Tien Yuan (田園民俗茶館) is a 20-year-old teahouse and restaurant known for drawing politicians, stage entertainers and others from around Taiwan to Taoyuan County.
An attraction could be privacy. The property that houses Tien Yuan is made up of outdoor pavilions and indoor private rooms for parties of four and larger, connected by corridors and bridges with koi teeming beneath. The outdoor pavilions are distributed far apart and irregularly, in keeping with the garden landscape. One pavilion overlooks a small waterfall, another is flush up against a rockery, and there are a few draped with slender tendrils of lotus. Each is a space to contemplate a personal patch of vista in relative anonymity and peace; gambling, alcohol and “generating an uproar” are strictly prohibited.
Noticeably, patrons at Tien Yuan take their time. Waitstaff — a small crew that includes the owner — don’t rush guests out the door, but stop by about every half hour with scalding water for tea. My party arrived in the early afternoon and was there until dusk. In neighboring pavilions, guests who had entered after us were still there when we left, talking quietly under the red lanterns that were blinking along the walkways.
Tea is sold by the tael (兩), about 37.5 grams sealed in a small silver pouch. There are 10 premium varieties to choose from, nine sourced from mountain ranges in the country, like Alishan and Nantou’s Baigu (白姑). The priciest is the Da Yu Ling Oolong (大禹嶺茶, NT$480), a high-mountain tea grown at Taiwan’s highest-altitude plantations.
We ordered, and the server arrived with a drip tray bearing a white porcelain pot, a spoon, a tea towel, tea cups and even three scent cups (聞香杯) mated to the tea cups — this is the real deal — and we served ourselves in a gongfu (功夫) ceremony. The puer (NT$280) tea comes out of its pouch in a tightly pressed round cake. It’s an excellent aged raw puer that tastes mellow and delicately musky; the mouthfeel is thin and cleansing. As in Taiwanese gongfu, the brew is poured into the scent cup, and the tea cup is placed on top. Together, the cups are turned upside and the scent cup is lifted, so that the drinker can enjoy the aroma of the tea essence. Meanwhile, the server brings plates of tea accompaniments: salty buttery crisps made with legumes, on the house; dried pumpkin seeds (NT$80) and crunchy pistachios (NT$80).
Address: 36 Yongxing St, Taoyuan City (桃園市永星街36號)
Telephone: (03) 341-2155
Open: 11am to 11pm
Average meal: NT$400
Details: Chinese photo menu, no credit cards, reservations advised, minimum charge NT$150, 10 percent service charge
In addition to dried goods, Tien Yuan offers savory hot snacks like pig’s blood cake (NT$80) and sheets of dried pork (NT$100). There are lunches and dinners, too — full-course meals that come with a cup of oolong, white rice, a slightly sweet green tea gelatin and fruit. The surf and turf hotpot (NT$450) is a bounty with thick beef slices and a whole, albeit frozen, crab. Despite that, it’s a modest meal with ingredients that don’t improve with the broth, which tasted as though it came from a can.
The cook’s specialty is really the unassuming home-style dishes like the steamed cod fish (NT$390, 清蒸鱈魚), a moist slice topped with ginger and scallions and swimming in a dark sauce. Finished on the thin line between raw and overdone, it chips off in big sweet flakes. The oiled chicken (NT$330) is another household staple that’s often all right but rarely terrible or excellent; this one is covered with a crystalline skin that tastes like a treat and is beautiful to look at.