07 December 2018

Brew's Lee Tea

I'm still amazed at how I can squeeze new tea experiences out of every visit to San Antonio.  It's not a Tea Destination, at least not at first glance. 

I remember when Bonnie first moved to Texas, one of her personal challenges was finding decent bubble tea (or Boba, your choice).  Even quirky Austin was disappointing on that score.  Things have changed in five years!

Enter Brew's Lee.  Well, entered over a year ago now - but last November it had just opened so I couldn't make it.  It's a fun, 'Instagrammable' shop with celebrity pillows and selfie opportunities throughout, and ample seating which always helps.  Thankfully, that's not all it is.  Atmosphere is important, but quality is vital.

The families of the owners grow tea in Taiwan, so there's some serious Oolong going on here.  The drinks are usually sweetened (at varying levels), which normally takes away somewhat from the genuine Oolong flavor, but in this case, and with iced tea, it just works.  Plus, we're talking Texas here.  They just love their sweet tea!

As I usually don't go to the same place twice during each San Antonio visit, I knew I wasn't going to be able to try all the flavors.  I was impressed by the Split Cup.  You get two flavors - the best of both worlds!  So I had an Oolong Milk Tea, and a Glowing Tea (herbal concoction). I was still kinda hyped up on caffeine, but only to the point that I was Chatty Cathy.  

There are snacks (I had a donut), but I probably won't go for food food there, because when I'm in Texas I need to eat as everywhere as possible, within my own diet restrictions (they vary).

Please give this place a try if you're nearby!  Boba abounds nowadays, but quality to this extent is rare indeed.





18 September 2018

No Cream Tea and Sympathy

I am never happy to criticize my favorite restaurant, and when I have mild complaints I keep it to myself.  There is something that I want to address, though, and that's a tiny change to the menu of Tea and Sympathy that I just don't understand.

My first ever visit to Tea and Sympathy came shortly after coming home from my first trip to the UK in 1994.  It would be another four years before I would be able to return.  Now, New York is and has always been a pretty diverse city, and it's easy enough to find a restaurant representing nearly every culture on earth.  The old-school cozy British tea culture, though?  Not so much.  Scones were extremely rare in the 1990s here, as was being served tea loose from a teapot.  Soon enough I would be able to source loose tea in the Village, and make it myself.  Fine.  Eventually I'd find British teas and paraphernalia online, but not in the mid-nineties, and ambiance was another thing altogether.

When some friends of mine found out about the still new British restaurant called Tea and Sympathy, it took barely a minute for me to hightail it over there.  Now I always whine about being broke, but in my late teens I was truly, truly empty of pocket, and if it weren't for the fact that I lived at home, I'd be in direr straights.  So visiting any restaurants that didn't have golden arches was a luxury.  Somehow I pulled together enough cash to have my first cream tea at Tea and Sympathy, and I count this as a major contributor to my Tea Love.

The decor has barely changed: cozy and slightly shabby-pub/tea shop interior, with crooked framed pictures of royalty and Cockney rhyming slang on the wall.  It's a home away from home for British ex-pats and Anglophiles alike.  Since the first visit I've dragged nearly everyone I was close to there, including my Dad (despite his dislike for dining out he loved the apple crumble), but I probably wouldn't have returned so quickly if it hadn't been for the relative affordability of the cream tea.

Such a simple pleasure:  two scones with clotted cream and jam, and a nice pot of whatever tea floats your current boat.

Over the decades, I've been back many, many times, and tried nearly everything on the menu.  I rarely come in just for cream tea, but I liked knowing I could.

Until I couldn't.

Recently I had my not-favorite kind of doctor's appointment, the offices of which are located close to Tea and Sympathy, so as is my custom, I thought some comfort food would set me up nicely. The restaurant was nearly empty, and I got the coveted table in the window.  I looked at the menu...and something was missing.  I asked the waitress where's the cream tea, and she explained that it's gone, if someone wants to order scones they can after ordering something else, or they could still have scones with their afternoon tea.  I ordered the beef cottage pie, and sat and quietly stewed over this change (after texting my sisters about said change).

Why though?  Is it because people order such a "small" menu item, and then linger too long in the not-very-spacious restaurant? Was it an accounting decision?  Though I respect that a business needs to keep flowing, it makes me sad that a person like 1990s me, or even modern me on a budget will now have to think twice before stopping by.  Perhaps none of my me's are the preferred clientele.  

Even so... it's weird to have a name like Tea and Sympathy, and not have available the most tea-ish bit - the cream tea!  Unless of course, you get something else, first.  So now it's Bangers + Mash + Tea + Scones and...

For argument's sake,  I know that in parts of Britain, "Tea" refers to dinner, or supper: the evening meal, as it were.  So I suppose the name still fits.  But now we get back to the point that it is a British restaurant.  As someone  who has managed to visit London and various other parts of the UK over the years, and has a homing signal for the word "tea", it occurs to me that even in the cities, you rarely have to walk long before you find a shop that offers cream tea on their menu. It's ubiquitous. It's like finding breakfast tacos in San Antonio.  So if you have one of the few British restaurants in New York City, wouldn't it stand to reason that cream tea would be a mainstay?

I doubt I will cease visiting which is still one of my favorite places, but I may lessen my visits, and begin a new search for cozy spots that have good tea and scones, or cake or pastries.  I enjoy this kind of search, and it's a labor of love with the cooler weather approaching.  So maybe they did me a favor by changing their menu.  Always look on the bright side!

RIP







19 July 2018

Shakespeare all over The Park

This is a rare year:  I've already seen two live Shakespeare performances, and within a month of each other.  Both are plays I'm more than familiar with, though they're both not really my favorites.  I had a good time each time, though they were pretty different experiences.

When you say 'Shakespeare in the Park' to a New Yorker, the first thing that may spring to mind is the post-Memorial Day performances at Delacorte theater, beautifully situated near Belvedere Castle and one of my favorite haunts, the Shakespeare Garden.   And it is an evening I recommend 100%, once you're in.  There are lotteries and lines to endure before you have that (free) ticket in your hand.  I'm grateful that both times I've seen a play here, someone else got a ticket for me.  Once you have a seat, which are basic stadium seats in terms of comfort, all you have to worry about is if the weather will hold up.  It did for my group! 

We were there for Othello, which is a Shakespeare play I don't necessarily care for, mainly because it's all tragic misunderstandings.  It was well done, though, and I was surprised to see, for both performances I'm speaking of here, that they kept to Shakespearean period costume.  Usually the productions dress for a different era, like the 1940s.   I'm okay with that, but it's been ages since I've seen a Bard-era costume choice. 

What made this night fun for me was also the raccoon that stole the show; occasionally these guys find their way to the stage and streak across to thunderous applause.  I think they do it on purpose.  At one point some ducks flew overhead.  You won't forget entirely that you're in Central Park.

Soon after Othello, I was able to see the other Shakespeare in the park - which was a production of Romeo and Juliet, by the New York Classical Theater.  It's sometimes called 'Shakespeare on the Run', because everyone meets up at a designated spot in the park, and then follows the actors for a change of scenery at another spot.  It's fun because you can meet up early and have a little picnic (though one you can easily carry is recommendable), and if you're not crazy about your view, it will change in a scene or two.  Also, the actors tend to interact with the audience: the 'balcony scene' had Juliet further away and Romeo standing right behind me.  As R&J is not my favorite Shakespeare play, I feel it needs to be shaken up a bit to be palatable.  There's also the matter of it being a small company, and most of the actors play at least two roles, so the quick changes are pretty fun.  The only negative I can see is that getting up and down from a spot on the grass is not as easy for your joints if you're over 25.

Like siblings, it's hard to pick a favorite.  Both are easy on the wallet - in the NYCT production, you can contribute afterwards, but if your budget is tight, you're still allowed in either way.  Be warned that if you're in the mood for a selfie, you'll have to refrain at Delacorte, as staff will FIND YOU.  Photography is also frowned on by the NYCT.  Just live in the moment!

Definitely try at least one of these experiences if you're in New York in the summertime. NYCT moves out to different venues further down the calendar (like Battery Park, which starts in Castle Clinton), but I try for Central Park when possible.  And bring the kids!  They always seem to have the best time.  Just make sure the bathroom needs are attended to prior to the show, and this goes for both productions.  

Put the phone down; this is the best picture you'll get...







10 May 2018

This Time, It's Personal

I don't always like to talk about personal things here, beyond my occasional cranky mutterings about an overpriced scone.  Sometimes, though, I feel like I need to explain something about myself, without worrying about being interrupted.  More on that later.

So today I'd like to feature the wonderful world of my social anxiety disorder.  It's a bit tea-related, as too much caffeine ups the problem, and also taking tea is often a social activity.  I have other anxiety-related disorders, but this one screws up my life the most.

When I tell people who've known me more than five minutes that I have social anxiety, I'm usually met with an incredulous response.  Yes, I've held a job that requires interacting with humans for over a decade.  Yes, I do public speaking - I've read my own poems in front of strangers, I have speaking assignments in my congregation, and in a language that I can  just about pronounce at that.  I sing in front of others at karaoke with minimal shyness. I wear bright colors that could attract attention.  Occasionally I've shared writing works-in-progress at workshops and lived to tell the tale.  I can't be that badly off if I'm capable of all this?

So maybe I don't have the worst case of social anxiety.  But it's real, and it's painful, and it has messed up my life.

One way is my extreme difficulty in approaching others, particularly to ask for something.  This could be a stranger, a co-worker, a family member, even a best friend. I immediately anticipate rejection, and the thought that I may be seen as being a problem.  When I'm told "just ask", it's like being told to JUST jump off a cliff.  Sure.  That's fine.  



In my college Precalculus class, the final exam was a group project - I chose to do it on my own, and obviously failed the exam and the class because my mathematical abilities are not stellar.  But all I had to do was find a group and approach them.  They wouldn't mind, would they?  Then I had a flashback of being picked to be in a team in gym class during junior high school, hearing the entire group of girls exclaim "No!!!" as I went to join them, and that was that.  I've imprinted that moment in my life and stuck it onto another crucial moment, and that feeling never faded away.   Now if I need a ride, a travel companion, the bill at a restaurant, I freeze up and just hope someone offers.  On a good day, I can text someone with a request.  IF I've asked you for something recently, know that this was a big day for me.  If you said no, I've probably been set back and won't do it again.  And now I've made you feel guilty, and I'm angry at myself for doing that.  I've also lived through it, though, so maybe you've helped me after all.

Even more difficult than physically approaching someone is calling them.  Phone anxiety is pretty common nowadays, but knowing I'm not alone in this does not make it easier.  Since I was a kid I hated making phone calls, and leaving voicemails is only marginally better.  Making appointments is a nightmare for me: for years I kept going to a hair salon that I was not crazy about because I could make appointments online.  Even now I'd prefer going into the salon to make the appointment rather than phoning them.  (If a friend offers to make the calls for me, I feel ridiculous.)  Receiving calls is just as bad.  I keep my phone on silent or vibrate, and often feel a cold sweat come upon me, even if it's a familiar number.   Websites like Seamless have been a miracle for me - I get to order takeout with almost no human interaction?  Wonderful! - unless the restaurant has run out of my order, and phones me to ask for alternatives.  The horror!



But wait?  Don't I work at a place where I have to call people, and take calls, and cover reception?  Yes.  There's more than one reason I feel sick every morning.  Sometimes I end up shooting the breeze and feeling that maybe it's not such a bad thing, and other times I stammer and say 'like' every other word, and am in tears by the end of the call (or close, because I'm also terrified of crying in public, so I get a splitting headache.)  I type at a quick pace, but if someone stands over me while I type I become Typo Woman.  When I was a travel agent (back in the early days of internet booking), I would bristle if a client tried to look a the screen I was working on to find a good rate.  That was definitely not an ideal job for me.  Ideally I should be working in a more quiet position, like data entry, or writer/reader, or with animals (because I will talk to your dog more readily than yourself), but I also need to support myself as an adult, so I power on and make myself sick.  Then - oh no! - I have to call in sick.  All this is not even going into the horrors of job searching.  

Life needs to be lived.  We are all social creatures.  In my opinion, I'm not antisocial (though a bit grumpy).  I want companionship like everyone else.  I love a good conversation over a cup of tea, or a crazy long walk, or in a bookshop.  People are fascinating, and I want to get to know (some) people.  I didn't choose to be single.  Unfortunately, we live in a world where a lot of interaction  and getting to know someone requires being in a crowd.  Movies and plays aren't too bad, because most theaters have decent sized seats, and I'm in a dark room where I can't see others (forget opening night in the MCU universe, though).  Concerts are less possible for me as years go by, especially general admission.  Hanging out in big groups, or any crowded, loud event is something I avoid if I can.  It's not always possible.

Walking into a room full of people, even full of people I know, is daunting.  I explained to someone once that often I don't see the smiles on their faces or even sense caring, all I see is a distortion.  The closest thing I can compare it to is here.  Did you watch it?  The whole thing? Creepy, right?  Willkommen to my life!  It helps if I arrive early, when wherever I'm going is still emptyish, so I try.  I also look for aisle seats, so I can bolt if I need to.  (The only exception to this is during train travel, as looking out a window at fields and horses is soothing.  Horsies!)

The worst situation is being called out on my discomfort.  If I go to a party and want to dance, I will.  I'm not a good dancer, but I'll get to the dance floor, and I tend to feel secure in the fact that nobody's really watching me - that is the one safety of a crowd.  But if someone calls to me to join the dance, and brings attention to the fact that I'm sitting, I'm done.  I'm also highly sensitive, so I can't bear being squashed next to others with little movement, hearing their loud chewing noises and picking up their breath with my nearly supernatural sense of smell.  I don't know if that is a part of social anxiety, but it ain't helping.  When someone calls someone 'sensitive', it's usually a judgment, and social anxiety sufferers are afraid of being judged.  Yay.

Only large groups?  Well, this can also happen with a few people, but another problem is that I'm also soft-spoken.  Like I said before, though, I like conversations, but I don't like to not be heard when I'm speaking.  If I'm interrupted, I lose focus and check out mentally. But even if was able to be heard, you can be sure that later on I'll be mulling over everything I said, editing and recoiling in horror about some turn of phrase or personal revelation.  

I know my fears are mostly irrational, and I know that some people "have it worse" - not that that makes me feel better, now I have guilt atop the anxiety! I don't know if anyone will actually read this through - particularly those who I've tried to explain this to, but couldn't get the words out properly, but this is not something I take lightly.  I can laugh off a decent amount of issues, but not this.  I won't snap out of it, and I haven't gotten better just because sometimes I am Highly Functioning.  Some have been helped by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy - maybe it would help me too, if I could make an appointment...








11 April 2018

I'm Not a Purist, But...

When I first became obsessed with tea, I did what I always do: read, read, read until I know as much as I can about a subject without having a degree.  In the early days my reading was almost entirely from books, and mostly books I could either find at my local library or easy to reach branches, with the occasional foray into Barnes and Noble or a used bookshop.  Finding tea itself took similar methods.  Ordering from a catalog was a rare exception.

Nowadays I've learned so much from reading online, and am able to readily purchase from all over the world.  To be honest, though, much of what I learn nowadays only reinforces what I knew before - though certain pronunciations and exact methods of preparation make more sense via video tutorials.

In the "I liked this before it was cool"beast lurking inside of my psyche, I've known the basics of matcha preparation since reading about it from a green tea book I found in the Central Library in Jamaica, Queens, but in this particular decade you can find a matcha expert, or a burgeoning one, within sneezing distance.

What about Oolong?  Not as much, not yet.  Sure, Twinings has carried its own bags of Oolong in grocery stores for ages, and Chinese restaurants often serve it (though I'm not finding as many of the old-school New York Chinese restaurants around), and occasionally I'll get a flavoured Oolong online but I don't know as much about it as I'd like to, and didn't pay much attention to its preparation.  At one point I bought a tea set designed for its particular type of prep and serving, but rarely used it.

What I suppose I'm saying is that, though I consider myself well-versed on tea, I'm not keeping up as much as I used to.  At work I tend to buy a breakfast blend, and maybe an Earl Grey or flavoured green, all in teabags.  I tried the loose tea method, but it took too long, and I ended up bringing its paraphernalia home. 

One recent winter's day I found out that, due to moving semantics, my work was going to close at noon for the day.   Usually in such circumstances I head to Central Park, or the Met Museum, but occasionally I hit the Village, and I thought 'why not'?  I'd read online about a newish place called Te Company, and as I haven't tried any new places recently (except in my own neighborhood, which hopefully I'll get to in another post, for goodness' sake), I went to the West Village for a stroll. 

I needed to eat, so first I had lunch at Tea and Sympathy (because why not), and then had a browse at Three Lives & Company bookshop (highly recommend), and that was only down the block from Te Company.



I immediately took to the location, as it wasn't in a typical storefront, but it felt as if I was welcome in someone's clean, tea-filled townhouse apartment. I arrived during a quiet period, which put me in a good mood right away.  It started to fill up gradually, but in such a way that did not disturb my highly-caffeinated (for me) self.

A brief detour into my crankiness: sometimes I become irritated when staff tries to "educate" me on their product, especially if it's something I know a bit about, but in this case the lady who helped me was understated but immensely helpful.  And not at all smug.  That's important.

There's a WAY to make proper Oolong tea, and it means the right water temperature and steeping time (and quality of water, if attainable).  

The tea is steeped in a warmed tiny teapot, and then transferred to a pitcher, from whence you can pour into the tiny teacup (my hands feel sizable using these cups), et voila!  Full flavour of love!  I strongly advise everyone to dispense with sweeteners in this kind of situation - I don't remember being offered any, and even if I were, I wouldn't hear of it.  This isn't your workaday cuppa, it's the Full Experience.  You wouldn't add sugar to a glass of wine, would you?  WOULD YOU?  You animal!

I had a pineapple linzer cookie, which surprised me with its pepper, but pleasantly so.  

Now, I picked the least expensive tea I could find, as it was not budget-friendly, but I did not sacrifice flavour or enjoyment whatsoever.  Frankly, this was my gateway back into Tea Appreciation.  That sounds odd, because I appreciate my morning Yorkshire Gold in my mug (albeit a pretty mug) with a splash of milk at work: it's a good friend that wakes me up gently but firmly.  But I'd lost track of the slowdown, breathe, savour part of life.  Obviously there's a lot to do in our day-to-day life, but in the wise words of Mr. Bueller, "Life moves pretty fast.  If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."  I don't want to miss the finer moments of life, and only stop when I'm sleeping - and I don't stop, I have crazy action-packed dreams.  

So I'm going to try that every once in a while.  I will attempt to make Oolong tea right at home, and I will do what I used to do, and read up on tea sometimes.  And maybe I'll blog about it more frequently than every five months...