Pastries Infused With Tea and Love at Tiny Pinecone Teahouse
Pop-ups continue to proliferate around the city, as rents remain absurdly high and storefronts vacant. Greenwich Village newcomer Tiny Pinecone (58 West 8th Street, 732-977-8775) fills the area's void in high-quality teas, which are here paired with pastries that outshine the usual baked goods found in local cafés. But be careful of falling in love: For now, the cute Japanese-inspired spot plans to remain in its 8th Street location (a woefully cursed block for retailers and restaurants) only until February 2015.
Lisa Chan and Ben Hon, the proprietors of Tiny Pinecone (named after the pine cones Chan collected as a child in South Carolina), are a husband-and-wife team with longtime penchants for food and hospitality. While they grew up in separate states, both of their families operated Chinese restaurants, Chan's in South Carolina and Hon's in New Jersey. Fittingly, their paths intersected over edibles at Rutgers in 1997, when Chan asked to snack on some of the fruit Hon frequently piled high on his desk during class.
Despite their food-heavy heritage, neither Chan nor Hon started out in the field. Chan came to New York to pursue interior design and architecture, but worked evening shifts in local bakeries. Realizing she was "more excited at 5 p.m. to head off to [her] second job," Chan altered her trajectory toward a culinary career. She earned her French Pastry Arts certificate from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Pâtisserie in France. Afterwards, she gained experience around the country, including working four months at three-star Michelin restaurant Regis et Jacques Marcon, before returning to New York.
Meanwhile, Hon finished Rutgers Business School and rode the finance route into the city, including a six-year stint at UBS. Feeling disillusioned with the industry, however, he jumped on the chance to open Tiny Pinecone with his wife when the opportunity presented itself.
Open only a few weeks, the café has developed a comfortable vibe. A soothing soundtrack of golden oldies, ranging from Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" to Bill Withers's "Lean on Me," filters softly into the clean, inviting space. A handful of window-facing stools and white ceramic-tiled tables encourage patrons to linger over tea and pastries baked daily by Chan in the open kitchen in the rear.
The décor nods toward Japanese aesthetics, partially a relic of the former occupant, Matsunosuke, a Japanese-New England bakery. The owner of the bakery, friends with Chan and Hon, returned to Tokyo to ply her homeland's eager palates with American apple pie, but has ties to their new venture. Nature-inspired textiles in blue and red hang on a blond wood wall. Shelves are adorned with ceramic tea mugs and Chan's ribbon-tied bags of butterscotch popcorn, both available for purchase; pine cones, petite orange pumpkins, and dried red leaves, arranged in between, reflect the seasonal swing into winter.
During a recent visit, the welcoming aromas of fresh-baked sweets punctuated by notes of toasted coconut from an angel food test cake greeted customers seeking refuge from the biting wind outside. While Chan experiments daily with different tea-infused recipes, her core items -- like Benny Pennies (mini black sesame wafers), apple-studded bread pudding with Darjeeling crème anglaise, lavender-oolong cream puffs, and the signature chiffon cake piped with matcha milk jam -- lay neatly arranged on the counter, competing for patrons' attention. The matcha milk jam, Chan's original creation, is essentially a green-tinged, matcha tea-spiked dulce de leche that takes hours -- and a lot of milk -- to make, and tastes as delicious as it sounds. She plans to sell it in small pots in a few weeks, making it a perfect stocking-stuffer for food lovers.
While Chan excels at pastries, she and Hon direct an equal and complementary amount of focus on tea. The drink was integral to their families' cultures; Chan's mother always filled her school lunch box thermos with it. This fall, she received her Tea Mastery certification from the International Tea Masters Association, and both she and Hon "tend tea" with extreme care, brewing in one of three Hario Tea Drippers, a contraption that functions like a pour-over for coffee drinkers.
The duo plan to rotate their selection of loose leafs (housed in silver canisters behind the register) as they discover new varieties to share with customers. However, the six classes of teas, drawing primarily from China, Japan, and Taiwan, will always be represented: white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and pu-erh. For those avoiding caffeine, Tiny Pinecone sells Sobacha, a roasted buckwheat tea. Spiced chai enthusiasts can order the proprietary house blend. The couple also offers Japanese sencha brewed in a Kyusu Pot.
Hanging out in Tiny Pinecone with a cup of roasted Hojicha, the faint scent of a campfire wafting out of the glass, can bring calm to even the most shattered New Yorker. With the cacophony of the city streets and endless construction sites left behind, friendly conversation with Hon and the aromas of warm cookies from the oven can deceive you into believing you're in the home of a friend.
For now, Tiny Pinecone provides complimentary Wi-Fi, and is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and closed on Sundays and Mondays. While the pop-up has an uncertain future, Chan and Hon hope to find a permanent space in which they can expand the menu, offer tea and pastry flights, and conduct classes on brewing techniques. So, on second thought, go ahead and fall in love; it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
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