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Boston's tea party

On the anniversary of that other tea party, local sippers enjoy a variety of tea traditions

‘‘I think tea is a great civilizing moment of the day,’’ says Deborah Hughes, co-owner of Upstairs on the Square in Cambridge, which last month added afternoon tea to its roster of meals. ‘‘It’s a nice respite.’’ The afternoon tea at Upstairs on the Square is a pleasing mix of style and whimsy. On a recent rainy afternoon, we sat in the Zebra room, named for the rug pattern, which is offset by bright pink walls; the white-trimmed windows framed a small park in the center of Harvard Square. Like many restaurants around town, Upstairs gets its loose-leaf teas from Mark Mooradian of MEM Tea Imports, and options include a full-bodied organic black Nepal and a delicate jasmine pearl. We sampled the tea-and-cakes option called Zebra Tea ($22), which includes a sleek silver pot of fresh-brewed tea and a triple-tiered platter with more than a dozen different goodies.

The tea experience here, it turns out, is as much about the food as the beverage. The food platter’s three tiers are progressive: Savories at the top include a mini quiche and steak tartar on brioche, while the second tier includes both sweet and savory, such as smoked salmon salad on a cream puff and a buttery scone. The bottom tier holds sweets, such as a peppermint brownie, madeleines, and an éclair. For someone who likes lots of little samplings of flavors, this tea is a bonanza. If you don’t want to splurge on the whole tea, you can order tea by the pot ($5), with smaller bites, both savory, such as cheesy gruyere and parmesan profiteroles ($8), or fabulous cupcakes, such as chocolate with maple buttercream frosting ($4).

Upstairs on the Square, 91 Winthrop St., Cambridge. !617-864-1933. Afternoon tea offered Tues-Sat 3-5 p.m. www.upstairsonthesquare.com

The Boston Park Plaza lobby is home to Swans Café. The cafe’s afternoon tea ($21.50-$25.50, depending the food items you choose) is all about the tea itself — the tea you drink, and the tea that’s used in preparation of many of the dishes, thanks to resident tea sommelier Cindy Gold.

‘‘Fine teas are like fine wine,’’ Gold says. ‘‘It takes a great deal of passion and knowledge and care to produce them.’’

If you make advance arrangements, tea at the plaza comes with an optional free tea tasting, led by Gold, who will explain the source of each tea, how it’s harvested, and a bit of its history.

On a sunny brisk day, the café is a calm space, as Gold brings out Wedgwood teapots filled with various teas, perfectly brewed. We start with a light green Lu’An Melon Seed, and move on to some of the signature blends Gold has created. Popular offerings include Visions of Sugar Plums, made with Sri Lankan black tea, plum, pear, and cinnamon, and Swans Café Afternoon blend, a mix of Assam, Ceylon, green, and jasmine. The blends are also available to go and are $12.50 for a 4 ounce package.

As for the meal, you can begin with a selection of tea drinks, such as jasmine tea-infused white port ($9). The food is served as three courses, starting with a homemade scone studded with tea-soaked dried cranberries. Next comes a double-tiered platter with a few pastries and a quartet of sandwiches, including shrimp salad made with lychee tea, and chicken poached in lapsang souchong. The final course is crème brûlée made with Earl Grey.

Swans Cafe Boston Park Plaza, 64 Arlington St., Boston. !617-457-2357. Tea service available daily from 3-5 p.m. www.bostonparkplaza.com

Jennie Song and Namwon Kang, a Korean couple, opened Dado Tea in 2002, an expression of the various teas they’d sampled while traveling through Asia. Each location offers a different feel; the Harvard Square shop has the bustle of the square about it, while the original shop, between Harvard and Central squares, is more of a neighborhood joint. Tea at Dado can be experienced both on the go and at a leisurely pace. All orders are made at the counter, which also serves as a pastry display case. The food at Dado is the breakfast and lunch variety, including sandwiches and salads ($5.25-$7.95).

The leisurely pace is the more enjoyable experience. The Nirvana Tea is a tea-and-snacks combo that includes a pot of tea, tea sandwiches, and a dessert platter ($9.95). On a recent visit, I order Eight Treasure Tea ($3.50/pot), a combination of Chinese green tea plus various fruits and herbs (including jujube and chrysanthemum) and crystals of rock sugar. A lacquered wooden tray is laden with tea accoutrement, including a thermos of hot water, a tiny ceramic tea pot that’s filled with the colorful tea, and a tinier bowl-like cup.

This is tea to be savored slowly. Herbal teas are a specialty here. The fiery ginger tea, made with fresh ginger, honey, and a touch of sugar ($3/pot), is also available as a to-go concentrate ($13.95).

Dado’s bubble teas ($3.50-$4) are particularly good. For the uninitiated, the ‘‘bubbles’’ are pea-sized pearls of black tapioca, slightly chewy, which you slurp through an oversized straw. Dado offers bubble tea hot or cold. Notable are the homemade Indian chai, Thai tea, and Cof-Tea, an intriguing blend for someone who likes tea but doesn’t want to leave the coffee behind.

Dado Tea 955 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, 617-497-9061. !50 Church St., Cambridge, 617-547-0950. Open daily; hours vary. www.dadotea.com

Tea at the Kaji Aso Studio, located in an unassuming brownstone near Symphony Hall, is a different experience entirely. This is not a restaurant, and there are no display cases of food or even tables and menus. What Kaji Aso Studio offers is a Japanese tea ceremony ($30 per person), offered every Sunday and limited to six participants. The ceremony is more about taking time to think, relax, and share a moment in time than it is about sustenance. Not surprisingly, it developed in Zen Buddhist monasteries.

On a chilly Sunday, Kate Finnegan, administrator for the studio and head tea apprentice, introduces the participants to one another. The tea house is in the basement of the house next door to the studio, and we approach it through the studio’s backyard, which contains a picturesque Japanese garden complete with a wooden bridge and a small stream filled with bright orange fish. The tea house was built in 1987; the tea ceremony has been offered since the studio opened in 1973, when it was established by Kaji Aso, the studio’s executive director.

The ceremony has two parts: a light tea with a light sweet, followed by a break, then a heavier tea with a heavier Japanese pastry. The tea, which is prepared first by Aso, then by Finnegan, is a heady, powdered green tea mixed ritualistically in museum-quality ceramics, including a 1,200-year-old Chinese bowl. Tea came to Japan from China, as did Zen Buddhism, so the use of the Chinese bowl is a symbolic tie to tea’s roots. (We’re asked to remove our rings to avoid scratching the bowl’s glaze.)

We sip tea from shared bowls, drinking one at a time, wiping the edge of the bowl as part of the ritual. The room is calm, but not somber. After we sip, Aso answers questions and makes jokes. Just before we leave, he recites a haiku by Buson, a concluding thought to the day:

Life is short

Autumn evening is shorter than life

Yet there is a moment of luxury.

Kaji Aso Studio 40 St. Stephen St., Boston. 617-247-1719. !Japanese tea ceremony offered Sundays 2-4 p.m. Reservations necessary. www.kajiasostudio.com

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