A peerless new tea bar in London’s Chinatown

Connoisseurs of the leaf will find myriad reasons to be happy at this venue, says Alice Lascelles

Image: Chris Burke

What to drink when you’re not drinking? In The Goblet’s case, the answer is: tea. Not builder’s, you understand (although PG Tips definitely has its part to play in keeping this show on the road), but proper, fragrant oolong; musky green tea; delicate silver needle; and earthy puerh. Because there is nothing in the teetotal world that comes close to the complexity and variety of the humble tea leaf. 

At XU, the newest offshoot of Taiwanese sensation BAO, they do fine tea in style. Set among the gaudy canteens of Chinatown, this tiny two-floor restaurant is easy to miss from the street. And inside, the atmosphere feels strictly on the lowdown, too, with soft lighting, deco-style booths and whirring ceiling fans straight out of a 1920s Chinese gangster movie. There’s no mistaking XU’s focus, though, thanks to the gleaming wooden “tea kiosk” that dominates the ground floor. Here, behind a counter equipped with an array of bamboo tools, silver pots and fine porcelain, white-jacketed staff turn traditional tea preparation into theatre.  

Taiwanese oolong is sometimes referred to as “the champagne” of oolongs. And XU’s delightful tea master Alice Lin has gone to great lengths to source six of the best, from the creamy, floral Ming Yue Baozhong from Pingling to a 10-year-old, coal-baked oolong that’s smoky-sweet, with a touch of char. “This last one comes from the Taiwanese tea house where [BAO co-founder] Erchen Chang’s grandfather actually used to go,” says Lin with pride. Needless to say, you won’t find any of these teas anywhere else in the UK. 

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Served in the proper manner with tiny china cups and a big flask of hot water on the side – so that one can enjoy several contrasting infusions, from a single pot – these teas are the palate-cleansing counterpart to a menu full of indulgent morsels: pork dumplings, fiery prawns, sweet crab and lotus crisps dusted with peanut and chilli, like some kind of highly evolved Dorito. 

And XU does cold-brew teas, too, that come to the table in an Instagrammable cuboid bottle with little ice-charged glasses, and a sparkling infusion that’s served, aperitif-style, in a flute.

If you are drinking, XU also offers tea and whisky pairings – a favourite match in east Asia – featuring the fruity single malts of Taiwan’s award-winning distillery Kavalan. And its tea-spiked martini is excellent – so good, in fact, that I was back within a week for another, this time with my husband in tow.

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Lin tells me there are plans to do afternoon tea with a selection of dim sum and little pastries. And they hope to sell some of their rare oolongs in the future, too. My morning cuppa’s days might be numbered…

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