31 October 2011

Adventures in Grouponing 2: Tea Set

One of the biggest benefits of being broke is that you're forced to take a staycation.  As a homebody, this is not a problem.  Of course, it's not healthy to stay indoors entirely, so I made a few plans and used an online coupon, this time to some success. 

A few months ago I purchased a Living Social coupon for The Tea Set, which is on 12th Street and Greenwich Avenue.  I was almost hesitant about this one, as it's just down the block from Tea and Sympathy, but if they both end up doing well, maybe it's a good thing.  Could we possibly be developing a strip of tea shops?  Oh please make it so! 

My other hesitancy was about its 'B' rating from the DOH.  For those of you not subject to such ratings, it's a relatively recent thing to have eating establishments graded 'A', 'B' or the very doomed 'C'.  I'm not a stickler about these things; if I've been going to a place for a while without complaint, a 'B' rating will not stop me.  'C' on the other hand...with so many places to choose from I think I'd skip these.  The Tea Set had a 'B' rating, which meant that I didn't want to bring anyone with me for my first visit, just in case.  Not a problem!  As I mentioned in my last post, I'm not averse to taking afternoon tea alone.

Just to be safe, I made an online reservation.  It was good that I did this, as it turned out that Tuesday at 2PM had a rare late lunch rush.  It cleared out halfway through my hour there, but even during the busiest time I was greeted in a friendly manner and shown my seat in the middle of the action. 

More than anything, what would bring me back was the excellent service.  The guy who helped me (once again I failed to get a name) was helpful and conversational without being over the top.  He was able to make tea suggestions, and checked up on me on a regular basis.  Also, a gentleman who sat near me asked for gluten free options, and though there aren't too many of these on the menu, the staff prepared something special for him not from the menu.  You have to give them points for that! 

It's also really cute inside, with cushioned seats and black-and-white sunflower chairs.  There's a relatively private seating area in the back, with a little bookshelf (books!), and two cozy window seat-tables.  On nice days there's some outdoor seating.

As for the actual afternoon tea.  Well, one of the tea sandwiches did have tomatoes in them (my nemesis), but since I hadn't mentioned my aversion, I only have myself to blame.  Once removed, all of the sandwiches were good: you can't go wrong with Gruyere cheese!  A slight complaint about the bread: it was cut from a baguette, which was delicious and crusty, but its natural hardness made it a bit difficult to be dainty.   A couple of times my hand went projectile into the 3-tiered service, nearly causing a spill.  I'm not exactly a ballerina, so your mileage may vary.  There were little tarts, with cream and jam on the side, and macarons (!), one of which was made with sesame seeds, a first in my book.  Also, there was a lovely chocolate mousse cake - are they seeking my assassination?  The only thing missing were scones, but since The Tea Set has the whole French vibe, it's forgivable.

My tea was called Organic Femmes Fatales, would is aptly names as it's to die for.  A green tea with coconut and safflower - almost islandey but okay with French-style pastries.  It came in a tall glass with a strainer you have to flip over to sip the tea.  I want one!

So it looks like 'Grouponing' isn't a total waste of energy.  It really is up to the place of business to make it workable.

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Note: My digital camera has served me well over the years, but it's starting to have some issues.  It'll conk out during most important moments, such as when I want to take a picture of my flipping tea! I had to resort to my less-than-gorgeous camera phone.  So I'm saving up for a new, hopefully awesome camera.  These don't come cheap (and neither does afternoon tea), so I decided to put a PayPal 'Donate' button on the sidebar of this blog.  No pressure, but feel free!

17 October 2011

On Eating Alone and a Pairing

I recently finished Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, which is a collection of essays by mostly current writers about, well, what the title says.  Though there are recipes throughout, the book doesn't seem intended to be a "foodie" book, but almost anthropological: Who are these people who cook for themselves, and dare to be seen alone in a restaurant?  Not all the writers were single; some merely celebrated the moments they have to themselves.  Some suffered from self-pity, but not as many as you'd think.  After all, these are writers we're talking about.  Writing is a solitary activity; you don't usually choose to be a writer if you can't handle your own company for great lengths of time.  So this book probably doesn't reflect the feelings of every solitary diner.

Now I'll offer my take on eating alone:  I don't mind it at all.  I don't think I have a preference when I'm at home.  I have no problem with cooking for myself, though food shopping for one is annoying when you're on a budget.  Oh, and try to find workable recipes, especially in baking, that yields for one.  Like some of the contributing writers in 'Alone in the Kitchen', I got over the guilt of preparing nice meals, on nice plates, for just me, but at the same time I feel no guilt if I just feel like a bowl of cereal for dinner.  When you live alone, you have the luxury of mood.

Dining out alone is another story altogether.  It's more socially acceptable at lunchtime.  I go out with my sister a couple of lunches every week, and when she's not in I have no qualms about going out on my own.  What I don't like, and forgive me for being curmudgeonly, is when I go to a public eating place and people I don't know want to share a table.  I know midtown Manhattan is crowded, but unless I've made plans to eat with someone, I prefer being alone with my lunch and my book.  The other day I was eating in the concourse at Rockefeller Center, and a woman asks if the table I was sitting at was free.  I assumed this meant could she share the table with me, and I grudgingly said yes.  When she waved her family of four over, I was this close to busting a gut, but thankfully the table nearby opened up.  Serves me right for picking tourist central for some peace and quiet.

Lunchtime grumpiness aside, I almost never go out to dinner alone. For the most part, I just don't feel like it, but I guess it's also because there's some view in society that dining alone is wrong.  Most diners and coffee shops won't even let you have a table - they stick you at the counter.  Some people like counters; I don't.  Rumor has it that most restaurants will seat the 'table for one' patron at the worst possible place, like next to the restrooms.  Not that I've had too many incidents to reference on this point, but I did think of the first time I went to Cafe Lalo.  I was alone, and was seated in a table that took a bit of effort to squeeze into, all the way in the corner.  For me that's not a problem, because it afforded me some privacy.  On the second visit there were four of us, and we were right in the middle of the action.  Now, I've heard the reason why single diners are given the least desirable tables is because the staff don't expect to make much in tips from just one person.  Well, maybe the single diners just don't like being treated like second class citizens and get put off from tipping as generously as they would otherwise.  Then there's also the social stigma attached to the solitary person, all alone on an evening out.  This shouldn't bother me, but knowing it's how you're viewed does not make eating out alone any easier.  The world was not designed for introverts.

Today I have my first cold of the season, so I imagine my dinner will be a bowl of soup (sniff).  At least that is meant to be pathetic.

The pairing:  I was going to recommend reading 'Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant' with a tea-for-one teapot, but forget that.  Feel free to take out the nice linens, make a large pot of your favorite tea, complete with whatever cakes or cookies or scones float your tiny boat.  If that's not your thing, that's fine - it's up to you and you alone!

03 October 2011

Adventures in Grouponing: The Big Teany Fail

This year I entered the wonderful world of Grouponing.  A number of websites have developed that offer you daily discounts in the form of online coupons.  I use Groupon and Living Social, but for the sake of simplicity I'm going to use Groupon as the go-to term (think of it as the Bandaid of online coupons.)  I've gotten discounts at Barnes & Noble, a bakery, Whole Foods, and of course a bunch of tea establishments. 

It's a marketing strategy, of course: businesses want to attract new business, or bring back past customers, and the best way to do that is to make the customer feel that they're getting a good deal.  As in "I'd never in a million years get a bikini wax, but I saw a Groupon for 65% off, so...OUCH!  Well, at least it wasn't full price."

In my case, tea places are constantly opening in New York, and this gives me more of an incentive to try new places.  So over the next few months, I will have reviews connected to my Groupon splurges, in an effort to see whether or not it's all worth it. 

This brings us to Teany.  Since 2003, I'd been to Teany a good number of times.  It was one of the few ways to get me to the Lower East Side, and one of the only vegetarian restaurants I could be said to frequent.  I'd gone there with a variety of friends, but mostly Bathy, who was delighted with their scones and even entertained fantasies of working there.   Their Afternoon Tea was first-rate and very reasonably priced, their tea list was extensive and their playlist was fantastic. 

Then there was a fire.  This closed the shop down for about a year.  I wondered if it'd ever come back, but I didn't quite mourn it.  After all, I still had my standards: Tea & Sympathy, Alice's Tea Cup, and new favorites like Radiance (which I have a Groupon for, stay tuned.)  Plus, since Teany's neighborhood's not in my path, I didn't exactly see it regularly, so I could pull an 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality.  It took me many months to even find out it had closed.

When it reopened, though, I let myself become excited, and the first return trip was a good one.  My complaints were only mild, which I could say for almost every place I visit.  The next time was not as good.  I found out they'd stopped the practice of Afternoon Tea, which rather turned me off to returning.  I figured if Bathy wanted scones I might go with her.  Then I found a Groupon offer: for $5 you get a $10 coupon.  It seemed Teany was trying to woo me back. 

Even so, circumstances/desire or lack thereof delayed my return until the coupon's expiration date.  So some might argue that my problems could be blamed on procrastination.  Before I continue, I must address that.  You see, a business that has offered discounts on Groupon must know that people might wait until the last minute.   So they should plan for this contingency.  Well, Teany did not plan.  At all.  In fact, they did the opposite.

Upon entering Friday night, I felt something was a little off, starting with the fact that our table's detritus was not cleared for a long time.  It was not super crowded, so we figured it wouldn't take long.  When the girl came to clear the table, I showed her the Groupon and she said it had been particularly busy today because of the Groupons.  Fine enough, but after clearing the table she did not clean it.  Ew.

Then we heard the first 'Sorry', when the girl (who was pretty young, as was the only other staff in the place, a guy who looked about 15) addressed a woman sitting near us.  It seems she'd just given away the last slice of cake the woman had ordered to a takeaway.  The woman looked none too happy, especially when she ate the alternative.  Aren't you supposed to look cheerful when eating cake?  Otherwise what's the point?

Next the first unthinkable happened.  We found out there were no scones left.  None.  Bathy was crestfallen.   Another 'Sorry' ensued.  I hadn't heard so many sorries outside of going with Bonnie to that Indian tailor in a basement in Jackson Heights.  My only relief was that they still had the 'teanychino', but I must admit even that was just okay.  Bathy got a slice of strawberry shortcake, which was just dry. 

I didn't want to be further disappointed (the menu was not what it used to be either), so I asked for the farmhouse cheddar toast, which is supposed to come with pesto and tomato.  Then I waited.  And waited.  Waited, by the way, through a surprisingly lackluster soundtrack.  It must have been half an hour before I noticed the guy behind the counter taking slices of wheat bread from what looked like Stroehmann's or Arnold's - you know, the kind you get at Key Food for $2.50 a loaf.  I thought they couldn't possibly mean to use that bread...could they?  I kept wondering as I continued to hear the girl say 'sorry' at other tables. 

Finally, my order came...

I was stunned for a few minutes.  My first coherent thought was that I know I said no tomato, but couldn't they have least put some pesto on top?  But the real problem was that I waited far too long for something that takes less than three minutes to make.  How do I know this?  Well, because that's how long it took me to make this:

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I mean, it could be cat vomit...I should know - Moofer was sick later that night.

For the first time in my life, I sent my food back.  In fact, I just turned in my Groupon and we left.  The girl sorried again and offered pretty much anything else on the house.  She also said she felt bad being a part of 'this', like she was on a sinking ship. 

So that's it.  I try to find something good about a place, even when it's mostly bad, but I can't think of one thing.  Okay, at least I didn't see evidence of vermin.  But I can tell you this:  I am officially DONE with Teany. Horrible service, terrible food.  Makes McDonald's look like a great night out. 

In the midst of writing this post, I read online that the co-owner of Teany, Kelly Tisdale, just had a baby with Mike Myers.  That's pretty awesome, so congratulations....this makes it more difficult for me do be this negative in my review, being a fan and all, but it's not a personal attack. 

The growing number of women I'm acquainted with who have recently become mothers can tell you that when they go on maternity leave, they get somebody to look after their job or business while they're away.  I'm not sure anyone's looking after shop at Teany right now.  It's like kids are playing 'Restaurant' with stuff in their kitchen, but they're starting to get bored.   At this rate, I'd prefer to see Teany close down than  experience what we did on Friday night.

I was a loyal customer, but there are limits.  I truly hope my next Grouponing adventure makes up for this.