"How about Teaspace?" she proposes.
Good call. Open for over a year now, Teaspace has quickly become the brightest spot in the depressingly tired Little Five Points dining scene. Located in a small alley off Euclid Avenue (check out some impressive graffiti pieces in the vacant lot beyond the restaurant's entrance), this 30-seat spot is the type of cafe rarely seen in Atlanta, but is the kind of place that seems to show up on every other street corner in many cities on the West Coast. It is as much a hangout for eclectic locals to sip on tea and sake as it is an eatery for hungry folks to sup on Asian-inspired, predominately vegetarian cuisine.
The whimsical, original space, designed by co-owner Landon Scott Brown, is a sight for sore, chain concept-jaded eyes. Light blonde woods built into the bar and walls set a serene tone. A laughing Buddha tabletop waterfall and little pots of lucky bamboo reinforce the Far Eastern motif. Music originating from a hidden DJ booth in the back is happily more World Beat edge than soft-glow Enya.
The menu has a distinct Japanese simplicity: This isn't the kind of food that'll rock your taste buds, but many of the dishes are well conceived, and you'll leave feeling sated instead of overstuffed. I'm pleased to find the edamame ($2.75) is steamed warm and generously salted, since many places around town serve it inexplicably cold and gluey.
Other starters include basil rolls ($4.50) stuffed with carrots, tofu and sprouts, and served with a kicky peanut sauce, and a warming miso soup ($2.25) that hits the spot when you're under the weather. The wakame seaweed salad ($4.50), paired with white agar-agar (a dried seaweed that incidentally is used in Asian cuisine as a thickener akin to gelatin) and dressed with sesame oil, brings to mind my long-gone days as an austere vegan.
Entrees mainly consist of vegetarian stir-fries and noodle bowls. My favorite among these is the Jungle Coconut Curry ($7.50), an aromatic, Thai-inspired number featuring Asian greens, mushrooms and tomato in curried coconut milk. As with most of the entrees, you get a choice of black rice, jasmine rice or rice noodles. I'm partial to the black rice, and I add shrimp for an additional $1.50.
I'm also partial to the Tofu Treasure Balls ($6.50), a name that must be an homage to the goofy monikers typically given to such dishes in Chinese restaurants. Tofu is the blandest edible substance on the planet, but when deep-fried in tempura batter, doused in chili sauce and served over more of that tasty black rice, as it is here, it rises to the occasion.
The Sichuan stir-fry ($7.50) requires tinkering. Vegetables are tossed in a sweet and spicy peanut sauce that needs less sweet, more spicy. I'm glad to report, however, that the stir-fry's rice noodles, which were cooked into a glutinous mass when the restaurant first opened, have greatly improved.
Obviously, tea is a priority here, and the selection offers an impressive breadth rarely found in this city. I'll take a fragrant, sensual Oolong over a cup of joe any day, but I have to confess: I'm not much for trendy bubble tea ($3), in which Teaspace does a brisk business.
For those of you who have yet to discover this strange concoction, bubble tea is a sweet, frothy brew that comes in a spectrum of fruity flavors. The bubbles in question are black, chewy globules of tapioca that bring to mind a lava lamp as they float on the bottom of your glass. You suck the bubbles up through a wide straw. I OD'd on candy like Red Hots and Swedish Fish when I was an ill-monitored latchkey kid, so it's been many a moon since I've hankered for anything sweet and gummy in my mouth.
Having said that, I did try several kinds of bubble tea at Teaspace, and found that the taro root option has an interestingly dusky, almost buttery taste. The sour green apple variation tastes like Jolly Ranchers, and is a good choice if you're yearning for a re-envisioned taste of your childhood.
If you wish to burst the bubble, there are many superb options available from the extensive tea list ($2.15/$3.25 for premium varieties). Faves include a heady, citrusy Verveine herbal tea, and a mint/green blend that's both mellow and invigorating. Matcha, described as being used in traditional tea ceremonies, sure 'nuff reminds me of my days sitting meditation at the Minnesota Zen Center in Minneapolis.
As Denise and I linger over an Oolong tea infused with ginseng, I glance around Teaspace's seductively cozy dining room and consider making this my new hangout. I could lug my laptop in here and write restaurant reviews while peacefully sipping tea, I dreamily think to myself. Then we reluctantly trudge out into the year-end's brisk weather, and I head home to down some NyQuil and call it a day.