I overheard the owner Elspeth say, “Don’t outsource your soul”
It’s a sassy tea room in the East Village, NYC sporting a sort of slang Colonial tea gone into the wilderness with 1940’s Jazz. There is an invisible shroud of incense which can ignite a sort of “cronos dysphoria”. Cronos meaning “time”, I am told that is when you cant help but live in a world more colorful. A world of a different time and place, where you’re stuck in a black in white movie state of mind. Maybe this is tea soul food?
Winnie, the co-owner of The Tea Gallery in NYC, on the Lower East Side, the sweetest tea aficionado of all time told me of this gem, but I continued walking by for some time as I pondered, “What a curious name…Podunk?” Looking into this museum of rituals, having a d??cor of American Folk art but with offbeat flair. There is a small chalk board in the window above which simply states in white chalk “Tea Room” surrounded as it seems by a palette of primary colors which seem to sprout into tea pots. A garden of tea pots, from dainty chintz prints that look like antique tea paraphernalia, to a Bauer tea pot whirling around in its glaze of yellow. I spot a little table and two chairs sitting pretty outside where I feel as though I am sitting on someone’s porch in some small insignificant isolated town the proverbial “Podunk” of New England in 1846, perhaps.
Looking in to Podunk as I had for so long before I did partake of their menus: “On the Porch tea” to “Supper and Tea” or “Informal Tea”. Each category brims with endless saucy pairings. I had the strange impression it was a small caboose of a train sailing through the twilight zone where the next stop is Willowby 1846. There at the helm of a small counter stands the tillerwoman of Tea, Elspeth. Elspeth carries a vintage flair about her quite naturally. Her pale apron with her hair tied back in a casual scarf, flecks of fresh flowers, while the dough of mini scones or mini tea pies may dust her sleeves and elbows. Ensconced behind her… an encyclopedia of tins filled with any number of over a hundred teas. Her tiny counter is stacked with everything from mini cupcakes to heather honey and lavender loaves to mini scones both savory and sweet. I spied a tiny scone dappled with spinach whirled into the creamy toasted dough. I was a magpie transfixed on all manner of shiny fragrant tins, to what almost seems her palette of elemental sunny colorforms. Do we remember them? Abstract shapes of shiny primary colored liftable stickers, a child’s toy you could design your own canvas on that black shiny board. Yes, this tiny haven of a tea room feels as though I am sitting in someone’s palette and you don’t quite know what will happen next. She is surrounded by clever shapes of anything from a royal blue and white Scandinavian sugar Jar to an elegant ivory Grecian urn for your cream. Chartreuse to Puce or violet vintage tea pots abound in a sculptural array.
I ask her, “How do I have your tea?”. She says, “Well first, feel free to sit down and peruse the menu. And when you are ready, come back and I will call you when your supper is ready or ladies lunch or a midnight snack.” She calls Miss for the “Nibbler” or Mr for the “Blunt and savory” to “tittle tattle”. Is this a cockneye rhyming game? I enquire do I pay now, as there is no need for table service, she insists “Oh please, not now go and enjoy yourtTea!” The place seemed dotted with lovers or a savvy Alice in wonderland planning her private party of teas.
I ordered the “Nibbler”. Elspeth’s menu reads like a sweet soiree living right off the fat of the land somewhere near the “Of Mice and Mens dreams”. Friendly script is arresting with its decency and churlish wit. Her menu introduces me to what feels almost like a Colonial menu of tea cuisine and tea pairings. There is the “Shabby Chintz” listed under “Informal Teas”, I think not! “Shabby Chintz” is neither shabby nor informal. It is served only on the weekends with a strip of fillet mignon in wine sauce w/ lefse, a Scandinavian bread, along with tea sandwiches. I tried the cucumber tea sandwich, a neat stack of 2 types of bread thinly sliced. Also included; Chow Chow, baby scones, mini cupcakes, fresh jam, not mock Devonshire cream but simply whipped cream with a dessert of a mini fruit tart paired with a pot of tea. The menu recommends a Charred rose tea. You can order for one or two to share, it seems a bit pricey at $35.00 or $60.oo to share, but then I realized that her concoctions of teas are not to be compared with a mixed spirited drink. These are often custom blends of her teas, such as a pear blood orange Sencha tea with fresh fruit inside of the entire tea pot created per order. A medium to large pot of tea is included.
The presentation is not to be believed, it isn’t pretentious on silver swine tea sets which are hardly tarnished. It is like a surreal American Folk art from the shaker tray, with any manner of delicate antique rose tea cups to a huge tea pot complete with strainer atop its own saucer. And from creamer to delicate fruit dipping sauces which seem to taste like a horizontal blini, with homemade apricot and raspberry preserves as smooth as champagne. Prices range for a tea set from $9.00 to $35.00 depending on whether you choose savory with sweets or separate. I cannot rate high enough this woman is an Iron Chef of Tea.
From, “The Nibbler” to the “Yankee Bean Cassoulet w/ vegetable relish”. Each in a different category. The latter being a “Front Porch selection”. I was enthralled with the Nibbler palette, fresh boysenberries atop homemade almond sweet cookies, bacon cayenne cheddar biscuits, apricots filled w/ gorgonzola atop a sprig of fresh thyme, of course the palette of dipping sauces and cream, mini-scones and herb truffles. I paired it myself with a Orchid black Vanilla tea with cream and sugar which only enhanced the enormous tray. Her herb truffles are handmade as an offering by Ryuchi, one man controlling each aspect of flavor from start to finish, an admirable theme of Podunk. Nothing is mass produced, everything is handmade daily.
A Post-Colonial Bento box or Liberty-Tea-Kaiseki for those familiar with the origins of the Tea Ceremony? The tea house was intentionally placed in an isolated place. Is wabi equal to Podunk in English? “Wabi” originally being a Zen term of the strange aesthetic referred to as a beautiful tea spirited feeling with a tinge of melancholy. Rhythm and repose. At once, of rural and rustic or so called aesthetic and poverty. Oh yes, that poverty aesthetic of equality makes Raku tea bowls go for up to $100,000 dollars for connoisseurs. Tea Masters, often Zen masters traditionally invited you to tea with artistry unparalleled in detail and philosophy. Kaiseki being tea cuisine of such sensitivity and delight, seasonal, and tailored per guest that the guests would come a week before simply to say thank you for the invitation. Kaiseki inspired by traditional offerings price wise now could be a small mortgage payment easily. However, originally the egalitarian principals of the tea house were that the tea house was a sacred space with transformative pursuits. Suffering from cronos dysphoria is quite a delight if I dream of being invited for tea in the golden era of the true tea ceremonies of the Heian era born out of the 16th century. Originally Chan devotees and Zen Masters performing, so they say, sought to create a common place of life which is intoxicating in its simplicity. So perhaps this is the Tao of Podunk? The mystery of the remote escape for Elspeth’s tea cuisine.
This tea room is charming with its bookshelf filled with classic childrens tales from those by Roald Dahl to the Wizard of Oz. What struck me the most was the wholesome lemon myrtle scent that filled the air like incense, as if I were sitting on the porch dreaming. Podunk has such an impressive array of teas I would not know where to begin. They offer classic teas such as a rare organic Lapsang souchong, 2nd flush Darjeeling, FF shincha to Goblets of Iced tea w/ floating fruits, which should be called liquid paintings of Iced Monet pools. Elspeth infuses each pitcher or goblet to order. Iced teas arrive complimentary w/ the “Front Porch” selections, usually savory supper tea cuisine. Here is an Iced tea creation for example; Shiso Sencha with floating apples, or Lavender Lime tea lightly sweetened garnished with a bouquet of berries. There are at least 10 custom Iced teas infused to order. Her custom hot teas? I drank a pear blood orange Sencha, but there is a Sage Sencha that seems as if some Wild Native American went to Japan in a time traveller and brought a vessel of sage and delicate botanicals to a pretty lady settler wearing her bonnet saying to heck with tax on tea! Elspeth’s blends remind one of the “Liberty Tea botanicals” a time just after the Boston tea party where local herbs and flora were influenced by Native Americans, like the origins of root beer. The mad post-Boston Tea party had Colonial maidens plucking lemon balm, the bark of willow trees, penny royal, purple violets and pretty roses. One family has a recipe passed down from that time. The famous “Constant Comment”, Bigelow brand was that original mean cuppa spice that the stunning Jackie Onasis probably drank in one of her modern’ 1960’s outfits.
I am out of breath, but it does make me wonder as I sat obviously intoxicated by that mysterious tea leaf camelia? Podunk Tea Room plays old acoustic jazz as bright lights and big city early Chicago sounds click along oh so quietly. Makes me wonder if some sassy girl in Podunk with her curls dipping toward her elixir might be just dreaming of running off to some big city slicker night club? She can just sit with her pot of tea and dream of tinsel town too. Podunk Tea Room in its timelessness seems to cross the threshold of every era close to our hearts right here in Manhattan. An experience of the wabi-Podunk pathos. Elspeth’s tiny card says simply, “Podunk, an American tea room.”
God Bless the American tea rooms, Podunk.
Podunk located at: 231 East Fifth Street, 10003 212-677-7722 Call for hours.