BURLINGTON, Vt. -- If you've never associated the Czech Republic with tea connoisseurship, plan a trip to Burlington. The Prague-based tea importer Dobra Cajovna has chosen the Lake Champlain community, which is known for its cappuccino culture, as the site of its first North American teahouse, the 21st in a growing chain. Since opening in late November, Dobra Tea has become the only place in town where you can meditate over Darjeeling without an espresso machine screeching in the background.
Nor are there scones, cakes, or cookies. You walk into a dimly-lighted ambience with an Asian-European aesthetic. ''Dobra" in Czech means ''good," and once you've sipped a cup of Gong Fu from Taiwan, Salada will never taste the same. If Starbucks revolutionized coffee, Dobra Tea opens new dimensions of tea, steeping 60 flavors from 10 nations and serving them as they would be in their country of origin. From Nepal, for instance, you can get Ilati, a richly-flavored black infusion in square ceramic cups. Rize has a slightly bitter taste, like cognac without the alcohol, and comes in glasses, the way the Turks drink it. You add a little sugar. Tung Ting from Taiwan is a subtle-tasting green, like chamomile but milder, sipped from tiny, shallow cups.
What makes it a connoisseur experience is that each is freshly brewed at a precise temperature for a specific duration. The menu is a travel diary written by the company's three Czech owners, Ales Jurina, Jan Rak, and Jiri Simsa, and by Alain Larocque, a Quebec entrepreneur who teamed up with them last year. While in China stalking the world's oldest tea tree near the Burmese border, for instance, Jurina and Simsa were detained by the police. The authorities were suspicious of foreigners, but when they perceived the tree as a source of pride, the tables turned. The police chief invited them home for dinner. The next day, he mounted an honorary escort to the tree, leading them through snake-infested jungles.
Visiting Dobra Tea leaves you with a similar sense of cultural discovery. You walk into a realm of Tibetan rugs and lounge on exotic pillows or rattan chairs. The server brings you a menu and a brass bell, which you ring when you're ready to order. Prices range from $3.25 to $6 per teapot, serving two to four people. Light meals of couscous, hummus and pita, dried fruits, and crystallized ginger range from $5-$7. Tea is also available for purchase, at $2 to $10 per ounce.