- Henry James
This month’s Dine & Dish, hosted by The Delicious Life, is themed “Amazing Graze.” “Almost every cuisine has a version of small plates. Tapas. Dim sum. Meze. Izakaya,” articulates Sarah in her description of the theme. Nibbling suddenly sounds so exotic! But my Valentine’s Day excursion to Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon revealed that the art of nibbling was ultimately perfected at (drumroll…) English tea time.
Lady Mendl’s, at 56 Irving Place (Irving and 17th), is behind an antique oak door in a restored 1834 townhouse. There’s no sign—just a small placard with a tea cup; I passed it three times even though I was looking (and had also actually been there before). Inside is a parlor filled with roses, candles, and etiquette books, which you can peruse while you wait for the prescribed hour, usually 2- or 5-o’clock (we attended the later service); tables are set by reservation only. Jeremy arrived in full formal regalia and bearing a bouquet of vanilla-scented organic white roses; he found me in a satin dress browsing through a pamphlet about posture. We were seated upstairs in a room with a big Victorian fireplace, and we had it almost entirely to ourselves (there was one other couple in the room, and no other tables were set up), which was a romantic surprise. Mozart was playing when we first arrived, but it quickly gave way to crooning jazz and, later, a piano rendition of the “Peanuts” theme song.
(Note: this is my third or fourth visit to Landy Mendl’s, and at no point have I ever seen any other men there, besides Jeremy. I don’t understand why! The food and tea are marvelous, and compared to places like Alice’s Tea Cup, it isn’t that girly an experience. I was sure that for Valentine’s Day the place would be jammed!)
We were promptly presented with a mixed green salad gently moistened with a mild, peppery vinaigrette. The halved cherry tomatoes were some of the most flavorful ones I’ve ever had (particularly notable, as tomatoes are not in season). Then we each selected a tea from an elegant list of English teas, black teas, herbal teas, green teas, and oolongs. I chose Imperial Red, which is a chocolaty, earthy, black tea blend; Jeremy had an oolong (called Dragon-something). They both arrived in mismatched China pots and were frequently refreshed throughout; there was a dish of crystallized ginger on the table, and each saucer contained an ornamental sugar cube. We also each had a glass of champagne.
The etiquette book I consulted while in the parlor explained that High Tea (or “meal tea,” as opposed to afternoon tea, which is just tea and a snack) is supposed to have five nibble-sized courses: salad, sandwiches, scones, dessert, and biscuits/cookies. Lady Mendl’s, of course, followed the rules of etiquette (dare I say it?) to a…
The sandwiches were amazing. There were four kinds:
1. Turkey on white bread – the meat was minced and mixed with a tad of light mayonnaise and chopped cranberries. Delicious!
2. Smoked salmon, open-face, with dill cream cheese on pumpernickel (Jeremy’s favorite);
3. Sun-dried tomato and goat cheese on wheat (totally good but the heaviest and least interesting of the four);
4. My favorite, white-bread cucumber sandwiches with minted crème fraiche. OH they were good.
These were all, of course, tiny, crustless, and very fresh.
We were served three kinds of scones: sweet, buttery original ones; cranberry raisin; and cinnamon oat raisin. They arrived with little pots of raspberry jam and clotted cream. The scones weren’t outstanding, but they were definitely adequate and it’s always fun to smear clotted cream on things.
We had eaten too much food already by the time the fourth course arrived—mercifully, dessert. Due to its divine excellence, however, we both managed to clean our plates! Dessert was a crepe cake—a stack of some twenty crepes with vanilla cream in between. READ: I have to learn to make this. Does anyone know if there is a trick to the recipe? …I don’t even have a crepe maker…It was delectable. Fresh mixed berries on the side made it even more so. Divine.
And then, just when we had lost count of courses and were expecting the bill to arrive, we were transported to the Shire from Lord of the Rings and were brought Second Dessert! “Do I look like a hobbit to you?!” I screamed at the waiter. No, no, I didn’t. But how was I supposed to eat more? I had grazed myself silly.
I did eat the chocolate-covered strawberry and do not regret it. But the cookies I had to sneak into my purse for later. (That, I did do).
my dress fit a lot more snugly by the time the bill arrived. We paid what I felt was a fair sum for five extravagant courses – thirty-five dollars each (plus a little extra for the champagne). Then we stood, brushed the scone-crumbs off our laps, made sure the cookies were properly concealed in my purse, and lumbered home for an evening of romantic cuddling, movie watching (we saw “The Chorus”), and digestion.
Happy Valentine's Day!