To those out there who think high tea is some fancy anachronistic event attended only by white-gloved old ladies who barely have room for three cookies, I'm about to set you straight. Better yet, I'm going to tell you where you can partake of the most flawless high tea this side of the pond: the Thir-Tea-First Street Cafe and Tea Room in Waverly.
In December, Denise Washington took over the funky old purple building that used to house the Old Waverly History Exchange & Tea Room. With all due respect to the beloved predecessor, the newcomer is even better.
Let's dispel the myth about high tea upfront. High tea was the last meal of the day for the working-class Victorian, according to the book Tea Time: Tradition, Presentation and Recipes. It included an assortment of meats, cheeses, greens and sweets, all light enough to eat before bedtime but substantial enough to provide sustenance for the next day's labors.
What many of us think of when we hear "high tea" actually is afternoon tea, a more delicate meal favored by wealthy folk who wanted something to tide them over between lunch and a fashionably late dinner.
The cafe serves both. Feeling very working class, we went for the full spread of a high tea.
What an event it was. We were the only party in the second-floor tearoom (still covered in the Waverly's marvelous green-and-lavender William Morris wallpaper). A lace cloth covered the long table. Purple orchids and magenta carnations floated in glass bowls at each place, set with vermeil flatware. Classical music played in the background. Sunlight streamed through the lace curtains.
"Pace yourselves," cautioned Cathy Fitzgerald, our genial server, as she delivered two plates of hot scones - some raisin, some lemon. But we gave up all attempts to do that after the first few bites of scones had melted in our mouths. We had to try them with every condiment arrayed on the table - damson plum preserves, homemade pear butter, creme fraiche, double Devon cream. We washed them down with lemon-ginger and peach leaf teas, two of the cafe's 30 varieties.
We had a few minutes to digest the scones before the next course arrived - pint-sized crocks of chunky roasted red potato soup in a rosemary-scented broth topped with melted cheese and an unusually pretty salad of romaine, sliced kiwis, strawberries, carrots, cucumbers and red peppers. Never mind that the dressings weren't homemade; the ingredients tasted as though they were straight from the garden. (Very likely, because Washington buys a lot of her produce at the Waverly Farmers' Market a few blocks away.)
Round 3 came on a three-tiered stand. On the top plate was an assortment of tiny, buttery quiches consisting of cold marinated salmon or warm, deliciously salty spinach-artichoke filling. Slowly, we worked our way down to the second tier, which held fried turkey and Pommery mustard sandwiches on crustless white bread, and crunchy cucumber finger sandwiches.
Finally, we reached the bottom tier, which displayed heart-shaped tomato sandwiches decorated with asparagus spears, and mini egg-salad club sandwiches layered with the spinach-artichoke quiche filling and cleverly held together by sprigs of rosemary.
Our chances of having any room for the day's desserts of rice pudding and strawberries with whipped cream looked slim. But we rallied after Fitzgerald said she had made the pudding. With its perfect, grainy mixture of rice and spice (doled out in small portions), it was worth every bit of belt loosening we had to do later on.
We weren't able to sample the cafe's lunch or brunch fare. But if the high tea is any indication of the quality of the food - and if the service is always as warm as what we had - then I say that Washington is on her way to running one of the area's best little gems.
Thir-Tea-First Street Cafe
Where: 414 E. 31st St.
Open: For lunch and early dinner Tuesday through Friday; Saturday brunch and Sunday by reservation only
Prices: Appetizers $3.50 to $5.95; entrees $5.95 to $8.95; teas $20 to $30 per person
Credit cards: AE, MC, V
Food: * * * *
Service: * * * *
Atmosphere: * * * *