Tea to the Iced Degree
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
In 1992, Miriam Novalle opened the T Salon, a combination retail store, tearoom, and innovative, modern sushi bar that revolutionized the way many New Yorkers thought about tea. It was neither frumpy and cozy nor as formal as a white-gloved hotel tea service. There was room for both a quick casual cup and a proper afternoon tea, replete with tea sandwiches, scones, and clotted cream. Because of a dispute over the lease, the original T Salon moved from the Guggenheim Museum SoHo to a location at 20th Street, which closed in 2006. The latest store is now open at the Chelsea Market.
The image of tea has now undergone a further makeover, with special attention being paid to its health benefits — among them, disease-fighting antioxidants, high levels of vitamin C, and lack of calories. During this heady summertime, especially, iced tea makes for a thirst quencher as well as a heat extinguisher, less dehydrating — and much more calming — than soda or coffee.
“Tea is very now, very timely,” Richard Salem, a 25-year-old tea expert and the owner of Gramstand (214 Ave. A, between 13th and 14th streets, 212-533-1934), a tea café in the East Village, said. “It plays into everything the world wants now: health, wellness, variety, nature, organic, freshness.”
One of Mr. Salem’s goals is to get his age group interested in tea. While Ms. Novalle scowled at anyone who requested coffee at her tea salon, Mr. Salem serves a lot of coffee. “Coffee culture has created a dialogue to talk about tea,” Mr. Salem said. “It’s okay to drink tea on the go, like coffee. I’m introducing people to tea in an environment they are used to.
“You might start with an iced mocha Grey latte,” he said, referring to one of his signature iced cocktails, a creative combination of Earl Grey tea, chocolate, and milk over ice. “Then you find out you like Earl Grey tea, and then start ordering Earl Grey. Then you realize, ‘I like black tea,’ and find out you’re a tea drinker.”
Other modern brews available at Gramstand include Velvet Vanilla, a black tea drink flavored with rose and calendula, steeped in soy milk with vanilla; white tea with whole lychees at the bottom of the cup, and Hibiscus Pear, which changes color as you drink it, the hibiscus infusing the tea with a bright pink-red. Each iced tea is brewed to order and mixed over ice in a cocktail shaker.
Part of tea’s reputation as a soothing and meditative beverage comes from its chemical composition. While tea can contain the same amount of caffeine as coffee, it also contains catechins that account for its calming effect, so it’s not surprising that the idea of a tea salon as a meditative retreat also appealed to another young entrepreneur, Dawn Cameron, 33, who gave up a career in finance in pursuit of tea. Like Ms. Novalle’s original T Salon, the tranquil space, known as Sanctuary Tea (337B West Broadway at Grand Street, 212-941-7832), encompasses a retail component — including contemporary tea sets and loose leaf teas blended in house — as well as a full-service bar and restaurant.
“Aesthetics are an important part of the experience,” Ms. Cameron said, referring both to the experience of drinking tea and the environment in which one drinks it. “The space was inspired by tea,” she said. “The idea was to create a spa-like, serene environment where you wouldn’t feel rushed.”
Tafu (569 Lexington Ave. at 51st Street, 212-980-1310), the first American location of a 150-year-old Japanese tea bar, feels like a peaceful sanctuary, too. Soothing music adds to the spa-like atmosphere. Tafu serves only a small selection of traditional green teas, served hot or cold, and also sold as loose-leaf teas. These teas have proprietary American names: Shiny Slim is genmaicha (a green tea combined with roasted brown rice), and the matcha tea (a delicate, pulverized green tea powder) is known as Kyoto Emperor. But Tafu is also seeking to appeal to a new generation of tea drinkers with iced green tea latte beverages, and a state-of-the-art “Tuff Mug” thermos, so people can drink on the go without creating litter.
Even the T Salon has changed with the times. The new store contains the multiplicity of the earlier T Salons, but with trendy new flat-screen digital displays, a machine for making frothy green tea lattes, a selection of cocktails that thoughtfully combine tea with compatible spirits, and a tea-infused food menu created by chef Kenneth Collins. “Always evolving” is the new slogan, a tagline that acknowledges not only the storied past of Ms. Novalle’s T Salon, but also the future of tea.