Monday, May 18, 2009

Tartle Me This, Lady Mendl

Dear Mouse,

"Tartle." Ahaahahaha. See? Still funny.

I am, all in all, very pleased with our Mother's Day this year. I think we chose the perfect venue for a couple of reasons. One was its sheer, shameless, frilly, satisfying Mothers-Dayness. The other is that soon, as you know, I will be the last of us Hart ladies to leave my neighborhood, moving from a building in which all of us used to live to a building .. well, to your building. Hi, neighbor!

I've lived in my 'hood for - lets call it 8 years. Though I walked past it every morning on my way to coffee, I never noticed the quiet, unassuming bronze plaque embossed with a small teacup at the top of one of the brownstone steps. Occasionally I would read about Lady Mendl's, the tea salon in the heart of Gramercy Park on Irving Place, and think, "That sounds nice. It's too bad it's imaginary."

Then wouldn't you know it, I was hanging with the GC and he had to go to pick up a book from a friend of his "who works on Irving Place". We ascended the steps to The Brownstone, opened the door, and stepped into the 18th century. A beautiful parlor. Flowers. Antiques. Soft Music. Lace curtains . A big fireplace and giant mirror. China teapots. Soft conversations. Turns out The Brownstone is an inn, called, appropriately, "The Inn at Irving Place", enclosing the famous tea salon. I booked a Mother's Day reservation right then and there, sending several completely confusing texts to you and Mom in my excitement. I'm just grateful we all wound up there on the right day.

The day itself dawned clear, sunny, cool and perfect, inspiring flowered dress/white strappy sandals attire and bridal shower fantasies. We were seated at a table in the main room and for - 2 hours? some decadent amount of time - we sat and chatted while people called us "madam" and brought us snacks. I think The Mother was pleased.

Ok. The skinny:

As I See It, Reasons to Go to Lady Mendl's:

* the sugar cubes that each have a pink rose piped onto them
* the word "tartle" (see picture above)
* an infusion of period girliness and opportunity to indulge any Jane Austen fantasies
* scones with proper accoutrements:
(clotted cream & berry jam)

* finger sandwiches! L to R: egg salad, smoked salmon, cream cheese/cranberry bread. there was cucumber too of course

* six courses.
* No decisions. Just pick a tea and await whatever snacks they bring you
* the TEA. Seriously. Now, I'm a dedicated coffee drinker and have cared about tea exactly twice in my life: When I was a 16-year old hippie at theatre camp who stashed Red Zinger bags in her overalls, and when I lived in Ireland where coffee is expensive and tea is actually a delicious social ritual. Even when I go to reputed 'tea houses' here I've been pretty underwhelmed by the experience.. the flavors are usually frustratingly thin for my palate and there is no satisfying adrenaline payoff. :-) BUT this was something else. At Lady Mendl's, you get, of course, a menu of teas for each person to choose from. They bring a china pot of each and leave it at the table, filling your cup for you occasionally and keeping it warm (mostly.. the Mom had a complaint on that front). The Mother drank a rose petal/black tea called 'Marbury Rose' that had a deep body and sort of a winey color and character (she didn't love it, I did). Mouse, you ordered a traditional English Breakfast type called "Winey Keemun" (a name which I very maturely repeated for two hours), which wasn't winey at all but "exquisite with milk & sugar", said the menu. I, for some reason, ordered a jasmine green tea called 'Gramercy Pearl'. I don't even usually like green tea! I find it generally kind of bitter and straw-tasting. This was mellow and fragrant and gorgeous; I sat happily in a jasmine cloud until it was time for cocktails. (And you get a serving of each kind of tea leaves to take home! Thumbs up.)

Reasons Not to Go:
Ok, I have to say it:
* The Food.

This is not to say it was bad! Heck no. I enjoy tiny sandwiches, chocolate-dipped strawberries, and the odd tartle as much as the next gal. You can't really mess those up I think. But if pressed - and this is a food blog after all - I'd have to say it's really nothing special. For example, I loooove scones with clotted cream and I certainly devoured these. But, at $60 a person (the Mother's Day rate, it's usually $35 for high tea), I feel those scones should have been hot from the oven. Or at least hot. Also, as to the "extras" which are meant to justify the higher price, I can only assume we're talking about the cocktail (mm), the take-home tea (mm), and the extra sandwich "course" of heart-shaped cream cheese-on-slightly-stale -cranberry bread (hm). As in, the same cranberry bread used in the chicken salad finger sandwiches. I cry foul. The dessert - a 'crepe cake' with vanilla custard drizzled with raspberry sauce - was bland, as was the salad with strawberries and goat cheese (I make a better one, perhaps I'm biased). But then, as I said, I crave strong flavors, and that is NOT what High Tea is all about. A cucumber sandwich is meant to soothe Lady Mendl's nerves, not excite them.

All that said...I'd go again. It's all about the production values. And it really is a delicious way to spend a couple of lazy hours with a special person who needs some Merchant-Ivory-style fete-ing.

The cocktails were pretty (left to right: plain (mom), peach (Boo), and pomegranate-infused (Mouse). First thing I do in my new place? Brew up a serving of Gramercy Pearl.

The Boo

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Age of Asparagus

Dear Boo,

I seem to be the only person in the world (aside from the folks I saw it with), who didn't enjoy the most recent Broadway production of Hair. Praise for this show has even made it into the food blog world. And Ben Brantley went so far as to say, "any theatergoer with a pulse will find it hard to resist." The appeal has apparently been so universal that I began to question my own capacity for empathy, for passion, indeed whether or not there is a heart beating in my chest. I was having a real crisis of conscience, here, I kid you not.

That is, until I walked through the farmer's market the other day and spotted a virtual forest of stalks, neatly bundled and standing at attention, their petaled buds tilting coyly this way and that. My heart leapt! SPRING. ASPARAGUS. HOORAY. Turns out, there is blood running through my veins. Take that, Brantley.

For lunch that day I lightly steamed a bunch of my little green friends in a pan, then uncovered and tossed them with a good splash of balsamic, and a dash of salt, pepper, and olive oil, and let them go for a teensy bit longer until the edges browned and the balsamic went a little syrupy. Then a sprinkling of grated parmesan and onto my plate they went, piled alluringly next to a couple of slices of great cheese and a dollop each of white bean hummus and babaganoush. Sometimes you work with what you got. Damn, was it good.

A few suggestions for your asparagus feasting:

1) Toss a bunch with a few tablespoons of olive oil, some kosher salt and black pepper, and roast at 425 for 10 minutes or until they look crispy and browned but not burned. If you want to go crazy, squeeze some lemon and sprinkle some parm on these when you're done.
2) Serve cooked any which way with scrambled or poached eggs for brunch.
3) Throw in a pot of boiling water until crisp tender, then serve with butter and salt
4) Cook some shells or oriecchiette in a pot of boiling water. When pasta is done, remove and add to water cut up bite sized slices of asparagus. Toss with pasta, add some cheese and serve.
5) Grill em on the barbeque, then wrap with proscuitto for an hors d'oeuvre or on top of salad.
6) Eat it raw in this salad, spotted first here. Then write and tell me how it is.

Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding! This is the dawning of the age of asparagus, Boo! Get some while the gettin's good!


The Mouse

Note from the Boo: And , of course, this recipe from Sarah Leah Chase. Highly, HIGHly recommended.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Beware This Label

Dear Mouse,

I bought these yesterday. How could I not??

Could you resist that label? There they lounged on the Whole Foods shelf, wearing a suggestive, see-through yellow mesh bag. A gorgeous, knobbly mix of, yes, tiny red, yellow, and purple potatoes winked at me from within, suggesting we go somewhere more comfortable. Before you could say "packaging" I was in the kitchen, roasting them with olive oil, herbs and salt (425 for 30 min). It wasn't til way after dinner that I looked closer and realized they were from MICHIGAN. FLOWN here to seduce me, when I have the Union Square Greennmarket selling LOCAL potatoes around the corner. Oh the shame. In my defense, the market wasn't open yesterday. But, apparently, neither were my morals.

The Boo

Monday, May 4, 2009

Dinner for Dessert

Dear Boo,

I know we've talked about this before--the fact that somehow in the past few years, my ferocious sweet tooth has been tamed, nay, conquered, by what is now my ferocious savory-tooth. Which is not to say that sometimes I don't enjoy, or even require a good milkshake. It's just not a frequent occurrence as it once was. These days I find myself finishing a good meal and craving not a square of sticky toffee pudding cake (amazing, by the way), but another serving of that onion ring poised perfectly on top of the strip steak. The Boyfriend has often joked on the way home from a big meal that we should stop for a slice of pizza to round out the evening. We've never done it, of course, but I have to confess that there is a tiny dirty secret part of me that thinks, hmm, that sounds kind of good.

So the other night, the Boyfriend and I had a date. We went out for sushi, then wandered over here to partake in one of my favorite spring/summer activities: drinking whiskey in the open air. (oh and also playing Ms. Pacman which believe it or not I had never done before. I kicked ass.) Then, after realizing we had been chatting and missed the movie we'd planned to see, we decided to head home, stopping on the way for some kind of dessert item (at the Boyfriend's insistence, not mine). We were going to pass Momofuku Milk Bar, of the Boo and Baker's infamous smackdown, and I thought, having never been, why not try it. Now the whole milk bar/momofuku empire kind of irks me, mostly because of the lavish praise heaped left and right on these restaurants as if David Chang is the second coming. Which I know is not fair since I haven't experienced much more than a bowl of broth noodles with pork neck which I liked but which didn't inspire transcendent hallucinations as promised. I guess it's all just part of my aversion to anything that makes annoying 20-something new yorkers in finance line up and shoulder their way in to pay $24 for a few strands of noodles and shout to each other across cramped tables about how everything there is the BEST thing they've EVER seen/tasted/smelled/thought about. Apologies, Mr. Chang. I guess my issue is more with your clientele than anything else. Can I please have a reservation at Ko now?

Moving on. Sure enough, Milk bar was packed, but the line seemed to be moving quickly and by now I was really curious. We planned to steer clear of the flavored milks and get a compost cookie (with pretzels and chips it sounded like the perfect dessert for someone like me). Then I spotted the "snack" section of the menu which listed pork buns. I've been told I made a terrible mistake by not trying these when I went to the noodle bar, so I was intrigued. Let's get the cookie and an order of pork buns, I ventured. Really?! The Boyfriend's eyes lit up. I figured we'd had a relatively light sushi dinner, on the early side, so it wasn't totally nuts to have a little meaty late night snack. Besides, I thought. A mini pork bun couldn't have more calories in it than a slice of cake which might be considered more appropriate for a post-dinner dish. And for that matter, neither does a slice of pizza. So what's so wrong with going savory for dessert? The french have the cheese course. Why can't I have my pork bun dessert?

Turns out I can. And turns out, it was DELICIOUS. Two little steamed buns stuffed with crunchy cucumber, sweet hoisin, and a couple of thick slices of just fatty enough pork belly. I really can't say enough about how good this was. We had a slice of the candy bar pie (they were out of cookies) which was also intensely good and incredibly sweet as you might imagine. But I mainly stuck with the pork buns. I'm pretty much counting down the days til I can swing by and get some more.
So what about you? Ever had dinner for dessert? Is there something I'm missing about why a large portion of sweets is more acceptable than an order of fries? Please help. Because the next time the Boyfriend makes his pizza joke, you might just find me ordering a slice.

The Mouse