When Michael and Lina Samawi decided to open a tea room, they looked at other tea rooms in California and came to one conclusion. Most of the other tearooms had basically the same menu, with a list of finger sandwiches, a salad or two and of course some scones. Michael, who calls himself a culinary Artiste instead of a chef, decided they would take the other fork in the road for their tea room. He dug back into his family’s culinary history to come up with dishes that would complement the teas, and give the guests something different, tasty and unusual. Four years later, that concept has made Coffee, Tea and Tulips in Mission Viejo one of the most unique tea rooms around.
Coffee, Tea and Tulips is designed as a haven for busy women who want a place to sit for a few hours, relax and have a nice breakfast, lunch or high tea. The tables for two accommodate a relaxing intimacy where food can be shared and friendships enjoyed. It is also an excellent choice for parties such as baby and wedding showers, Red Hat club meetings and civic organization teas. Michael feels that his guests should not rush, but instead relax and enjoy the whole tea room experience. As opposed to many tea room which tend to be formal, dress up, traditional places, Coffee Tea and Tulips strives to be affordable and approachable. The experience starts at the front door, where they notice the music, the aromas and the casual, unique tearoom style, all intended to make people feel comfortable. Indeed, Coffee Tea and Tulips is a worldly tea room which blends Middle Eastern foods, tapas and the traditional tea room menu items.
Scones, of course, are a traditional tea room starter. Coffee Tea and Tulip’s scones are as good as they come, not too dense but instead moist and not crumbly, ideal for putting some clotted cream and jam on before every bite. The clotted cream is made in-house and has a delicious flavor. The jam, this day an apricot jam, is a special one imported from Lebanon. Large chunks of fruit in the jam add to the flavor, not a traditional sweet jam but with just enough sweetness to bring out the flavor of the fruit.
After the scones are eaten is where the magic happens. Michael, who calls himself an Artiste rather than a chef, puts creativity and a love of flavors into every item. A dish of sliced egg and tomato is dusted with fresh ground black pepper and red wine vinegar. The topping is exceptional, an olive tapenade with anchovy. The combination of flavors elevates this dish to a masterpiece. This is a perfect example of someone who knows how to combine basic flavor elements to create a complex, layered dish that is simple yet delicious.
Fattoush is Coffee Tea and Tulip’s signature salad. Another homage to Michael’s culinary and family history, it consists of greens, their delicious olive tapenade, cucumbers, red onion, sun-dried tomatoes, a little lemon, extra virgin olive oil, feta cheese, herbs including fresh mint, sumac and cumin. House made pita chips accompany the salad, crispy and lightly seasoned. The contrast of flavors between the feta, the lemon, tapenade and the mint makes for a unique salad with the elusive umami adding to the whole dish. It is both refreshing and assertive and an excellent choice to see what the menu is all about.
Roasted vegetables may sound boring, but in Michael’s hands it becomes something special. A base of roasted, caramelized eggplant is covered with a red bell pepper puree. It is fresh, warm and delicious. The spices that are used give an interesting flavor palette, with just enough heat to add a little zing to the dish. It is a great vegetarian dish, flavorful and healthy. In fact, Coffee Tea and Tulips has listed a majority of their dishes as vegan or vegetarian. Not only does that keep everything light and refreshing but it opens the door for a great experience for people who follow the vegan and vegetarian ways of eating. For convenience, the dishes are marked with a V to make it easy to put together a vegetarian meal. Upon special request, gluten-free dishes are also available. To add to the healthful aspect of the food, nothing is fried on the menu. Everything is light and healthful, but without sacrificing flavor.
The kitchen’s creativity goes in other directions too. The Cordon Bleu ‘sandweech’ starts with a crusty ciabatta roll and adds ham, bacon, mustard, a touch of the olive tapenade and finishes it with gorgonzola and Swiss cheeses. This is a hearty sandwich, again with items like the two cheeses that show a nice contrast against the bacon, ham and grilled chicken. There is a large variety of sandwiches on the menu, called ‘sandweeches’ in a nod to the Middle Eastern influence on them and the pronunciation there. It is also the way they are spelled in Paris. Many of them are inspired by Michael’s time working in San Francisco. Michael is constantly creating new dishes, relying on Lina to critique them before they are added to the menu.
As far as the teas go, Coffee Tea and Tulips serves only high quality, loose leaf teas served by the pot. Traditional teas such as Earl Grey, English Breakfast and Organic darjeeling are available, brewed to the exact right temperature and brewing length. For the adventurous, there are several interesting blends available to try. A black tea, combining Chinese and Ceylonese teas is infused with raspberry leaves to create a tart, delicious tea. A First Grade Jasmine Fancy tea has a subtle taste, perfect for sipping after a meal. Yerba Mate, a tea from Argentina, is more of a classic herb tea, refreshing and with a different, smoother invigorating feel than most teas that have caffeine. Other beverages include tea lattes, coffee espressos, macchiatos and mochas, cocoa and iced coffee drinks.
Michael’s favorite tea, as well as the most popular tea in the tea room, is Midnight in Paris. It is a blend of black tea splashed with natural vanilla and crème de coconut, dashes of ginger pieces, a sprinkling of bright blue cornflowers and red safflowers. Exotic and aromatic, Michael and Lina feel it evokes a romantic evening in Paris.
A tea room is a unique experience in dining. The idea is to relax, enjoy the tea and try some delicious but not too filling food. In fact, a tea room can often be thought of as a refuge from every day life. Coffee, Tea and Tulips gives that experience. Arriving at the front door, the aromas of the food and teas present a welcoming atmosphere. Lina Samawi, co-owner and the face in the front room, greets the guests and helps make them comfortable. Many regular customers come just because of Lina, enjoying the excellent customer service she prides herself on giving to each diner.
Coffee Tea and Tulips has many of the services of a standard tea room including high tea, a Victorian tea, Mother’s Day Tea, afternoon teas and even a Young Princess Tea Party. By honoring the traditional tea, they can still satisfy those who enjoy the formality of a traditional tea room. In the mean time, they are continuing to add to the bistro side of the menu with plenty of breakfast and lunch items. With the Mediterranean touch added to the menu, many unique and delicious dishes can be had in a casual, comfortable setting. Michael’s idea is to blur the distinction between the tearoom and the bistro, a successful way to draw in people who might not go to a regular, traditional tea room and give them the option of enjoying quality tea, coffee and specialty drinks along with some excellent food.
At Coffee Tea and Tulips, the food is a big part of the experience. This is also why Michael feels he has blurred the line between a tea room and a bistro. He feels that his concept of using worldly inspiration creates a unique dining experience. Tapas are featured on the menu as well as a variety of crepes. Although the basis is a tea room, with the variety of soups, salads, sandwiches and other items available, it is a great place for a leisurely lunch. As Michael and Lina say on the menu, the tearoom is a place to relax and enjoy a slow food experience.
Coffee Tea and Tulips
25280 Marguerite Pkwy
Mission Viejo, CA 92692
Please read the companion article,
An interview with Michael Samawi from Coffee Tea and Tulips in Mission Viejo