Think of a typical English tearoom and you probably think of floral china teapots, gilt-edged, triple-tiered cake stands and tablecloths draped over tightly packed tables-for-two. The new Comins Tea House, in Bath, is nothing of the sort. The pared-down décor here is light and airy with white walls, clean lines and simple blonde wood.
Maps of tea estates, beautifully illustrated with tea-based inks, hang on one wall and a long banquette beneath them is peppered with tables inset with little gutters (to tip your dregs into before you start a second cup), the bench below carved with circular dimples designed to hold flasks of hot water and save space on the tables.
The concept is clearly a labour of love for owners Rob and Michelle Comins. Rob, formerly a primary school teacher and property developer, and Michelle, previously in marketing for a pharmaceutical company, had their lightbulb moment on a holiday in India. Michelle had always been passionate about tea but Rob hadn’t drunk it until he was 29, put off for life (so he thought) by early sips of stewed teabag tea.
On that fateful trip to India, however, they happened to visit a tea estate and Michelle’s interest took a serious turn. Even Rob became hooked, the delicate black tea he tasted in Darjeeling miles away from the stewed cuppas he’d tried as a teen. On subsequent travels, Michelle started scheduling visits to tea plantations into their plans and gradually an idea was hatched; they would import tea from the estates they visited and see if they could make a business selling it online in the UK.
“We bought the smallest amounts we could at first, thinking that if the website failed, the worst that would happen was that we’d be left with kilos of delicious tea to drink ourselves over the next 10 years,” says Rob.
Of course, the stockpile in the Comins’ house never materialised. They started the website in 2011 and the business was successful enough for Michelle to leave her job. In 2013, the couple opened a tea house in their hometown, Dorset’s Sturminster Newton. Three years later and with many of Sturminster’s citizens having made the transition from “white with two sugars” to cups of pale amber Dong Ding (yes, that really is a tea) and nutty green Houjicha, the Comins have just opened their second branch, in Bath.
As with their first café, the latest Comins Tea House shows great attention to detail, from the lampshades that hang above the main counter (they’re made from stencilled tea sacks salvaged from Makaibari, the first tea estate the couple visited) to the tea bowls each brew is served in (delicate porcelain cups, they’re custom-made by potter Rachel Dormor).
Sustenance-wise the focus at Comins Tea House is equally contemporary, and carefully curated. The menu of teas, and accompanying food, have all been chosen for their quality and suitability (you won’t find catering company carrot cake here, or industrial packs of teabags).
All the food is either made from scratch on site, or by a network of local makers, and tea appears prominently as a cooking ingredient (matcha ice cream, Assam tea bread, Darjeeling-laced caramel shortbread). In the future there are plans to offer tea-based cocktails, too.
But the focus, of course, is on teas. Sit at one of Comins Tea House’s tables and one of the first things you notice is a quiet little chirrup of alarms going off around you as different customer’s infusions are ready; depending on which tea you order you might have a little clay teapot or a lidded bowl to infuse it in but every tea comes with a recommended brewing time – and little timers to help you get it right.
That might sound complicated but it’s actually very simple. There are no herbal teas, no blended teas, no flavoured teas, just a list of 30 or so single estate teas ranging in price from £2.50 to £8 per pot. The leaves can be steeped several times so it’s good value.
It’s also a revelation. There are few instances when something makes you look at an everyday staple in a new light but this is one of them. Teas here are as different from your everyday cuppa as a cold-brew coffee is from a cup of Nescafé. Which is exactly what Comins Tea House is trying to demonstrate. Rob cites Colonna & Small’s, Bath’s most geeky independent coffee house, as an inspiration for what they’d like to offer tea-lovers and it’s a good comparison.
There are even plans to provide trainspotter-style tick cards so that regulars can mark up – and make notes against – the teas they’ve tried. Once you’ve had a tea here, you understand why. Even green tea is nothing like the bitter, soupy, sludge you might have tried elsewhere. Instead it is delicate and light, a mesmerizingly pale shade of green. For a nation of tea drinkers, it’s time we started being a bit more choosy about our cuppas, and Comins is a great place to start.
The food is equally impressive. We went at lunchtime and tried a mix of dishes – pork gyoza with ginger, cabbage and spring onion were a lesson in how to do dumplings – plump and fresh with soy and sriracha to dip into – while a coronation chicken tartine, served on a wooden board with a little side salad of minty cucumber and tomato, was lighter than it sounds, with chopped spinach in the mix and deliciously thin-sliced seeded bread.
At around a fiver each, they were just the right size. The full menu wasn’t up and running when we visited but should be by the time you read this; look out for set lunch menus including tea, gyoza and matcha ice cream or tea, momo and mango kulfi, and breakfasts of Sri Lankan hoppers (pegged to be a huge food trend this year) or matcha granola with blueberries.
Afternoon tea is also likely to be big here and, in the interests of a thorough review we selflessly ate our way through some of the sweeter items, including the Darjeeling-infused caramel shortbread and matcha ice cream. The shortbread was a hit, the right mix of crunch and goo with just the tiniest hint of citrus. The matcha ice cream was also good, deliciously smooth and rich if a little hard (it wasn’t on sale when we visited as Rob was still working on the recipe but he’ll no doubt have it cracked by now).
But one of the standout menu choices was the simplest – Hokkaido milk bread with cinnamon butter. The bread was lovely. Made to order by a Japanese baker in Dorset, it was gently toasted and crunchy on the outside but mallow-soft inside, and the cinnamon butter was so treacly it was like spooning honey.
The combination reminded us of that local must-try, the Bath bun. The last one we’d eaten had been served with a little pot of cinnamon butter. But, like many things on the menu here, Comins’ version was more contemporary, and just that little bit better.
Comins Tea House
34 Monmouth Street
Written by Rhiannon Batten, March 2016
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