookery. The antiquated-sounding sheared eggs are blackened on the outside but tender and runny within. The textured and rich corn meal Civil War waffles ($9) are cooked over an open flame. The cast-iron custard corn bread ($7) was firm and tasty. The salmon hash ($10), also served with sheared egg, is sinful.

All in all, if the future looks anything like Modern Tea, with its slow food brunches and light-filled afternoons, then San Franciscans might just have something new to believe in.

Hayes Valley

Reservations Essential? No