Sunday, February 15, 2009

Seattle Teahouses: Zen Dog Studio—Serenity and Superb Tea

For the past few years every time I drive past the Zen Dog Studio gallery and teahouse in northwest Seattle, I tell myself I should stop and check it out. One afternoon recently, while feeling especially stressed out by an insanely busy work schedule, I finally decide to pull over and go have tea.

I’m so glad I did.

What I thought would be a quick 10-minute stop turned into 90 minutes of great tea and relaxing conversation.

This is not a teahouse where you park with your laptop, poaching free wifi while sipping tea at a corner table. Instead it’s a Cantonese-style gong fu tea tasting experience shared with the proprietor.

I walk up the steps of this charming craftsman home, pass through a bamboo portal, open the wrought-iron gate, and ring the doorbell. After a minute or so a calm, friendly gray-haired man with a fuzzy flowing beard welcomes me. “Hello! Please come in!” he exclaims. Larry Murphy is a retired architect and now nature photographer who has converted his home into a photography studio-art gallery-frame shop-teahouse. He leads me up a narrow back stairway into the warm, wood-paneled upper studio.

Instantly I feel a serene sense of light and space. Water trickles gently from a stone fountain next to a healthy green bamboo plant. Larry shows me some of his stunning naturescape photographs. Lovely long scrolls of Chinese characters hang on the walls beside the photos, inscribed with passages from the Tao de Ching.

Larry invites me to sit in a corner alcove with a view north to Puget Sound and join him for tea. He sits behind a varnished gnarled wood bench (his "alter to the tea"), and I grab a matching stool in front. Larry suggests we start with a fine silver needle white tea.

While talking about his travels in China, Larry pulls out a bag of tea from the shelf, pours some loose leaves into a lidded teacup (a gaiwan), and starts heating a pot of water on a small burner. Next he sets out two very small handle-less teacups on a wooden tray and pours the almost boiling water into the gaiwan. “I’m offering the first taste to the Buddha,” says Larry as he pours the tea out over a small ceramic Buddha on the tray.

After brewing more tea in the gaiwan and letting it steep for a moment, Larry pours some into the tiny cups. “Do you like this tea?” he asks. The light, crisp tea is smooth and soothing. We talk until we finish the first pot. Larry’s an interesting guy and attentive host. I keep on making noises about having to leave and go work, but he gently urges me “Oh, you must stay and try more tea, relax.” I learn he’s well-connected in the local community of Chinese tea proprietors and artists. I also learn he helped a young boy in China get treatment for leukemia.

Next we try a couple Chinese red teas, including Bi Luo Chun Hong, a complex, winey, and slightly sweet tea that’s only harvested once a year.

Gong fu is a ritual style of serving tea. It’s about being mindful of the process” Larry tells me. He shows me some little clay Yixing teapots that are traditionally used for gong fu-style tea. “Some say that over the years the pots become so seasoned that you don’t even need to add the tea leaves to brew a cup!” he says, “And you always have a different pot for each kind of tea.”

My heavy sighs of stress gradually diminish by the third pot of tea. I’m almost afraid to buy some to take home, thinking it can’t possibly taste as good without this Buddha man mindfully serving me in his tranquil, well-lit studio. I finally leave after buying one of Larry’s beautiful photos—a waterfall in China—which I’ve placed on my desk as a reminder to relax, breathe deep, and enjoy fine Chinese tea.

When You Go
Zen Dog Studio is on Northwest 85th Street between 24th Avenue Northwest and 15th Avenue North at the northern edge of Ballard in Seattle. Look for the red sandwich board on the sidewalk in front of the house, and park in front on the street. Don’t give up if the front gate looks closed and no one answers the door instantly. Just ring the doorbell and wait a minute. It’s worth it.


Barry said...

Thanks for writing up this great find, Jill. I'll certainly visit soon!

I also recommend Remedy Teas on Capital Hill (15th Avenue E). They have a very meticulous way of preparing tea and the results are superb. (Not the artsy quality of Zendog - but someone at Remedy is very serious about tea.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Barry for the tip on Remedy Teas - I've heard buzz about that place, too. I'll be posting soon another broader piece of various teahouses around town,

jeff said...

This sounds like a fun tea adventure.
I just went to KuanYin teahouse on 45th the other nite and had a great cup of tea and butter chicken curry!

Patti said...

Wow Jill. I've lived here fro ever and I still haven't heard of some of these places.

Thanks for the great information and fantastic photos!
Proud to live here!