PLEASE NOTE THAT BOU TEA HAS NOW CLOSED DOWN
I like to think I've got pretty good instincts. If I meet someone and don't warm to them I rarely find that we end up becoming good friends. Likewise, if I go into a shop, restaurant or cafe and get a bad vibe there's not much hope it's going to become a favourite. But sometimes first impressions can be misleading.
I'd heard about Bou Tea in Covent Garden and was very excited about the idea of a proper tea room a mere ten minute bike ride from home. But it took me a while to get there, in no small part because I just couldn't seem to find it. When I did eventually stumble across it I had, rather typically, just had lunch and a cup of tea and had no room for any more. No matter, I thought, I was running low on black tea at home and I could pop in, buy some and have a bit of a suss at the same time. As I walked in I was struck by two things: the place had quite a stripped back, cold feel; and there was nobody in there, and that included staff. Shortly after that a member of staff who had actually been in the kitchen came out front to serve me. I had read that they sold tea to take home and asked her if I could purchase some. She informed me that they had run out of bags the day before so no, I couldn't. She was in no way rude but I was overcome with a kind of irrational irritation: here was a completely empty cafe in a prime, and I suspect rather expensive, location, and something as lame as a lack of bags would stop them making a sale. I was feeling increasingly indignant as I walked off - what kind of operation was this?
Anyway, fast forward to a month or so later, and I decided I really needed to give Bou Tea another go. Perhaps they were just having a bad day when I went in; perhaps there had been a London-wide shortage of bags..? I arranged to meet the delightful Miss O there and hopped on my bike. On arrival the cafe again had no customers and still the same slightly cold feel. But I did spot some rather nice looking half-baguettes on the counter. Having had no lunch I ordered a poppy-seed one filled with smoked salmon and cream cheese and munched it whilst reading the tea menu. If I tell you that I had finished the baguette long before I'd got to the end of the tea list, you'll get an idea of how extensive it was.
There were three different white teas, twenty (yes twenty) green teas, ten oolongs, fifteen black teas, three puerhs, twelve infusions and, as if that wasn't enough, a tea of the week. Wow, now that is a serious tea list! By this time Miss O had arrived and we both decided to try a black tea with some cake. With so many teas to choose from I was determined to go for something I had never had before and a Bolivian Cochabamba fitted the bill nicely. It was a robust tea, less malty than an Assam and reminded me a little of a Ceylon although it did have a flavour all of its own. It complemented the cakes we chose really well - a bran and fruit muffin containing pieces of apple and topped with raspberries, and a fruit cake that was reminiscent of bread pudding.
The cakes were rustic in texture - although we could have chosen something more refined like the very good looking chocolate brownie - and seemed to suit the pared down simplicity of the cafe's interior. Gradually, the place was starting to grow on me.
Second, or even third infusions of the tea leaves were available and as we whiled away the afternoon chatting and sipping at our tea it became clear that the guy who was working there was both knowledgeable, and more importantly, a real enthusiast for the tea they sell. After a couple of pots of our black teas we decided to move on to something else. Miss O chose the Oriental Rose and I decided on something that was completely new to me: the homemade Hojicha. Hojicha, I was informed, is a Japanese tea made by roasting or pan-frying green tea. The process removes a lot of the caffeine from the leaves and once brewed they create a red/brown tea that has a slight caramel flavour. Apparently it's a popular choice in the evening and is also enjoyed by children in its native Japan. I was really impressed: not only had I learned about a whole new type of tea, I had tried it and really enjoyed it. Nothing pleases me so much as discovering there are yet more types of tea out there for me to take pleasure in! Sadly, Miss O was less impressed with her Oriental Rose as she couldn't even taste the roses and was reminded of a rather horrible mango fruit tea. Apparently it's the cafes most popular green tea blend which I suspect says more about the general lack of popularity of green tea here in the UK than anything else.
There is no doubt that Bou Tea is not aesthetically my favourite kind of tea room: the bare boards, kooky murals and plain decor actually say cool coffee bar to me. But over the course of our visit I started to really like the place and that was largely down to the fact that they had such a great member of staff behind the counter. I heard him advising customers of which tea to try, and reminding people they could have multiple infusions of their leaves. I've written before how bad service can really put you off a place, and now I see the opposite can also be true. Given that I was starting from a negative position in my view of the cafe, the enthusiastic tea guy really did well to win me over. Although it may not be a place I'll plan to hunker down and spend a cozy afternoon with friends, it's certainly somewhere I'd happily visit for an unusual and well-made cuppa when I'm out and about. So if you're ever in Covent Garden and want to steer clear of the tourist traps and chains I'd suggest making a Bou Tea call. (Sorry, I nearly made it to the end - but I just couldn't resist).