Drinking It In

Sweet, Savory and Social Blend at Serenity Tearoom

By April Bartel | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 01.12.16 – Dining, Food & Drink

It seems so simple: put a few leaves into hot water and wait. No biggie. Millions of cups of tea are brewed every day, second only to water in worldwide consumption. But something magical happens in that cup. The dried bits of aromatic plants relax and unfurl, releasing complex flavors and powerful nutrition.

The history of tea starts with Shen Nung, Chinese emperor and renowned herbalist. He’s credited with discovering tea in 2737 BC, according to the UK Tea & Infusions Association. Legend goes that a few camellia sinensis (tea plant) leaves fell into water a servant was boiling. The emperor tasted the liquid and was impressed with the flavor. The drink invigorated him and he shared his discovery. Japan and India have their own origin stories. However it happened, man fell in love with the tea bush and spread its use across continents, bringing commerce and culture as its companions. Steeped in nearly 5,000 years of tradition, this humble shrub shaped empires by its trade.

Blanch Henry’s association with tea started in 1965, before she took her first breath. “I was born for this,” she says without a note of exaggeration. She credits her grandmother, Maybell, as inspiration for a lifelong passion for tea and all things tea-related, especially fine china teacups. Before knowing if “the baby” was a boy or a girl, Maybell ordered a full tea set for eight to commemorate the birth. As a little girl in Florence, S.C., Henry grew up adoring its beauty and reveling in the special occasions worthy of using her treasured gift.

“I knew I loved tea and cooking and taking care of family and friends,” she says. A year-long study with a women’s ministry group helped unearth a God-given purpose for serving others. Catering afternoon teas was an outlet that blended her experience and passion. She started Serenity Teas LLC in Frederick in September 2005. “Working as an accountant gave me a good business foundation.” The business moved from East Patrick Street to a 75-seat location at the intersection of Bentz and West Patrick streets last year.

Now called Serenity Tearoom & Fine Dining, the place is painted lively purple outside with a sunny yellow interior. Henry wants guests to feel joyful, full of warmth and comfort. Her eyes crinkle into a smile as she says, coming to tea is “like getting a massage, only you relax from the inside out.” She must be doing something right. Despite the extended economic slump, Serenity Tearoom blossomed. “Even during recession, people still come to tea and bring their friends” as a way to de-stress and focus on something enjoyable.

Guests walk into the open dining room where a retail nook is stocked with decorative teapots, cups, specialty brewers and other accessories. Behind the “bar” (there is no alcohol here) is a glistening wall of professional-grade tea caddies; each embossed container is double-sealed to protect the contents’ delicate flavor for up to a year, but they don’t stay in stock for that long. Henry is a stickler for quality. Since earning her first tea industry certificate at the prestigious Take Me 2 Tea Expo in Las Vegas, she’s completed training with Harney & Sons Master Tea Blenders, as well as maintaining ServSafe Manager Certification through the National Restaurant Association. She works with select high-end distributors and master tea blenders to supply Serenity’s more than 70 flavor options. “I can’t bear to take any off the menu. I like them all.” She chuckles. “My daughter tells me that I have to stop because there is no more space on the menu.”

Room for Family

Serenity is a family affair. Henry’s husband, Ronnie, is co-owner. Her daughter Tiera Sumblin is the pastry chef and son-in-law Brandon serves as executive chef. The Sumblins are graduates of Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts in Charlotte, N.C. The family collaborates on specials and new menu items, showcasing Southern-style cooking with modern, elegant flair. Most things are made onsite from scratch, including Henry’s signature scones and peach cobbler. “We are all foodies,” Henry says, pledging that every recipe must pass her taste test to earn a spot on the table. A recent trip back to South Carolina inspired their fried spare rib special.

This season’s menu jumps from roasted beets with quinoa to charred kale salads, while classic pimento cheese gets slathered on a beefy burger with fried green tomatoes, chipotle ranch and a fried egg on brioche. Cajun stuffed hushpuppies enfold shrimp, crawfish and corn in Creole sauce. And the quintessentially Southern shrimp-and-grits dish is revved up with Andouille sausage, charred peppers and smoked tomato Creole butter. Henry envisions the expanded evening fare as an alternative to upscale D.C. supper clubs, complete with soft jazz in the background and live music on weekends.

Amid Serenity’s new offerings, traditional English-style afternoon tea service is still the heart of their repertoire. Guests pay a set price (ranging from $28 to $41) for a selection of mini sandwiches and savories, fresh scones with clotted cream, chocolate-covered strawberries, tarts and other pastries, along with endless pots of tea. They routinely host office parties, sorority teas and bridal showers, noting that guys get bonus points on savoir faire taking their sweetie to tea for a date. Feb. 13 is Serenity’s next “take your teacup home” event, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Modern etiquette is more relaxed, too. Pinkies up or down doesn’t matter. Dress up if it makes you happy. Add milk, lemon or sugar as your heart desires. Just don’t clink the delicate china or slurp your cup too loudly. Above all, enjoy and rediscover the magic in a simple cup of tea.