Arts | Food

April 23, 2005

Tea and Empathy

France and Japan join in blissful matrimony at the New York café Thè Adoré.

Aria Sloss

It begins with a bowl of soup. Potato-leek, but it is unlike any soup you have ever had by that name. This is potato in its purest form—a delicate broth, a lovingly-hewn cube. This is the essence of leek—a fragrant perfume resting on top of the broth, a few thin shavings of green. Here and there, small pieces of torn bread float like gifts. It is a blessing, this soup, and the perfect introduction to what makes Thè Adoré so exquisitely unique. This tiny, Japanese-run teashop/café has taken the long-standing excellence of French cuisine and married it with the superior respect for ingredients inherent to Japanese cuisine; it has taken two cultures that prize beauty and presentation alongside taste and restored "fusion" to a good word; it has managed to extract the teachings of both culinary traditions and boil them down into a single essence. This is clean food—simple, unfussy, but made with love and the greatest respect.

Thè Adoré
Carl Bialik
Long before I ever set foot in Thè Adoré, I heard many a gushing rhapsody of its appeal. A good friend who teaches at the Parsons School of Design, located less than a block from the café (which can make for a bit of a mad rush at school lunch hour), extolled its virtues at every opportunity. "Whenever I'm sad," he told me earnestly, "I just go there and have a pot of tea and a sandwich. There's nothing like it." He is right. In a city where the wealth and variety of restaurants can feel overwhelming, the search for a truly singular dining experience can be surprisingly frustrating. Yet Thè Adoré does what so few restaurants manage to do: It takes something small (the fairly limiting concept of a teashop as well as the space itself) and does it extraordinarily well. Let me explain:

Thè Adoré offers 36 different kinds of tea. They have five varieties of Earl Grey alone—English, Cape Town, Breakfast, Decaf, and Imperial. While I may not be able to distinguish the nuanced differences between each variety, the I want it the way I want it part of me appreciates the myriad options. There are four different kinds of green tea, as well, including the increasingly popular Genmaicha (a blend with roasted brown rice). Whichever kind of tea you choose, it comes to your table in a white ceramic pot of your very own. The accompanying cup arrives with an ingenious straining device featuring a small metal support attached to the mesh strainer, doing away with the bothersome difficulty of having to touch the strainer—which has by this time been heated to a dangerous temperature by the boiling water poured over it, and will often, in less well-designed strainers, burn the fingers in question. If requested, milk and sugar will be brought to the table as well—the milk in a tiny ceramic pitcher, the sugar in pleasing cubes which allow for the timeless delight of pouring the hot tea over a cube or two and watching them dissolve slowly, as though nothing in the world mattered more.

The sandwiches evoke cuisines beyond France and Japan. There is the properly British boiled egg, tomato, and cucumber; four varieties of the quintessential French Croque Monsieur (grilled ham and cheese); a number of riffs on the Italian prosciutto and mozzarella (one substitutes shiitake mushrooms for the meat, another adds sundried tomato to the mix); something called a Hungarian toast, featuring cheese, salami, and pickles; and a nod to California cuisine which layers avocado, tomato, cucumber, and alfalfa sprouts in a pleasing tower. There is a whole host of other delicious options available all the time, augmented by daily specials that change depending on season and availability. Every sandwich is available on your choice of sourdough, seven-grain, or baguette, delivered each morning by the excellent Tom Cat Bakery. Two soups are offered on a daily basis, as well, and if you find yourself lucky enough to visit on a day where Japanese Wild Yam is one of the soups of the day, do not be foolish enough to eat anything else. Order it, burgeoning spring weather be damned. I would eat that light and silky puree in the dog days of August and praise it still.

One afternoon not long ago, the chalkboard listing the specials of the day offered two chicken sandwiches: teriyaki, or roast chicken breast. A note next to the roast chicken listing read: "onions, teriyaki only!" Thè Adoré is full of such charming idiosyncracies, some of which will remind Bill Murray fans of many a scene from Lost In Translation, wherein the cultural divide will appear to be not so much a chasm as a window onto an intriguing other. Perhaps it's a bit more Alice-and-her-looking-glass: noting that the baked goods in the window marked "cupcakes" are, in fact, not cupcakes at all, but rather members of the scone or muffin family; or puzzling over the meaning of "soup, w/or roll," or trying to make some cohesive sense of the goings-on at the take-out counter downstairs, which includes customers grabbing up (depending on the time of day) handmade chocolate truffles, French toast brioche dusted with powdered sugar, Ito-En bottled green teas, Canadian bacon sandwiches, madeleines, coconut cookies, lattés, croissants, and avocado toasts with a side salad.

"Where do you get these from?" a woman frowned next to me one afternoon, pointing at a lovely miniature fruit tart in the display case.

"We make all here," said the equally lovely young Japanese woman behind the display case, smiling as she answered in the soft voice so pleasantly unique to all Thè Adoré employees.

The customer's eyebrows lifted to the sky. "Well, geez," she said, her frown dissolving into a smile as she turned to include me in her amazement. "Isn't that special!" She made a gesture at the tiny kitchen, which, like everything in the restaurant, is a paean to spare beauty, not an iota bigger than it needs to be for its admirably efficient staff, but clean and well-designed, pleasing to the eye and soothing to the harried city soul. And indeed, I would have to nod and agree, as I did that day.

Thè Adoré is special, not just because it provides truly excellent, thoughtfully-prepared food and drink; nor only because its servers, in addition to their pleasant voices, take real pride in presenting your meal serenely and without any hint of the fact that they may need your table in the tiny seven-table room back desperately; but also because this restaurant is, at its heart, truly a restaurant rather than merely a café. It does what restaurants are supposed to do: The word comes from the Old French restorer, meaning to restore or refresh. Thè Adoré whittles away the excess from that meaning, removes the layers of pomp and circumstance other restaurants pile on in hopes of creating a memorable dining experience, and presents itself simply and honestly. The sunny second-floor dining room, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of 13th Street traffic, offers a respite from the storm, an hour or two of tranquility in the hubbub of everyday life. You emerge with a sense of renewal, a little more at peace with the world. You emerge restored, refreshed, your day a little better for having stopped at Thè Adoré.

Thè Adoré: 17 E. 13th street near Union Square. 212-243-8742

Related on the Web:

• Capsule reviews of Thè Adoré: New York Times and Tea Map

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