On a Friday afternoon in April, Mandarin Oriental’s tea lounge feels miles above the chaos of the Strip. A couple sits in opulent club chairs sipping champagne and taking in the view from the 23rd floor. A group of four women, with shopping bags at the feet, murmur in their native language as they pour tea for one another. A dozen women frosted in pastel suits and flirty dresses are ushered to the next room for an elegant bridal shower. Meanwhile, tea-lounge supervisor Ann Hwang readies her bamboo tray. She’s about to perform the Gong Fu Cha service, the Chinese tea ceremony.
Soon after taking over the tea lounge in December, Hwang brought the ceremony to the Mandarin Oriental, an intricate to-do that costs $15 per person. She thinks of it as a way to share both her own culture and that of the Hong Kong-based hotel company.
Born in Las Vegas to Taiwanese parents, Hwang grew up drinking tea out of the same kind of Yixing tea set she now uses in the Mandarin Oriental’s ceremony. “When friends or family would come over, my mother would pull one of our tea pots out and my sister and I would listen to the conversation,” she says. “Drinking tea with our elders was a way to take in their wisdom and experience.”
Her parents wanted to ensure their daughters didn’t lose touch with that culture and their Mandarin language, so when Hwang was 7, she and her sister were sent to live with an aunt in Taiwan for three years. “Everywhere we went in Taiwan, you saw how important tea was to the culture,” she said. “So when [my manager] asked me to enhance our tea lounge service, the first thing I thought of was the Chinese tea ceremony.”
The ceremony itself is not so much elaborate as it is precise. Gong Fu Cha literally means “making tea with efforts,” and Hwang also calls it “old-man tea” informally. It’s performed over a bamboo box with slats on the top so the tea overflowing from the tiny cups can fall through to a tray underneath. The purple clay used for the unglazed Yixing pots comes from an area outside Shanghai.
“Since the clay is so porous, over time, it absorbs the oils of the teas. Eventually you won’t need to add tea to the pot to enjoy a cup,” Hwang explains. “This is also why we use only one type of tea in a pot.” In the tea lounge, Hwang selects Imperial Spring Dragonwell, a smooth, flat-leafed green tea with a nutty finish.
She begins by warming the pots with water heated to 185 degrees; boiling water results in bitter tea. She empties the water from one small pot to a second pot with a strainer and then over the cups. Before brewing, she passes the tea in its original tin for guests to examine the leaves and smell the aroma. “This step is called ‘appreciating excellent tea.’ Appreciation for the tea and for the people you are sharing tea with is what this ceremony is about,” Hwang says.
Using an elegant wooden scoop, she adds the tea to the first pot in a step called “the dragon entering the palace.” She adds the hot water and steeps the tea just 30 seconds before she pours it through the pot with the strainer and then overflowing into the cups. “You do not drink the first brew,” she clarifies. “We just use this to season the cups.”
Repeating the process, she slowly pours a small amount of tea into the cups at little at a time and continues around the circle of cups until each is filled. “We do this so each person experiences the same blend of tea from the top of the pot to the bottom,” she says. “This is also why we request at least three guests for the ceremony—it’s hard to pour in a circle with just two cups.”
The cups are presented to each guest on the tray and are to be picked up and held in the left hand, using the right hand to guide the cup to the mouth. At the Mandarin Oriental, the brewing process is repeated two more times with the original scoop of tea in the pot. “At home, the ceremony can go on for hours—depending on how well you’re enjoying your company.” In the tea lounge, she adds, it’s a good way for locals to enjoy the opulence and views of the Mandarin Oriental.
But if the green leaves used in the Gong Fu Cha service aren’t quite your cup of tea, the Mandarin Oriental tea lounge offers a extensive selection of tea experiences. The full English afternoon tea ($36 per person) offers savory sandwiches (smoked salmon was a mini work of art), fresh scones with luscious Devonshire cream and tangy jams and an assortment of tiny tarts and chocolates. With a day’s notice, the kitchen will prepare vegan and gluten-free treats.
Of course, if it’s a little hair of the dog you need, add a glass of champagne to your high tea for $20 more or try a tea cocktail. The Tea-tini ($16) marries Bulleit bourbon with chilled jasmine pearl tea, apple juice and agave nectar. It’s teatime, sure, but let’s not forget that this is Las Vegas.
A short walk from the Mandarin, the Cosmopolitan’s April artist in residence, Mai Ueda, showcases her final two experimental tea ceremonies April 27-28 in the P3 Studio. Past ceremonies have included a tea ceremony on the moon, in a parallel universe and a panda theme. RSVP at Facebook.com/thecosmopolitan.