By Terry Trucco
Talk about a misnomer. Lady Mendl, aka Elsie de Wolfe, the pioneering interior designer and Age of Innocence-era grand dame, never lived in the twin 1834 townhouses containing the tea salon bearing her name. And we can’t imagine this crusading modernist who loathed Victorian frou frou would have selected, or condoned, the curvaceous loveseats, tufted brocades, fringed lampshades and acres of carved wood that fill the salon’s two parlors.
No matter. We can’t think of a better place to retreat when you want to take a quick break from the 21st century.
And yes, there’s a hotel connection. Lady Mendl’s is a part of the Inn at Irving Place, a 12-room townhouse in Gramercy Park (we’re talking Edith Wharton territory) and one of New York’s premiere small hotels. Despite the obvious age of its surroundings, the hotel is relatively new (it opened in 1994); before that, the building housed a men’s club, a speakeasy and a beauty parlor, sequentially of course.
We visited on a dark wintry day to celebrate a birthday. Guests craving the Full Wharton should ask to be seated at the pair of sofas in the front parlor by the fire where tea unfolds on a low coffee table. But as a party of five, we were escorted to white-clothed tables in the back parlor, which is almost as cozy as the front and is outfitted with towering, wood-framed windows, chinoiserie wallpaper, an oriental rug and a fireplace, dormant during our visit.
We love hotel teas and especially love the fact that a throwback like this still exists. And true to the genre, Lady Mendl’s high tea unfolds at a pace Henry James would have understood. We ordered a bottle of Prosecco, then got down to the business of ordering tea.
The menu offers 22 teas and five tisanes, more selections than any hotel tea we know of in town, neatly categorized as black, oolong, white, green and signature. A fan of smoky teas, we chose Lord Mendl, a Lapsang Souchong “grown high in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujan Province.” A friend wanted the same and the server suggested she order a pot of Russian Caravan, also smoky but laced with Bergamot and citrus, so we could sample two strains. Each tea arrives in a pretty porcelain pot, but it’s brewed in the kitchen so you miss the fun of pouring tea-sodden leaves into a strainer. (You also don’t get to determine the strength of the tea, and we’d have preferred a stronger brew). No matter – both were delicious.
An amuse arrived next on gold-trimmed Lenox, and it was delicious, a bite-size mushroom quiche brimming with flavor. Then came crust-free tea sandwiches, a big platter with four choices. Unlike most hotel teas, Lady Mendl lets you pick the sandwiches you want from a tray (four in the first go round and four more in the second). Eager to sample them all, and happy with the results, we took one of each both times – smoked salmon with dill cream cheese on pumpernickel, cucumber with mint crème fraiche on brioche, egg salad on rye and smoked turkey and cranberry on seven grain.
Small, buttery scones appeared next with two big silver bowls brimming with clotted calories, er, cream and raspberry jam. But the showstopper was dessert, an exquisite slice of Lady Mendl’s Mille Crepe Cake, 20 paper-thin layers laced with vanilla custard. One piece came with a birthday candle.
And yes, there was more – a plate piled high with cookies and chocolate covered strawberries. Stuffed to the gills, we took them home (it was our birthday). They made us very happy the next day.
Our take? Lady Mendl’s is the closest you can get to Season One of Downton Abbey in New York.
Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon, 56 Irving Place; 212 533-4466; open Monday – Friday, 3:00 pm or 5:00 pm seating; Saturday – Sunday, 12:30 pm, 2:30 pm or 5:00 pm seating; 12:00 pm seating Wednesday & Friday. $35 per person; wine, juice and bottled water additional. Reservations required.