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The Health Issue

High Tea

A white variety such as Noble Flower is said to be a health elixir. And it makes a mean martini.

July 29, 2007|David Lansing | Freelance writer David Lansing writes about wine and spirits for The Times.

Call this the Eloise part of the story. You remember Eloise--the precocious imp who lived in New York's Plaza Hotel and often ordered room service when she couldn't sleep.

Like Eloise, Gail Baral was a bit of an insomniac as a child. With no access to room service, she did the next best thing: She summoned her mum and requested a bit of toast and a cup of tea. Together the two night owls would sit in a room lighted by the silver-blue glow of the TV, sipping Lipton's and watching Johnny Carson until little Gail would nod off in her mother's lap.

Flash forward 40 years. Gail has abandoned one coast for the other and now owns Algabar, an upscale gift shop on La Brea that specializes in tea. But she's moved on from Lipton's. Instead, many of her teas come from the celebrated Paris tea salon Mariage Freres. Ask her what's good and she might bring out a little glass jar of The a l'Opera, a green tea flavored with fruits and spices, or a secret blend of black tea with Tibetan and Chinese fruits and flowers called Marco Polo.

But what really gets Gail excited are white teas such as Noble Flower. "They're so delicate," she gushes, pouring out a bit of the air-dried, silver-flecked leaves and tiny white peony buds. I take a sniff. "Doesn't that smell wonderful? And it's not processed in any way," she says. And then she goes on and on about how good white tea is for you. Even better than green. Lower in caffeine, higher in antioxidants, including some said to protect the skin from UV damage. And studies suggest it's higher than other teas in things that reduce the risk of strokes, heart attacks and cancer. Plus, she says, it has antiviral and antibacterial properties. Still, I'm not a big tea guy. So I thank her for her time, but before I can leave she says, a bit mischievously, "You have to try some. I've made something special."

And then, as if on cue, her business partner, Robb Wain, comes out from the back of the store carrying a tray with--wait for it--three very large, very frosty martinis.

In addition to moving well beyond simple orange pekoe, Baral has decided that tea isn't just for breakfast anymore. Now it's for cocktails. And mixed not with milk and sugar but with vodka.

"The first thing that hits you is the black cardamom," Wain says, pointing out the spicy dark shavings floating on top of my drink. I take a healthy sip. Wain smiles, knowing he's got me interested. "White tea is like vodka. It's a pure palette. You can flavor it with anything you want. So I thought, 'Why not make cocktails from the two?' "

Wain and Baral call the drink White Mischief, after the kinky 1988 film starring Greta Scacchi because, as she says, "It's a bit decadent"--in a civilized way.

But how is one to reconcile turning something good for us, like white tea, into something not so good for us, like a martini? She ponders this for a moment. "You shouldn't drink martinis if you're looking for the healthful benefits of tea," she says, quite soberly, before her face brightens. "Then again, if you're going to have a cocktail, why not make it with really good ingredients--like organic white tea?"

Something, I'm certain, a grown-up Eloise would endorse.


Algabar, 342 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 954-9720,


White Mischief

from Algabar

Makes 2 5-ounce martinis

1 tablespoon Noble Flower white tea leaves*

1 1/2 ounces plum juice

1 1/2 ounces chilled premium vodka

1 1/2 teaspoons walnut syrup (from jar of preserved walnuts)

Pinch shaved black cardamom

2 thin slices preserved walnut*

Heat 1 cup of water in a saucepan over medium heat until small bubbles form on the bottom. Remove the pan from the heat and add the tea leaves. Allow the tea to steep 4 to 5 minutes before straining. In a cocktail shaker filled with ice cubes, combine 41/2 ounces of the prepared tea, plum juice, vodka and walnut syrup. Shake vigorously. Strain the cocktail into two glasses and garnish each with shaved black cardamom and one slice of preserved walnut.

*Noble Flower tea and Harvest Song preserved walnuts are available at Algabar.


For the Emperor's Beloved martini recipe, go to

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