Far From the Maddening Crowd: Covington’s English Tea Room transports those who step through its doors to a place far, far away.
Glowing in colors that are somewhere between the softness of Beatrix Potter illustrations and the vividness of Disney, the English Tea Room looks like something a wise Alice might have created when she returned from Wonderland, assisted by the Mad Hatter after they shared a calming pot of chamomile tea. Owners Jan and Tim Lantrip have created enchantment here; it’s more than a tea room, it’s like being within the soft fragrant sanctuary of an English rose.
Completely drained by spending six days without power because of Hurricane Isaac, the moment I saw the butter-colored Depression era cottage that houses the tea room rising on a shady street-corner hill, I was wrapped in a magical serenity that only deepened as the cottage unfolded its treasures.
Honey-colored wooden floors; butter cream walls; ceiling shelves lined with Toby jugs and antique tea containers; tables filled with flowered bone china teacups and saucers; portraits of Queens Elizabeth I and II, Victoria; former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; teapots; a tapestry, and all things wonderfully, quaintly British glowed in soft light. I was first greeted by Nigel, the Lantrip’s black Scottie terrier and icon-in-residence, who quickly laid across my sandals and received a good belly-scratching. A splendid portrait of Nigel painted against the backdrop of the Union Jack adorns the wall of the Tudor Room.
Jan Lantrip is a compound pharmacist with a background in chemistry who has a passion for high quality tea. She’s also the largest importer of high quality teas from here to Chicago. “People who drink tea are happy. The nicest people drink tea,” she states.
Sitting in a window in the Hunt Room are Teri and Paul Broussard, tearoom regulars, who smile warmly at me. They are regular patrons according to Paul, because they find the atmosphere to be “a world apart” from the fast pace of life today, and the quiet perfectly conducive for them to peacefully socialize with one another. Through the opened doorway, Nigel now sleeps curled up on the back of the sofa in The Churchill Room, filled with Tim Lantrip’s memorabilia of his beloved prime minister.
Pouring some Earl Grey Cream for me into a delicate purple flowered cup, Jan explains that the creaminess comes from the oil of Bergamot added to the leaves; after two sips of this nectar-like brew, I felt my body drain begin to dissipate. According to Jan, loose teas are infinitely preferable to tea bags because they are a higher grade of tea leaves. Additionally she notes, one cup of a high quality tea has as many antioxidants as three to four servings of fruit and vegetables. She states that teas grown at the highest altitudes are the most pure and nutritionally beneficial. Fascinated by the health benefits of tea, Jan extols its healing qualities. Commercial tea bags, she informs me, are filled with “fannings,” the inferior leavings after the superior leaf has been harvested.
“Not only does tea refresh you, it’s very calming because it increases serotonin levels in the brain that have an anti-depressive effect, promoting overall wellness,” says Lantrip. She is a strong proponent of the tea, Pu-erh Oolong, a fierce fighter she says of belly fat, cholesterol decreaser and metabolism booster.
The tea selections number over a hundred, and cover the spectrum of black, green, white, Pu-erh, Chai, herbal and Rooibos. Black tea offerings include the Versailles Lavender Earl Grey: French # 1 lavender infused into this already fragrant tea is considered intoxicating.
Because of her fascination with the health benefits of tea, Jan takes her establishment into a realm that might be described as “homeopathic gourmand.” The English Tea Room has breakfast, lunch and high tea menus, serving items that have been cooked with healthy tea infusions.
“I cook with tea on several levels,” says Lantrip. “Infused leaves, direct leaf addition, and grilling or smoking with leaves.” She describes tea that is brewed the old fashioned way as an excellent replacement for water or broth in a recipe. Using hot tea on roasted or grilled meats is perfect to absorb juice and moisture. It is a regular practice of the tea room to use tea in their soup recipes. According to Jan, their very popular tomato basil soup has a healthy infusion of a pot of Formosa Oolong, not water, perfect because of its toasty flavor and light orchid tones that adds sweetness and cuts some of the bitterness of cooked tomatoes.
The Coronation Chicken Salad, a dish that was served at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, is flavored with a tribute in mind to the days of the British Empire in India. Lantrip and her cooking staff first roast, then baste a chicken with Indian Spice Chai tea filled with notes of cardamon, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and black peppercorns; the accompanying sauce, prepared with mild curry paste and apricots, all combine to make an empirical marriage of flavors.
Even the desserts are not excluded from tea infusions. The Chocolate Chai Trifle is made using powdered chai tea with a sweet sprinkling of honey crystals and healthy non-fat dry milk. Ever popular, the trifle is a layered creation of deep fudge cake, amaretto cream, whipped cream and powdered chocolate chai.
For cooking vegetables, Lantrip uses the lighter, more delicate teas such as Pai Mu Tan and Mutan White Tea. For poultry and meats, she recommends the hearty Brit blends redolent of malt and oak.
Returning to her beloved subject of health and tea, Lantrip extols the healing qualities of Rooibos Herbal teas that she regularly serves. Rooibus is South African for “red bush,” and studies have shown that it prevents colic and gastrointestinal problems in children and adults. Having twenty times the antioxidants found in green tea, Rooibus is proving to be a strong anti-inflammatory agent, in addition to being filled with antihistamine and antiviral traits.
All of this wisdom, health and delicious flavor is served in the exquisite British tea tradition that rose from castle drawing rooms and cottages alike across the United Kingdom. The tea room was the brainchild of Tim Lantrip, spurred by his abiding love of English history and culture. He is proud of his Scotch-English blood. Both Lantrips have high regard for time honored Old World traditions.
“When you go to an Asian or Mexican restaurant, you are served in an Asian or Mexican atmosphere,” says Jan Lantrip, “at this English restaurant, you are served in an English atmosphere.”
You can’t help but feel that Agatha Christie and Miss Marple would really enjoy being there; even HRH Elizabeth II would be sure to draw a second wind.
Tim Lantrip guided me to his favorite room, the masculine Churchill Room (the cottage is divided into five rooms with themes: the Tudor Room, the glassed in side porch called the Sanctuary, The Queen’s Parlor, The Hunt Room).
“I love this business so much because of the type of people it draws,” says Lantrip. He shows me a silver 1890s cash register replete with the pound and pence sign that still works.
“One day a lady showed up and just gave this to me because she loves this place so much.” Similar stories surround a gold metal engraved military cigarette case from the early nineteen hundreds, a vintage jubilee poster of Victoria toward the end of her reign, and a Sotheby-auctioned office royal court photograph of the Duke of Windsor (he of the “without the help and support of the woman I love” fame.)
An outbuilding at the back of the tea room houses the delightful Alice in Wonderland cottage, filled with murals that depict Disney’s wonderful characters, dedicated to children’s tea parties also attended by actual Mad Hatters, Alice, White Rabbits, and the Queen of Hearts, who entertain the children royally.
The restorative quality of the tea I drank and the tranquil atmosphere of the surroundings, made it clear that there is something magical here.
“The Tea Room runs contrary to the way the world is going,” adds Tim Lantrip.
“There’s no fast food here.”
Details. Details. Details.
The English Tea Room
734 East Rutland Street