By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
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Coffee usually does the trick. But some days it takes a shot of Formosan Gunpowder to get a person going. Since last November it's been possible to supply oneself even more easily than buying an AK-47 by visiting Lea's -- which is a tea shop, not a gun shop. The gunpowder (actually a tightly rolled large tea leaf that acquired its provocative name because it "explodes" open when it hits hot water) is what provides the kick in Lea's classic Moroccan Mint blend; the slightly smoky green tea combined with peppermint into a brew that was clean-tasting, delicate, uplifting, and extraordinarily thirst-quenching.
If fall's dog days don't put you in the mood for one of the shop's dozens of hot teas, though, don't fret. Iced passion fruit tea, a blend of the naturally sweet/sour fruit essence and black tea, was even more refreshing. It was also, frankly, somewhat more pleasant to drink, due to more thorough straining. All Lea's custom blend teas are loose leaf, not bags -- which is good for flavor, but kind of messy. Almost a teaspoon of leaves was left in the bottom of my cup, since the hot tea was made and served in a French press coffee pot rather than a tea pot, for some mysterious reason. I tried to read the tea leaves to figure out why, but they just kept spelling, "Go check out the pastry case."
Great idea. Though the atmospherically old-fashioned little shop, which is located on the second floor of the Bal Harbour Shops, sells all manner of tea paraphernalia (as well as packaged versions of its blends), it's actually a full service café/bakery serving three squares daily -- and the place's French owners do some mean baked goods. At breakfast, a puffy pain au chocolat may not have been quite as buttery as those from Brioche Doree in mid-Beach, but the deep chocolate filling was superior to any I've had in Miami. It went beautifully with oeufs cocotte ($7.95), eggs poached in a ramekin with cream.
For lunch and dinner, there are sandwiches, meal-size salads like an authentic salade niçoise, and a few daily specials. Trio of salmon ($14.95) was disappointing. A scoop of salmon terrine was grainy and tasted too much of pickled red pepper; salmon tartare was more of a ceviche, the diced raw fish chunks "cooked" from sitting around too long in its vinaigrette (and none too fresh-tasting); and house-cured smoked Norwegian salmon, while nicely smokey, could have used some sort of lemony cream sauce to counter its intensity and dryness. Soups ($5.95), however, were outstanding, on one visit a saffron-rich fish soup with toasts and an assertive rouille (red pepper mayo), on another a smooth curried carrot/ginger soup whose spices were subtly balanced so that nothing overwhelmed. The latter went beautifully with Lea's excellent bread, an assortment featuring slices of baguette, cranberry peasant bread, and an equally crunchy-crusted nut bread.
And desserts were dynamite. It is almost impossible to find even a mediocre Paris-Brest (a toasted almond-covered circle of pâte à choux, filled with pastry cream and praline; the pastry was invented to commemorate France's first bicycle race in 1891), or Religieuse (a large cream puff "body" topped with a small cream puff "head" that, draped in coffee or chocolate icing, resembles a nun), but Lea's versions of both ($4.25) were the delectable real thing. And while $1.50 may seem steep for a pistachio buttercream filled mini-macaroon barely bigger than a quarter, it was worth every cent -- and a lot cheaper than a ticket to Paris.