Monday, May 16, 2011

Tea and Clarity

Sometimes, you need a little clarity…and, a little tradition, ceremony and ritual.

Rosemary is my de-cluttering guru. She runs a de-cluttering business called From Clutter2Clarity. That means she helps me clean out when stuff overwhelms, and on occasion, she’ll police things to see how I’m getting along. It’s a full service business. She thinks I have too many cookbooks, but then she’s not a food person and doesn’t understand the compulsion. Certain stuff isn’t really clutter if you like it. In that case, it’s called “a collection” and that’s OK.

We like to treat ourselves to a special quintessential New York City Saturday afternoon each spring. This year’s treat is a five course afternoon tea at Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon at 56 Irving Place in New York City. The neighborhood has an Edith Warton Gilded Age quality with lovely brownstones and tree lined streets.

Lady Mendl’s is tucked inside the Inn at Irving Place. Step inside and you’ve entered another era. Lady Mendl was an American actress known as Elsie de Wolfe, who enjoyed the occasional scandal but married a diplomat and lived in high society. She knew how to make an entrance, and would arrive at a fancy dress party doing handsprings. Her life story is enough to make Agatha Christie’s tea-drinking Miss Marple’s pulse race with excitement.

Lady Mendl was also a decorator and was rumored to have a fondness for covering foot stools in leopard-skin chintz. She and Rosemary would have gotten along well. Today Rosemary is more minimalist, wearing an elegant rose-colored top and sleek black slacks. The air smells of lavender and candles flicker around us. It is a respite from the gray and windy day outside.

I’ve probably never mentioned my long time fascination with afternoon tea, which developed along with an early addiction for Agatha Christie whodunits. In my salad days (all I’ll say is it was the previous century) I visited London and dressed up in a suit and tie one afternoon (haven’t done that in years) and took myself to a proper tea at the renowned Brown’s Hotel on Albermarle Street in the Mayfair district. Brown’s opened in 1837, the year Queen Victoria came to the throne. I still have the check. It was a nostalgic 6.50 pounds sterling.

Lady Mendl’s reminds me of that first tea. We start with a bite-sized savory butternut squash tart appetizer topped with crème fraiche.

We nibble as if aristocracy. Shortly a server dressed in monochromatic gray arrives with a heaping platter of finger sandwiches. There is Smoked Salmon with Dill Cream Cheese on Pumpernickel, Cucumber with Mint Crème Fraiche on Brioche, Classic Egg Salad on rye, and Smoked Turkey and Cranberry on Seven Grain.

We are given two helpings of sandwiches, but at this point, there is a slight snag in the serenity. The server whisks my plate away before I’ve even finished a bite of sandwich, and is preparing to bring a course of scones with clotted cream and preserves. Rosemary asks if we can slow the pace just slightly, and the server informs us in a starchy tone that the tea service is only 90 minutes long, and they are required to keep things briskly moving along. This is a mere 30 minutes after we’ve taken our seats.

We retaliate politely by lingering over our scones, savoring every morsel and each dollop of decadent clotted crème. In between, there is more clarifying tea, enough to submerge ourselves in a sea of clarity.

The dessert course is a grand 20-layer crepe cake layered with pastry cream and drizzled with strawberry sauce. The actual recipe for this cake is a closely guarded secret.

At this point, our sense of clarity is perhaps obscured by a not-unpleasant sugar surge, reinforced with a plate of assorted cookies and chocolate covered strawberries.

As the tea service concludes - right on schedule - we are presented with the bill and are efficiently shooed away. The gratuity is included, the slight irony of which is somewhat lost in the sugar rush.

We prepare to leave the salon doing handsprings. Lady Mendl would have been proud.

©2011 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Fresh Local and Best said...

This looks like a lovely tea salon. I've only done high tea once, unfortunately it was not in England. I'll have to do a real British high tea visit one of these days. Too bad they were so hasty with service, those sandwiches in particular should not have gone to waste.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

When you're next in Boston on a Wednesday (I think that's the day), you must try high tea at the Boston Athaeneum. You'd love it and, as I recall, the service wasn't quite so brisk.

Sam @ My Carolina Kitchen said...

Well excuse me, I want my little sandwiches back. And right this very minute! I find that when the service is rushed, I begin to feel irritable.

I seem to remember someone named Elsa Wolfe who wrote a decorating book a long time ago or had a decorating column in a magazine. Wonder if it is the same person.

alfred p said...

When I was a junior at NHU, I briefly dated a girl named Clarity (although, most days, I found her less than clear--and she was partial to toe rings). Foot jewelry aside, I did like her. Unfortunately, she left me for a senior named Chad. To this day, I am still wondering why guys named Chad are so much better looking than everyone else. Btw, are you sure you actually had salad days?

Janet @ DyingforChocolate said...

Always love a high tea. Haven't been to Mendel's but I've been to Brown's. Also high tea in Victoria, San Francisco and many other places. Wonderful post!

Barbara said...

What a lovely post, TW. I've had tea several times at Browns. It always makes me wish tea was part of our lives here. There are hotels and tea shops I know. But it's not something we are accustomed to enjoy.
I think the only problem is I'd have to skip supper....I can be a real pig at teatime.

Rosemary Flannery at FromClutter2Clarity said...

I certainly love the mention and had a fun afternoon with you. The gin fizz you had afterward was so good I went home and made them for a friend. I shared this post with my clients and followers and everyone who responded really loved reading about our experience.

Mary said...

I never would have dreamed you to be a tea person. So much for my powers of observation :-). We share a love of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and I suspect slower and more simple times. Have a great evening T.W. Blessings...Mary

~~louise~~ said...

Marion is my de-cluttering guru and she knows better when it comes to my "collection."

I do wish you both would have been able to stroll through the pleasantries of high tea, T.W. I'm not sure I would have handled the circumstances so gracefully.

My plan is to take Tabi to High Tea at the Waldorf when she comes to visit. Perhaps I had better to a bit more research first.

Thanks for sharing, T.W.

Velva said...

A co-worker was just talking to me about experiencing high-tea in NYC. I think the place was called "Alice's" Your post reminded me of her experience.

NYC is one of my favorite cities. Every chance I get, I visit. I won't have time, this visit... I am definitely putting enjoying high tea on my list of things to experience.


P.S. I did get reservations toe at at Prune's in NYC. I hope I am not disappointed.

Zany said...

Lady Mendyl's is a lovely place, but agreed they certainly know how to keep you on pace (even when you are there for a baby shower!).

TW, you may be surprised that I also adore a nice afternoon tea. Do I envision a Plaza visit sometime in our future?!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Mary - I can understand why you might be confused. The food truck obsession throws a lot of people off. But I assure you that before food trucks, there was afternoon tea!

Zany - I suppose if there were an afternoon tea truck we might have discovered this common interest sooner. Pencil in the Plaza!

tasteofbeirut said...

I enjoy your writing so much! I loved the description of the waiter and his "starchy tone"; you should write novels or books!!!!! Seriously!!!!!!!
Anyway, love tea time, with cake, and this is a habit I picked up from an Iraqi friend (remember Iraq was a British colony); he always has to have his tea and cake at 4 PM, so when he'd visit in Lebanon we'd oblige. My favorite Agatha Christie's are her romance novels and if you haven't read them, I strongly recommend them. (under the name Westmacott)
My English cousin promised me a real high tea in a fancy tea place in London; I just have to get myself to London.

A Feast for the Eyes said...

Oh, how I love High Tea! I've enjoyed it in London at the Athenaeum Hotel and in San Francisco at several shi-shi hotels (a big financial splurge, but well worth it). That cake is so unique, and I can imagine it was quite lovely. One day, I'm going to see if I can create my own High Tea, for friends. I love the tea service and the finger sandwiches, scones and treats. It's something everyone should experience at least once. I wish we had a place like the one you shared in my hometown. SIGH.

Gloria said...

I love Tea and I love this post with all!! look nice and delicious! gloria

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Joumana - I'd forgotten all about Agatha Christie's romance novels. You're right - she had a whole separate career as a romance writer.