- Tea House
- Location: 1213 First Street SW, Calgary
- Phone: 403-474-7766
- Website: teahouseyyc.com
- Price: $2-$16
- Cuisine: Contemporary Asian/Asian-inspired
- Atmosphere: Funky, low ceilings and appropriately dim
- Drinks on offer: Cocktails, some beer
- Best bets: Kung pao bao, Chongqing wings, salt-and-pepper squid
- Vegetarian friendly? Yes
- Additional information: Only open in the evenings. Offers stand-up comedy on Thursdays and table tennis on Sundays
Before entering the foyer of Two Penny, a descending staircase, red-neon sign and its Chinese dragon head fastened above it call for your attention. Scaling down and turning the corner will leave you in a cavern-like cocktail bar that feels a world away from the more polished dinner you might have had upstairs.
Now, I haven’t found much appeal in hanging out in basements and drinking on a Friday night since my high school days, but the Tea House is a different kind of basement experience. Brought to life by clusters of red and gold paper lanterns strung above the bar, cement – both cool and smooth on the floor and ruggedly exposed on the west walls of the room – and what I promise you are the wildest psychedelic tigers you’ve ever seen plastered on the wall.
This sub-concept of Two Penny offers dramatically different food and drink when compared to its upstairs counterpart and is primarily overseen by co-owner Stephen Phipps. The drinks aficionado made a name for himself years ago as Model Milk’s bar manager and most recently ran the popular rum bar Ricardo’s Hideaway before this part-ownership venture, which is also his first. Mr. Phipps is regarded as one of the most innovative barkeeps in the province and I’m inclined to agree. His creative mind behind the bar makes for success.
The Spirit Cleanser, primarily whisky and vermouth, is about as stiff as they come, yet tamed nicely by maple syrup and burnt soy bitters. It’s not quite spring yet, not in the least, but a few sips of Slurpee 001 made with rosé, gin, lemon and lychee, certainly tastes like a frosé summer day.
Any bartender who can make a show-stopping drink that uses not just tequila, but mezcal as well as rosé and coffee bitters, then brings it all together with a salted rim that’s accented by szechuan peppercorns, is a wizard in my books. The Forty Six & 2 is just that. Do yourself a favour and order it. Further straying from the Asian theme is the Micro Dos. Again with tequila and mezcal as main components, the spicy Mexican liqueur Ancho Verde as well as agave, cucumber, cactus water and a chili-salted rim, come together in a rewarding sip. An ode to the bar’s sister restaurant, Native Tongues Taqueria, no doubt.
Even though the bar clearly boasts a dialled-in cocktail program – and one of the more interesting ones to come along in Calgary in some time – the pretension that one comes to expect of “serious” cocktail bars is not present here. Refreshingly not taking itself too seriously, Tea House plays host to seasoned stand-up comedians every Thursday night as well as table-tennis tournaments on Sundays.
Chef Scott Beaton’s menu downstairs could be summed up as salty and spicy and succinct. It has just had a facelift recently, so some dishes my friends and I enjoyed, such as fried maitake mushrooms with five-spice aioli and insanely addictive oysters baked with a rich black-bean aioli topped with chili crumb and scallions, have been nixed, but a couple of standouts remain, one slightly tweaked.
The chef’s Chongqing wings are clearly a crowd favourite these days and rightfully so as they are the perfect complement to your drink, particularly a cold beer. Mildly numbing, because of crushed sichuan peppercorns, after a few bites as well as sneakily spicy – that subtle, but lingering sort of burn – it’s a glutton-for-punishment sort of situation. The salt-and-pepper squid is classically prepared and also a palatable companion for your drinks.
Winning the bar’s food lineup is the chef’s Kung pao bao, two small steam buns filled with macerated cucumbers, a custom-made and five-spice-heavy bologna by Empire Provisions, monterey jack, cilantro and slathered with mayonnaise. I challenge you to find me a better bologna sandwich (of sorts) than this anywhere in Canada.
The only two mild disappointments during my visits to this underground-chic cocktail bar come by way of an egg yolk steam bun with an impossibly dense exterior and bland flavour and the gigantic Philly cheesesteak egg rolls. The two sizable rolls are so overwhelmed by ladlefuls of cheddar mornay sauce that they become soggy disasters in less than a minute. Fusion gone so painfully wrong.
With no windows and friendly staff circling the room keeping cocktails flowing it’s very easy to lose track of time at the Tea House. Don’t worry, you’re not drunk. It’s just that wild cartoon tiger wallpaper tricking you into thinking you are.
Go on, have another.