Tea's Company

Guess what's heating up again? Afternoon tea! Plan your own tea party '- from casual to fit for a queen '- with ideas and inspiration from New York City's hottest salons.

Creative tea party planning

"Every moment that we drink tea is a creative experience," says Miriam Novalle, owner of New York's eclectic T Salon and T Emporium. "And we can create new experiences by having a little imagination and fun." Novalle, who's catered tea parties for Uma Thurman, Mel Gibson and Heidi Klum and hosts a whopping 800 bridal and baby showers per year at her salon, encourages hostesses to think outside the box when planning tea fetes. Her top tips for invitations? Slip a packet of tea inside each one, create cookie invitations or send each guest a miniature teapot with a note that reads, "Come for tea; bring your pot." Tea themes? The sky's the limit. A few of Novalle's favorites include:

  • Spiritual: Hire henna artists, massage therapists, reflexologists, Tarot card readers or wellness coaches to infuse meaning into the event.
  • Ethnic chic: Place pillows on the floor, light candles, arrange Buddha statues and burn incense. (For a shower, you can also display childhood photographs of the guest of honor.)
  • Charitable: Plan a tea for a cause, where gifts are donated to the needy.
  • Creative: Design the party around a favorite color or concept, such as hats.

    A heavenly tea menu

    One of New York's most romantic tea salons, the elegant Victorian-style Lady Mendl's, offers a scrumptious five-course high tea. Wondering how to recreate the award-winning menu at home? General Manager Shawn Rettstatt sees no need to stress over every detail; originality is key. "As long as you have tea, a tea party can be created based on whatever you feel works with your guests. It's up to you to decide how formal to make it and how many layers of sweets you wish to serve." Rettstatt offers these menu suggestions:

    • Appetizer: A small salad to start, if you like.
    • Second course: Tea sandwiches with some of the following fillings: egg salad; smoked turkey with cranberry; goat cheese and sun-dried tomato; smoked salmon with dill cream cheese; curried chicken salad; smoked ham and Brie; mozzarella, tomato and basil; or cucumber with mint crème fraîche. To make the cucumber sandwiches, spread a mixture of crème fraîche and chopped fresh mint on one layer of brioche bread. Top with thinly sliced hothouse cucumber, then cut the crusts off and serve.
    • Third course: Scones with clotted cream and jam. (Visit the Recipe Finder for 35 luscious scone recipes.)
    • Dessert course: Petits fours, cakes, store-bought tartlet shells filled with lemon curd or chocolate mousse, or chocolate-dipped strawberries. To make the strawberries, right before your guests arrive, dip cold strawberries (that have been washed and dried) into melted dark chocolate. After letting the excess chocolate drip off, place the berries on wax paper and let sit at room temperature until the chocolate hardens. (Don't chill, or the berries will sweat.)
    Tea varieties, steeping tips and more

    Wild Lily Tea Room in Manhattan's gallery-filled Chelsea neighborhood offers its guests peace, tranquility... and perfectly brewed tea. "The most important thing is that you enjoy the tea '- it should always be soothing and taste good to you," says owner Ines Sun. The secret to a satisfying tea experience? Sun says it starts with the right measurements (1 teaspoon of loose tea for every 6 ounces of water), fresh water (whether filtered or tap) and careful brewing technique (promptly removing the tea leaves after steeping). Proper food pairing also enhances flavor. Sun recommends flavored green teas with sandwiches; strong black teas, such as Assam, with scones; and herbal teas, such as lavender or mint, with sweets. Tea leaves are not created equal, so follow Sun's brewing tips for a perfect cup every time:

    • Black tea: Steep 3 to 5 minutes in boiling water.
    • Very high grade Japanese green tea: Steep 50 seconds to 2 minutes in 120°F to 145°F water. Brew this delicate tea in a teapot that's glazed on the inside. (Unglazed teapots absorb flavors from tea and may alter the taste of your brew.)
    • Lower grade green tea (Chinese or Japanese): Steep 1 to 2 minutes in 185°F to 195°F water.
    • Oolong: Steep 1 minute in 195°F to boiling water. Use a tiny Chinese clay yi-chin teapot with a 3- to 5-ounce capacity.
    Mood, music and manners

    With its domed ceiling, Beaux Arts interior and tuxedoed waiters, a visit to The Rotunda at the classy and classic Pierre hotel is truly unforgettable. But even if you can't see the trompe l'oeil murals in person, you can still replicate the salon's soothing and comforting tea presentation at home. "Tea is something special, a feeling of coziness, which is especially pleasurable on cold days," says Rotunda's food and beverage manager, Mitchell Pincic. "You want to create an ambience of coziness." To make guests feel like royalty, Pincic offers these insider tips:

    • Set your table with a tablecloth and napkins, candles and fresh or dried flowers. Visit antique or consignment shops to find distinctive antique china and silverware. For each guest, you will need a cup and saucer, small plate, napkin, water glass, fork and butter knife. You can also place menus you've created, rolled up and tied with bows on your guests' plates.
    • Make sure the room is warm and consider playing soft classical music. If it's snowing or raining, try setting the table up next to a window, which will make your guests feel even cozier.
    • You might ask your guests in advance for their tea preferences, or simply offer several tea varieties from which to choose. To avoid the cost of purchasing individual teapots, prepare three large pots '- two filled with your guests' favorite teas and one filled with hot water (to offer guests who wish to dilute their tea).
    • Above all, mind your manners. Proper etiquette dictates that the hostess pour tea for her guests before serving herself and replenish teacups and plates throughout the party. The ladylike way to sip tea? Rather than leaning over the table, pick up your cup and saucer, lift your cup to your lips and enjoy.


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