Two for Tea

Afternoons spent on the English beat

Afternoon tea may or may not be the sign of a civilized society, but it certainly is a welcome oasis in the long stretch of hours between lunch and dinner. The noshable food helps, of course -- it's enough to satisfy hunger pangs, not enough to spoil dinner -- as does the tea, with its gentle jolt of caffeine to lift people out of their late-afternoon torpor.

But mostly it's the mood and ritual. Tea is a small grace for which time must be set aside. It's an hour's holiday from ringing phones and beeping pagers and all the rest of the workaday hubbub; it's a quiet, convivial moment spent in conversation, watching the sun's rays lengthen toward the end of the day. Unlike the power breakfast, the business lunch, or the company dinner, tea -- never really an American institution -- seems not to have been corrupted by the demands of corporate life. You do not see people in tea salons hunched over their cellular phones, or hurrying off to the nearest public phone to answer a page. You do not see people scarfing tea as they do espresso (from paper or styrofoam cups in granite-and-chrome coffee bars), wiring themselves up before rushing away to their next meeting. Tea is English, and polite -- a leisurely, deliberately un-modern parade of china and silver. Maybe that's its real value in our rude, hyperkinetic age.

Lovejoy's Antiques & Tea Room occupies a deep, narrow storefront at 24th and Church streets, and the J train is a frequent and conspicuous passer-by. Despite the profound Englishness of the shop -- the antique tea services, tables, and chairs; the low settees upholstered in floral patterns; the baronial portraits and paintings on the wall -- Lovejoy's is plainly not in England. For one thing, it's too sunny. For another, virtually everything in the shop is for sale, and discreetly marked with price tags.

Still, Lovejoy's atmosphere bewitches, and our server had a genuine English accent. She seated us at a couch and low table in front of the fireplace. It was the sort of setting where Tolkien's hobbits might have taken their tea. Despite the bad reputation of English cooking (and England's anti-sensual reputation generally), the British table does have its glories, one of which is double Devon cream, a delectable cross between whipped butter and cream cheese that spreads smoothly on scones and breads. (Needless to say, it appears on the menu unaccompanied by a smiling or dancing healthy-heart icon.)

Indeed, when presented with the high tea for two ($17.95), we were sorely tempted to plunge our fingers straight into the pot of cream that was served with it. But that would have made an indecorous spectacle. Instead we dipped into our cups of tea, which we poured from the big silver pot through a hand-held filter that caught the spent leaves. Lovejoy's brews tea the traditional English way, by steeping the leaves directly in hot water instead of using a tea ball. The method adds an extra step to pouring but also enhances the sense of ritual.

A set of concentric trays arranged in a tall conical shape held the salad, sandwiches, scones, preserves, and cream. I have never quite grasped the romance of the cucumber sandwich: slices of a pale green vegetable on crustless triangles of white bread. There wasn't much there, and even a generous spreading of cream cheese didn't add much. Still, no tea would be complete without them.

The other sandwiches were better. The traditional roast beef gave a real kick of horseradish, and the honey-roast ham had been liberally spread with Dijon mustard. The finnan haddock had been smoked, so that even thin slices of the fish conveyed an oaky perfume.

More tea. Salad (an un-English melange of baby greens) dressed with a mild vinaigrette. Scones decadently slathered with Devon cream and strawberry preserves. Still more tea. At the end, petite desserts -- two modest, sugary little pastry squares. J trains, yellowing sunlight, a happy party at the next table. We pronounced ourselves satisfied and drifted back to the street, where, despite the sunshine, the wind had risen, and I'd neglected to bring a coat.

If Lovejoy's is stylishly quaint, the Ritz-Carlton is deliberately grand. The hotel serves afternoon tea in its lobby lounge, a vast, high-ceilinged space hung with posh draperies and elaborate chandeliers and set with proper, not-quite-comfortable English country furniture.

The Ritz-Carlton does have its advantages. Certainly it flatters one's pretensions. It also offers champagne, straight and in cocktails, for those who take their tea with a little something extra. But its full tea costs twice as much ($18 per person) as Lovejoy's, without offering much more of substance for the extra money.

The sandwiches were slightly fancier: prosciutto with asparagus, gravlax with a dab of black caviar. Cucumber, of course, and hard-boiled egg on dainty rounds of muffin. But there was cream cheese on all of them, mustard on none, with a corresponding (and perhaps more authentically English) blandness.

The sandwich tray also included buttery-crisp shortbreads, madeleines, and small loaves of carrot and walnut bread (the last fragrant with amaretto).

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