Globe-trotting Tea and Travel

New York City Tea Ramble

Tea in the City: The perfect guide

Two years ago, at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas I purchased a series of three books by Benjamin Press, called “Tea in the City”. Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson collaborated on guides to Paris and London. They are currently out of print, but usually available on Amazon through sellers.  A New York City guide (also, currently out of print) was written by Elizabeth Knight with photos by Bruce. It was from this latter guide, Tea in the City, New York, that I planned my destinations for a recent weekend trip to the “Empire City”. The guide explores NYC’s varied and abundant tea establishments by neighbourhood. It gives addresses, phone numbers and subway directions.  At a slim 111 pages and a sleek 4.5″ x 8″ format, it would fit nicely into an inside jacket pocket and lived comfortably in my small purse. We were staying in a midtown hotel near Bryant Park, so most of the places I wanted to explore were an easy subway ride or refreshing walk away. We were 3 blocks from the New York Public Library and close to Grand Central Station.

The guide was written in 2006 and the economy being what it is… well, it’s advised that you phone ahead. We were looking forward to visiting The Tea Box at Takashimaya on Fifth Ave., only to discover that it was now a “Forever 21” location. We spoke to the doorman next door and he said “Yeah last year they packed up and went back to Japan”. Disappointing.

The Reading Room at New York Public Library’s Mid Manhattan Branch. Rich wood, coffered ceilings and arched windows

Hospitality at Bergdorf Goodman

On Friday morning we set out on foot to visit the New York Public Library, St Bart’s, Park Ave. and then wandered up 5th Ave.  We were very close to Bergdorf Goodman at 58th St and even though it’s not in the guide, we decided to see what they might offer for lunch. A convivial staffer named John greeted us and enthusiastically recommended 3 cafés: – 7th floor BG restaurant was très chic, designed by Kelly Wearstler with views of Central Park. There was a small café on the lower level and another on the fifth called Bar F5 – just right for us with a simple menu of tasty Asian fusion and a decent tea menu. We passed a pleasantly refreshing hour next to beautifully dressed shoppers and a Hilary Alexander look-alike. The server suggested dividing my salad on 2 plates because we would have a bit of a wait for my husband’s wrap, which as it turned out ended up elegantly packed in a Bergdorf bag when we departed.

F5’s tea menu features teas from Dammann Frères. I ordered Goût Russe, a blend of Chinese black teas with a light hint of citrus oils. I loved the small Fortessa Bone China teapot in which it was served.  I was surprised to find a tea bag in the pot, but when I opened the infused bag it revealed nice big chunks of broken leaf. The 7th floor shop adjacent to BG restaurant sells a good selection of Dammann Frères and Mariage Frères Teas.

Fortessa teapot with Dammann Frères Goût Russe
Open tea bag of Goût Russe with good quality broken leaf

The Ramble

After Bergdorf Goodman we walked north through the sunlit paths of Central Park. The existence of Central Park in a city this size is somewhat of a miracle. It is the backyard to the thousands who live in apartments east and west of the park and an oasis for all New Yorkers. You can spend days rambling along the paths and never see the same thing twice. We walked more than half the length on our way to the Guggenheim Museum.

Looking out at one of the lakes from a high level in Central Park

NEUE Galerie – An Upper East Side Gem

The ramps of the Guggenheim were closed due to installation of a new show so we left in pursuit of a place for tea.  I pulled the guide from my purse. I love that this book goes beyond tea rooms and afternoon tea. It directs you also to antique shops, galleries and museums that either sell teaware or have good tea menus in their cafés. It lead us to The NEUE Galerie just 2 blocks from the Gugg. Housed in Grace Vanderbilt’s former house at 1048 Fifth Ave. and East Eighty-Sixth, this upper east side gem was celebrating its 10th anniversary. The dream project of collectors Serge Sabarsky and Ronald Lauder, NEUE houses a beautiful collection of 20th Century Austrian and European art, furniture and treasures. When we entered, security was very thorough.

Security was tight for this once in a lifetime exhibit of early 20th century Austrian art

It seems that we had stumbled upon a new exhibit of Ronald Lauder’s personal collection that had opened only the day before. We walked the rooms in awed silence. It was almost too much to absorb the significance of the works. We witnessed up close Klimt; Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Schiele, Kandinsky and even a Picasso that had rarely been seen in public.  Most of the attendees were New Yorkers (you could tell).

What an honour to witness up close this famous portrait: Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer 1, 1907
The pamphlet from the exhibit opens to Vasily Kandinsky’s “Composition V”, 1911

The gallery has 2 cafés: Café Fledermaus and Café Sabarsky.  Fledermaus was booked for a private function so we found a spot in Sabarsky. The staff thinks that this space had originally been Grace Vanderbilt’s dining room. The carved panelled walls had curved corners which warmly enveloped us. The windows looked out onto Fifth Ave.

Impeccable service and genuine Viennese fare at Sabarsky Cafe

The café offers Harney and Sons teas. I chose Harney’s Vienna 1900, which is the “house blend” custom packaged for Neue. I’m pretty sure that Harney’s Viennese Earl Grey is the same tea.

NEUE’s ‘house blend’ Vienna 1900 from Harney and Son was available for sale. Our impeccable server on the left

Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner (was in charge at the time, Christopher Engel is now exec. chef), has created a menu with plenty of colourful savouries eg. Creamed Spätzle with wild Mushrooms, Peas, Carrots & Tarragon or Small Wiener Schnitzel (veal) with Potato-Cucumber Salad & Lingonberries. There was a good selection of Austrian wine and beer. Beer was the same price as a pot of tea – $7. Too early for supper and in a mood for sweet, I ordered Erdbeer Hollunder Mousse Torte which is a layered strawberry/elderflower mousse cake. My husband had Pflaumenkuchen or plum cake and Assam tea. The teas were fresh and well-infused. When I looked in the glass teapot I noticed that the leaves had been put in a ‘teasac’ in the infuser because customers had complained that they didn’t like tea leaves escaping into their teacups. Huh? Our server said that he would have been happy to let my leaves float aimlessly around the infuser and into my cup if he had known that I love that sort of thing… now that’s service! The NEUE Galerie, its Café Sabarsky and even its gift shop where we bought some very cool Christmas cards, – was the highlight of a fine day. I will rush back there the next time I’m in New York.

Pflaumenkuchen mit schlag (whipped cream)
Layered strawberry/elderflower mousse cake

Canal Street Quibble

We woke up on Saturday morning to heavy snow and gusts of wind. Oh dear! I’m not sure I’m ready for this, but we are in New York City – we have to get out and see things. I had 2 destinations on my list: Kan Man Asian supermarket on Canal St. and the Rubin Museum, both listed in the guide.  I ventured out in the morning for a short visit to the “trim and finding” shops nearby (we were close to 7th Ave fashion district).

We met back at the hotel, made some lunch and bundled up for the trip downtown. Our umbrellas blew inside out and the snowy slippery sidewalks were treacherous to navigate, but we made it by subway to Kan Man supermarket and their basement tea paradise. We spent a good hour exploring before I zeroed in on the teas I wanted to purchase. A young man in a dark lab coat assisted me by scooping from the large jars with a porcelain bowl. Prices on average ranged from $3 for 4 ounces to $4 for 1 ounce. I bought Tung Ting from Taiwan,  Monkey-picked oolong (Tie Guanyin), a Long Jing (Dragon Well), Superfine Green from China and a Pu-erh stuffed into a bowl-like mandarin orange skin. I have no idea the provenance of these teas. Now that I’m home I’ve tasted them and they are quite good, but I it’s strange not having any reference to region or date of harvest.

Jars of teas that are delicious and inexpensive but with no provenance

When I went to the cashier she over-charged me for several of the teas. When I pointed this out she started yelling Cantonese insults (I’m guessing) in a shrill voice. My husband tried to explain but she was not having it and there was a line forming behind us, so I took everything back down to our tea chap and explained our problem. He kindly accompanied us back up to the cash explaining to the cashier that he had put the wrong code on a few of the bags. I don’t know if he was helping her “save face” or if this was a regular occurrence  – hey it’s Canal Street! Anyway it was exhilarating and we laughed about it all the way to the Rubin Museum.

Fresh and delicious! Clockwise from top left: Monkey-picked TGY, TungTing, superfine Green, LongJing & in the centre the mandarin orange encased Pu-erh

The Rubin Museum

We looked for the subway entrance in the blowing snow, but we were so cold and damp that my arm involuntarily popped out to hail a cab. Competing with many others in this weather we finally attracted a cab, climbed in and headed for the warmth of the Rubin Museum of Art.  RMA, located in Chelsea at 150 W17th St., was originally part of the Barneys department store building. It was acquired in 1998 and after extensive renovations opened in 2004.  It still retains Andree Putman’s steel-and-marble staircase that spirals dramatically through the seven-story gallery tower. Chilled and travel-weary we crumpled into our chairs waiting to warm up. We made friends with the café staff and ordered Darjeeling first flush, two tibetan rice bowls, – mine with tandoori beef and my husband’s with chick pea curry. Both were delicious and satisfying. I was so exhausted that I didn’t want to move and with only an hour before closing we opted to enjoy the art hanging on the café walls rather than to explore the gallery proper. We will be back someday to explore the gallery tower.

Sleek chrome staircase and warm wood of Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea
Curried chick peas on savoury rice with chutney & first flush Darjeeling at the Rubin Museum Cafe

Sunday was bright and sunny. Except for the remaining snow and fallen tree limbs around Central Park, everything seemed a normal late autumn day. In spite of the yellow caution tape blocking the entrances to the park, New Yorkers were jogging and bicycling around the snow and broken tree limbs.  We had a picnic lunch, took a cab for a short visit with relatives and then out to LaGuardia to board the plane back home to Toronto.

After the Saturday’s blizzard, a snowman in Central Park

I’m sure we could have wandered around New York without our guide, Tea in the City, we have managed in the past, but our short visit was enriched with adventures we would not have sought out. The guide became as important to me as my passport and wallet. The other two guides in the series – Paris and London, await. Let’s hope that Benjamin Press has plans to add even more cities to the series!

Going to New York City? Don’t leave home without it!