T Café is trying to overcome an identity crisis. Located in the prime hub of the Annex student ghetto, T Cafe offers an international assortment of teas, a changing tapas menu, baked goods and pub grub.
Owner Marnie Goldlust's concept is seemingly simple. "I want to become a leader in the tea revolution and in transforming traditional tea houses into bright and fashionable urban teashops... by specializing in premium full leaf tea and creating unique culinary experiences inspired by and infused with tea," she explains.
From their wide assortment of international teas we try their Chai Latte ($4.35), London Fog ($4.35) and a pot of White Orchard ($4.50). Arriving piping hot in an ornamental Asian teapot, my white tea is fragrant and light, complete with refills. The tea lattes both arrive almost lukewarm, but are nonetheless aromatic and flavourful.
Haunted by Dooney's past glory days at this location, and the anti-Starbucks uproar still etched on the sidewalk of the entryway, it seems that T Café is taking cautious strides.
It has a refreshing concept of tea-inspired cuisine, which stands a part from other tea cafés that do little more than replicate the same coffee chain model. However, rather than staying true to their original concept, T Cafe continues to branch out aimlessly, hoping that something will stick. Their disorientation translates into their confusing menu of anything from samosas, to tapas, to sandwiches, to meats off the grill.
Warm sweet potato chips are thin and crispy, sprinkled with coarse sea salt and crushed pepper ($4.50). The accompanying wasabi mayo is creamy, with a pleasant scent of green tea. These pub-worthy crisps are best paired with their range of seasonal bottled micro beers from Quebec and Ontario.
Bite-sized rosti ($6), small morsels of shredded potatoes with crumbled loose- leaf green tea, are crunchy and topped with fresh, house-cured salmon. The delicate balance of fish and spud is overshadowed by strong goat cheese, which would be better substituted for a milder fresh cheese or sour cream.
Baby lamb shanks encrusted in crushed Chunmee green tea and rosemary with a tea-honey mustard sauce for dipping ($9.95) is imaginative, but the lamb is overdone and arrives an unappealing greyish tint, albeit still tender.
The duck wrap is arguably the most disappointing of the lot ($6.99). Packaged applewood smoked duck, bagged greens and roasted red bell pepper, pressed in a generic whole wheat tortilla leaves much to be desired.
A slab of BBQ Back Ribs ($8.75) drenched in an Assam black tea barbecue sauce seems a bit too substantial to be considered a "tapa," but the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and the sweet, sticky sauce leaves an aromatic tea aftertaste, which lingers long after fingers are licked clean.
T Café is at heart, a great idea. With aims to elevate tea beyond a mug full of hot water, they try to incorporate into just about anything edible. It's just the lack of a clear direction that's slowing them down, perpetually caught in limbo, somewhere between restaurant and café serving muffin tops (yes, muffin tops).
Looking around the dim dining room, it's clear that T Café's fate is being swayed by its patrons. Seats are occupied by students and young professionals with their laptops, shuffling music on iPhones, while gingerly hugging bowls of tea lattes. We are one of the few tables here for a sit-down dinner and it's difficult to catch the eye of the lone server/counter person/cashier/barista in between courses.
Without resolving their split personality, T Café is just going to be another stamp of mediocrity in an area that is already past its prime; when it really has all the potential to become "the holistic experience" it set out to be.
Photos by Claudia Lama