West Coast Envy
Here in central Canada we envy those who are so lucky as to live on Canada’s west coast, specifically, Vancouver. There is a friendly rivalry between Toronto and Vancouver. They call Toronto “The Big Smoke”. We mockingly refer to Vancouver as “Lotusland” because of the laid back attitude of most of its populace. Whatever daily lethargy the inhabitants might feel is soon dispatched with a cup of ‘joe’ from a coffee shop on the corner, any corner. I lived there several decades ago and the summers were sublime. There were ferry rides back and forth from the Gulf Islands, hikes up Grouse Mountain, swimming at Kitsilano beach. The blue sky provides a backdrop to graceful mountain landscapes. The sunshine kindles a “get outdoors” mentality.
In the winter though, when it rains monotonously, the gloom is hard to shake. It is one of North Americas great cities – no question. The negative constant, of course, is the winter rain – incessant and unrelenting. The debut of a “tea bar” in breezy Kitsilano neighbourhood, might give tea folk in Vancouver a reason to be happier no matter what the season, and make those of us in Central Canada and elsewhere just a little more envious.
I strategically selected my flight home from Seoul to stop over in Vancouver for a few hours so that I would have time to visit O5, a rare tea ‘bar’ that I had been anticipating for months. After making my way through customs, I caught the Skytrain to 2208 W.4th Ave. O5 is an adventure for all 5 senses, hence the name. The O is for Origin – I think it might also stand for “original”.
I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere. It’s a tea laboratory – long tables are inset with steel draining trays, a very cool alternative to the traditional bamboo serving tray. The interior is charcoal and white. Both the walls and the bar table are made of scorched reclaimed wood. The pillow lanterns seem to float like clouds above our heads. When I arrived, the place was bustling, even though it was still morning and they’d only been open for 3 days. Their sign was leaning at the back of the bar waiting to be hung outside. A Matcha grinder sat prominently on the long wooden plank counter and in the hours that I was there it was always in use for both culinary and tea-drinking purposes. The precious green powder swept carefully with a pastry brush to prevent it from being wafted away in green puffs of air.
O5 is the dream of owners Pedro Villalon and Brian Noble. Noble comes from the coffee world (the chain Blenz). Villalon, who grew up in Mexico, has been passionate about tea for many years. While living and working for an international company in China, he was introduced to tea and pursued the study in remote areas of China and Korea. He is the “tea hunter” of the operation. His “prey” is rare tea from small batch artisan farmers in China, Korea and India. He holds court from behind the bar throughout the day and anyone who happens to wander into O5 will be stunned by how much they will learn about the tea that is served.
Tea and Tapas
I was handed the feature on today’s menu – a flute of cold-infused Darjeeling from Margaret’s Hope gardens. (I would have eagerly quaffed one of these in the South China heat that I had endured a few days before). The daily menu is simple and the fare elegant. Tapas are selected to pair well with the teas on offer. Chef Olivia Povarchook presented me a petite taste of salad with Lime Anji Bai Cha Vinaigrette followed by Hibiscus Granité. O5 is not a restaurant, but a tasting bar with delicious morsels served alongside exquisite tea such as Matcha, Sejak (green Korean), Moonlight White, and more. Small deliveries of tea arrive frequently from the few farmers that Villalon has selected for his “cellar”.
The comparison to wine culture is clear. While I was visiting, a delivery of wine casks arrived. When the lids were pried off, I saw leaves from Ghorkha Estate, Nepal, looking completely at home in the wine-caked wood, the aging no doubt enhancing typical ‘muscatel’ flavours in the tea. I’m beginning to appreciate that O5 is a place of daily surprises.
Before heading back out to the airport and my flight home, I strolled down the hill to Kitsilano beach, a few blocks from W 4th Ave. Walking straight to the ocean, I dipped my toes in the Pacific. When I swung around I noticed hundreds of people leaning back on the driftwood logs that line the sand. They were squinting against the last rays of the sun disappearing on the horizon, no doubt registering the memory of the brightness and warmth for future reference in winter when they would only encounter cloud and drizzle. I pity them the dreary winter months that lay ahead, but they can smugly content themselves with the knowledge that many of us in “The Big Smoke” envy those “lotus eaters” who can visit O5 anytime they like, even if they have to crawl through the fog to get there.