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.
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