The Tea Bar in Fort Lee opened under new ownership in September with innovative ideas for how to retain the best parts of the existing business while adding their own unique touches.
Less than a month later, Sandy hit, and the Lee family—Seung and Hyun Lee and their son and daughter Ryan and Kris—were forced to close because of severe damage to the building and the common space of the plaza at 1636 Palisade Ave.
It took nearly three weeks before scaffolding was put up and repair work began because of delays with the landlord, the borough and permit issues, and the family-owned and operated café wasn’t able to re-open until Dec. 1.
Now back in business but with repair work an ongoing process, it could be a while before the exterior of the Tea Bar looks the way the Lee family plans. But inside, they are finally up and running again with a new menu and plans to enhance and expand on what they currently offer.
“It has really interesting Korean food with various types of tea,” said Korean American Association of Fort Lee (KAAFL) vice president Kathy Lee. “It’s more like a café than a restaurant. Unless you come in and taste it, you don’t really know what they have to offer.”
Kris Lee said an entire wall of the building collapsed during the storm, and that her mother, father and brother weren’t able to get into the restaurant for more than a couple of minutes at a time to fully assess the damage.
“It was pretty bad,” she said, adding that aside from having to throw away all of the food items—except for teas—and ingredients, many of which were brought from Korea, there wasn’t a lot of damage to the restaurant’s interior, although the heating system is still being repaired.
The family used the lost month to work on the changes they wanted to implement, not the least of which was making adjustments to the menu. For example, they wanted to offer more Korean dishes “because my Mom is a great Korean cook,” according to Kris Lee.
“So we added about four Korean menu items, and we’ve been experimenting with more—what we want to add; what we want to take out,” she said. “I’m not saying that we didn’t really get frustrated, but at the same time, we just kept working on things. We just took it as a time that we could make changes and prepare for a grand opening.”
Kris and her brother Ryan, who also works at the restaurant, were largely responsible for choosing the new additions to the menu based on dishes their mother used to cook for them when they were kids.
“These are some of our all-time favorites,” Kris Lee said. “It’s like Mom’s secret recipes from the kitchen. We didn’t really change the concept because we loved that we are serving a lot of different teas here; not so many places specialize in teas. But we didn’t want to waste my Mom’s talents either.”
Kris’s and Ryan’s mother, Hyun Lee, does most of the cooking, while their father, Seung Lee, is an “expert in dumplings,” according to their daughter, and is also working on expanding the business to include high-end catering services, something the family has also been experimenting with but plans to scale up.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of Korean businesses here are catered toward Koreans, and there is enough of that; we don’t need any more of that,” said Kathy Lee of KAAFL. “But what I see is that there is no one place that caters to the American customers in the way that they would appreciate it and enjoy it. That’s really needed.”
At the café itself, however, customers can still select from the wide array of teas the Tea Bar was previously known for—all served with an hourglass-like timer that ensures proper steeping time of either three or five minutes, depending on the specific tea.
New dishes the Lee family has added to the “Korean fusion” menu or put their own unique spin on include Bulgogi Bibimbap, marinated beef over mixed rice served with hot pepper sauce; Asian Chicken Salad; homemade dumplings; Sweet Red Bean Soup, a seasonal dessert; and the K-Town Burger, essentially a cheeseburger but with the surprisingly tasty additions of kimchi and a fried egg.
A lot of the ingredients the family uses, particularly dried, well-preserved vegetables essential to many of their dishes, are brought in from Korea, which is something the Lees believe sets their menu apart from those of other restaurants, and Hyun Lee makes her own kimchi, “so it’s really like Mom’s kitchen,” according to her daughter.
“We brought everything here from Korea because we cannot get the same quality here,” Kris Lee said.
The interior of the restaurant hasn’t changed a lot since the family took over the business, but they did make changes to the decorations and artwork and brought in things like authentic Korean pottery and a wooden rack of handmade teacups from Korea.
The Tea Bar also has a live jazz band performing on the third Saturday of each month—the next live jazz performance is Saturday, Dec. 15 from 7:30 p.m. until closing time—which is something else they’re hoping to offer more often. Jazz acts or other musicians are invited to contact The Tea Bar if they’re interested in performing there.