Part of what I like most about Afternoon Tea is that no decisions are necessary—unless you’re stuck between Oolong and Darjeeling. Tea is a formal affair. You sit down at a handsomely-set table and don’t have to cope with a menu. The ambience is as important as the edibles.
As Tea devotees, we have experienced Afternoon Tea often in England, sometimes in Ireland and once (don't ask) in France. Tea is an event as well as a meal. Every tea room has its own character and we checked out three of New York City's more distinctive.
King’s Carriage House is an offbeat Upper East Side restaurant that turns into a tea room in midafternoon. The site really was a carriage house and the king is the founder Liz King who runs it (with her Dublin-born husband Paul Farrell) as an Irish country house, with all the eccentricity that entails.
Tea is served in two ground-level rooms looking out at a garden and entered through a wrought iron gate that was installed for protection but functions as décor. (Upstairs opens for an overflow crowd). The rooms feature furniture and accessories forage during regular trips to the Emerald Isle. The walls are covered with willowware plates and fox-hunting scenes and also a few deer heads plus some pairs of antlers alone. On tables and shelves are midget topiaries that Liz King grows and nurtures.
At the stair landing a giant pair of ceramic riding boots serves as the vase for a giant bunch of fresh flowers. The bar in the comfy sitting room is half of the famous bar from Luchow’s, a downtown German restaurant fondly remembered by old New Yorkers.
Irish tea is a robust and rambunctious relative to English tea. The Carriage House tea comes in a teapot that might be a square little porcelain house or a round evocation of Windsor Castle or Henry VIII with some wives standing by. We sit at a round table and await the main feature.
The Carriage House three-tier tea tray offers, instead of delicate English cucumber sandwiches, cukes sliced thick enough to crunch on brioche brushed with chive butter. The open-face egg salad and cookie-cut smoked salmon and other non-establishment varieties, such as mango cream, were delectible.
The second-level scones, warm and currant-dotted, came with plenty of freshly-whipped cream and raspberry jam.
The bottom level carried the sweets. The lemon-pie squares were actually lemon-y enough. The chocolate cupcake was small but 3Dd power-packed –dense, damp and dark as good choco cakes should be. A tiny pistachio cake wore a butter-cream topping with a plume of a candied pistachio nut. A miniature cream pie was topped with a tall black raspberry.
Tim, the waist-coated waiter, brought more hot water as the tide in our tea pots ebbed. He was in no hurry for us to go and neither were we.
At the Plaza Athene Hotel, midtown in the East ‘Sixties, our tea was served in the Bar Seine, an alcove off the hotel’s elegant restaurant. Despite its French title, the room had an air of the Raj, where I sunk into the soft leather banquette, propped up by ample cushions. The tea selection (from the Paris-based Palais des Thes) was also ample—black, green, Japanese, Chinese, white peach, watermelon, rooibos des vahines, in addition to plain old English Breakfast and Earl Grey. The teapot came with loose leaves and a no-fuss strainer. My husband chose Chinese green “with notes of citrus, rose, almond and spices.” I had English Breakfast.
The finger-sandwiches appeared on a large individual bone China plate. The slivered cucumber sandwich was open-face and spread with pesto cream cheese. There were smoked salmon with chives and tiny tomato halves on crème fraiche, Lobster salad crustini, roast beef with horseradish cream and a wee tartlet filled with egg salad puree and topped with real shaved truffle.
In this case the tiered tray followed the sandwiches. On top were the warm scones with clotted cream from Devonshire and individual jars of honey and fruit preserves.
The middle tier presented truffles (chocolate squares in this case) that made me wish I’d gone easier on the clotted cream. There were coconut macaroons and pecan tarts, lemon pistachio biscotti and star-shaped pungently gingery ginger cookies. The bottom tier featured chocolate-dipped strawberries and other sweets.
In the pause before the scones, I studied the décor. The leather floor, Venetian plaster walls, dark polished wood seemed more British empire than Paris river. At the entry, a pastel portrait of an elegant beauty welcomes the tea-seeker. (Is she a symbol of the goddess Athena, namesake of the hotel? Everybody asks but nobody knows). A bamboo-framed Thai picture on faux-grass-cloth contributes to the mood, while a framed coil of rope behind the bar almost sings the "Song of India" (though it’s also of unknown origin).
Lady Mendl's is downtown, near Gramercy Park. It is part of the 12-room hotel, The Inn at Irving Place, which consists of two historic brownstone houses brought together in 1917. Afternoon tea is served in a two-room salon on the first floor, where the guests enter a quirky version of Victorian England The ceilings are high, the chandeliers massive and wrought-iron floor lamps stand around with large circular tasseled shades like Victorian ladies' hats. A little bar to one side is lined up with china teapots, waiting to serve. A papier-mache zebra head overlooks the bar and on the counter sits a Bacchan figure with legs splayed over a beer barrel. A black marble fireplace was burning snappily on a mild December day. The tables are set with fine china and willowware, not a plate or cup matching. Every sugar bowl is different, too and the chairs don't match either.
This may have been a decor policy of the famous interior decorator, Elsie de Wolfe, who married Lord Mendl. In fact, Lady Mendl deplored Victorian and wanted everything to be white. However, she did live on Irving Place before she became European. Lady Mendl practiced yoga and in her eighties was celebrated for doing headstands and cartwheels at Bohemian parties.
My husband sat on a pretty bench with a lot of cushions, watching the diverse clientele. Tea was interesting, too. We each got a cup of our choice, poured from an old-fashioned tea kettle. Six varieties were offered: two conventional, two decaf and two quite eccentric. My husband chose the eccentric, of course--first Berry Green, a Chinese tea with strawberry pieces among other things. Later he ordered Lychee Red, because he has to try everything. I started with English Breakfast and switched to Earl Grey. The teabags in the pots were steeped to precise timing. When we wanted more, we just whistled (not really). On the table was a plate of candied ginger which our waist-coated waiter suggested we drop in our tea cups instead of sugar. I don’t take sugar but I put some ginger in anyway and it was pretty good.
Lady Mendl’s is a five-course tea beginning (in winter) with a bowl of butternut squash soup topped with creme fraiche and roasted sunflower seeds. (Very good soup; other seasons have other starters, doubtless just as special). Our tea sandwiches were pretty special, too. The thin-sliced cucumber was on Boursin cheese, a worthy combination. My husband was partial to the tender roast beef with watercress and a home-made horse radish sauce. The smoked salmon came with wasabi-flavored caviar, tiny orange beads of tobiko (the roe of flying fish from California). The cream cheese and cherry preserves on toasted brown bread was not bad, either. There were six well-filled, epicurean and tasty finger sandwiches, and it was hard not to gobble them all up. However, there was more to come.
The lone scone was big and oven-fresh, more cakelike than others I had engaged with. I managed to separate mine into three layers, the more to cover with clotted cream and two fruit preserves (strawberry and blueberry) that came in chunky cut-glass or leaded glass dishes. I changed to Earl Grey tea and sipped very slowly in preparation for two more courses.
Next came the gateau de crepe, countless layers of phyllo (strudel dough) smeared with vanilla cream. Six months' worth of cholesterol, I feared, though it was hard not to eat it up. My husband managed to consume all the petits fours, shortbread cookies, gingerbread, coconut macaroons and chocolate-dipped strawberries, et. al. that were the last course.
Hint to the reader: If you’re in London or New York with an early concert or theater show coming up—a hearty High Tea can take the place of dinner. A tea-taker nervy enough to eat everything offered, especially when the sandwiches are passed around on trays, can chow down and step right out for the night. (You probably knew that already).
King’s Carriage House 251 E. 82nd St. $24.50
Arabelle at Plaza Athenee 37 E. 64th St. $45, $55 with Champagne
Lady Mendl’s 56 Irving Pl. $59
Photos: Courtesy of Arabelle at Plaza Athenee, King's Carriage House and Lady Mendl's