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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, October 10, 2003

Japanese fusion Japanese fusion (October 10, 2003)

Q-Cup mixes flavors and cultures into New Age teas and crÍpes.

by Anthony Silk

M odern Japan is a study in contradiction. On the one hand are traditions dating back thousands of years, such as serving fresh hot green tea to patrons seated on tatami mats in rooms separated by rice paper walls. On the other hand is the land of Sony and Honda, where modern conveniences abound and American franchises are everywhere.

Japan is a mixture of these two cultures: a place where you can find teriyaki burgers and seaweed-flavored French fries at McDonald's and tuna fish and corn on its list of toppings at Dominos.

Q-Cup, the newest tea chain to hit Palo Alto, is an example of this fusion. Located at the western end of University Avenue, the Palo Alto store is the sixth franchise in the Bay Area, with similar locales between San Jose and San Mateo. Although it has been open for more than two months, there remains just a plastic banner above the door announcing its presence.

The store is barely wide enough to hold the counter and about a half-dozen tables. But it makes for a cozy atmosphere and is reminiscent of the small storefronts in downtown Tokyo.

Although the first thing that greets you are the two crÍpe grills behind a tall glass partition, Q-Cup is mostly about tea. And not the green tea of yesteryear. This is 21st-century tea: Bold.

Like the bright yellow and orange signs that highlight the wall, along with the 42-inch plasma television mounted high behind the counter, Q-Cup is here to wake you up and serve you something different. (On one visit the television was showing the world domino championship -- I don't even know what channel I would need to subscribe to get that.)

Teas make up about two-thirds of the menu located on the wall behind the cash registers, which literally take cash only. There are several dozen tea varieties, listed by name and assigned a number. A separate, corresponding menu repeats the list in Japanese.

There are four ways you can order a tea: plain flavored, with milk, hot, or blended with ice to make an "icy." All are about $2.50 for a cup.

As a former engineer, I'm not sure which I found more fascinating: the interesting flavors -- including strawberry, honeydew, grass jelly and mung bean (which, according to The SproutPeople Website, are the most commonly eaten sprouts in the world) -- or the way each cup of tea is served. After filling a plastic cup with the tea, milk and any extras, the cup is placed in a small machine that automatically seals a plastic "freshness-preserving" lid. It takes quite a bit of effort -- and a large straw -- to break through this seal, but until you do, nothing is getting in or out.

Tapioca pearls can be added to any drink for 50 cents. The pearls are made mostly from tapioca starch, processed from the bitter cassava plant (sometimes called the yucca plant), which has been shaped into small spheres. I tried them with a strawberry milk tea and found they added an interesting chewy texture, but provided no real flavor to the otherwise weak-tasting concoction. What it needed was more strawberry or a more acidic tea base.

I enjoyed a regular passion fruit tea much more. It had all the elements of a good black tea: strong, yet enhanced with subtle oak flavors and balanced by the sweetness of the fruit.

When selecting a meal that complements tea, flavored or otherwise, my first thought would be a rice, or other hearty starch-based dish. At Q-Cup, the foundation of choice is the basic French crÍpe.

Although both savory and sweet crÍpes are served, there is only one batter -- a slightly sweet, but very tasty version that is made fresh to order on the grills. Each of the half-dozen crÍpes I tried were perfectly prepared: paper thin, golden brown and just chewy enough to prevent any filling from bursting out. The best part was that most of the tables were no more than 10 or 15 feet from the open grills, allowing the aromas of the batter hitting the hot surface to spread throughout the room. You could practically taste these delightful pancakes as they were being made.

Of the savory crÍpes, my favorite were the Q-Strips ($5.50), made with a chicken breast that had been batter-dipped, deep-fried, diced and served in a crÍpe. The dish was folded like a box and then topped with cold corn kernels. Like good potato chips, the chicken was a little greasy and slightly salty, but infused with enough oil and pepper to make you want to eat the entire meal nonstop.

The Hawaiian ($5), filled with ham, cheese, pineapple and lettuce, and the grilled chicken ($5) were nearly as good as the Q-Strips. In both cases it was the sharp flavor of the melted, shredded cheese that turned an average slice of deli ham and a somewhat bland piece of grilled chicken into something special.

As a main course, a single crÍpe may not be filling, so you could start with one of the "snacks," all $3. These include a box of the fried chicken, spicy squid and cuttlefish balls. The squid was made up of fried diced pieces covered with pepper and a Cajon seasoning. The result: a flavorful but overly chewy dish. The cuttlefish were ground and mixed with starch to make nine perfectly round, identical spheres of a thick, white, spongy substance. These were served on skewers.

I cannot admit to liking either of the seafood snacks, but they were both so counter-cultural to what I've eaten all my life, they may just be tastes I have yet to acquire. But I fully acquired a taste for the desserts at Q-Cup.

The banana crÍpe ($5) is the same basic crÍpe, spread with Nutella, piled high with sliced bananas, drizzled with caramel, topped with a scoop of French vanilla ice cream, wrapped up like a waffle cone and then served with a huge dollop of whipped cream. It's a sugary sweet, sticky mouthful whose shape makes it awkward to share, so you'll get to eat it all yourself.

The Full House ($5) tries to top this by adding strawberries and kiwi to the mix, but uses too little of all three fruits to have an impact.

Service is friendly, but business-like, and all conducted from behind the counter. Diners are served on Styrofoam plates and use plastic utensils.

Because of its limited list of entrÈe items, Q-Cup doesn't look like it will become a regular lunch spot. But for a cup of tea with a twist, or a filling dessert, you'll be hard-pressed to pass up this New-Aged Japanese restaurant. If nothing else you'll experience a fusion of flavors you won't soon forget.

Q-Cup, 220B University Ave. (near Emerson Street), Palo Alto; (650) 853-8182.

Hours: Sun. - Thu.: 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.; Fri. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 2 a.m.

Atmosphere: Bright, clean and very modern.

Highlights: Q-Strips crepe ($5), banana crÍpe ($5).

Price Range: Drinks: $2.50 - $4, crÍpes: $4 - $6.
Reservations: No Credit Cards: No Lot Parking: No Alcohol: No Takeout: Yes Highchairs: No Wheelchair access: Yes Banquet: No Catering: No Outdoor seating: No Noise level: Avg. Bathrooms: Avg.


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