Just a few months ago, the Rose Tea Café in Squirrel Hill was a brightly lit, white-walled box, decorated sparsely but cutely with colorful plastic cats and pastel Hokusai prints. In its simplicity, the Taiwanese café was something of a sore thumb among Murray Avenue's more swank eateries like Pi, Bangkok Balcony, and Aladdin's. Now, following extensive interior renovations and a menu overhaul, the tiny diner looks more at home among its sleek neighbors. In gaining sophistication, however, the Rose Tea Café has all but lost its personality and appeal.
In stark contrast to its old prefabricated décor, the remodeled Café is warmly lit, cozily furnished with blonde wood pieces, and littered with fresh flowers. Crying babies, whirring blenders, and blaring J-pop, however, are more than enough to destroy this pretense of serenity. It's hard to achieve a meditative state — or even enjoy a nice lunch — when you have to yell to be heard by your companions.
Service was slow and erratic; after seating us, our waitress waited nearly ten minutes before taking our order, and our food came from the kitchen in odd intervals. Appetizers arrived after entrees, and once we were served, we were largely neglected — there wasn't so much as a refill of our water — until the check finally arrived. The wait staff also seemed generally unfamiliar with the recently expanded menu, even misidentifying the entrees they brought to the table.
For an appetizer, we were excited to try the ambiguously identified "Toast," which was to come thickly slathered with condensed milk, strawberry preserves, and coconut butter. Bad news came from the kitchen, though; they were out of toast on the day of our visit. Instead, we tried the steamed dumplings and scallion pancakes with egg. Both substitute teasers were tasty, the dumplings served with a ginger-infused soy sauce, and the pancakes laced gently with green onion. The chewiness levels, however, were disconcertingly high for an Americanized palate not used to such al dente texture outside of pasta and Jujyfruit.
The entrées were inoffensive at best: reasonably priced (in the range of $6-10), full of big fresh vegetables, generously portioned, but overwhelmingly bland. The curry chicken over rice — a dish which should ostensibly possess some heat — was a passionlessly underseasoned plate, more decorative than delicious. Similarly, the steaming plate of pan-fried noodles with pork tasted fresh but unusually heavy for Asian cuisine, saturated with heavy, unsavory oils.
Hot and sour soup was a good counterpoint to the meal, as it was neither too spicy nor too sweet as many American iterations can be. For a more adventurous diner, the marinated egg, served on the side of all lunch specials, was another rewarding surprise, with its almost sugary, soy flavor.
The saving grace of the Café is their namesake: tea. Our group sampled the peach green tea, black tea and coffee with milk, and the honeydew melon shake. Served chilled, all were gently sweetened and captured the light, pure, fresh flavors that one expects from a freshly brewed pot. As perhaps the only true highlight of the menu, however, the drink list called attention to itself, making a diner wonder why the Café had ever attempted expansion.
The Rose Tea Café has grown up with all the grace of a little kid on a sitcom; it hit puberty and it's not so cute anymore. It just seems "wrong"; like a Girl Scout wearing Mom's lipstick, or a Little Leaguer in a business suit, the Café seems ridiculously unsuited to its new polished image. Order the tea to go, and leave the lunch behind, because the prematurely expanded Rose Tea Café is too big for its new britches.
Get there by bus: take a 61A, B, or C to Squirrel Hill and get off at Forbes and Murray. Walk down Forbes toward its intersection with Shady, and the Rose Tea Café will be on the right.
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