Saturday, May 8, 2010

London: Some twists on afternoon tea

So I ask you: should I cry or laugh?
Drinking tea in a King's Cross caff
A leather jacket against the cold
Gone down to London, changing coal into gold
— Joe Jackson, "Down to London"

Well, blokes and birds, I'm just back from four nights (well, five after the canceled return flight) in London, the sole purpose of which was to drink as much tea as possible. I organized the trip with the help of the friendly folks at Visit Britain, and I'll be writing about the trip extensively here on the blog this week as well as for other outlets in the near future. So here goes ...

The mission of this voyage was to dive into the epicenter of afternoon tea, that storied Western (and specifically British) custom, and explore some places that are trying to do it a bit differently. In four afternoons, I sat for five afternoon teas. Here are some thoughts on three of them ...

Afternoon tea at the Ritz
I started in the belly of the beast, as it were, figuring that tea at the famed Ritz would set the controls on this experiment. Tea at this Piccadilly hotel is an institution in London, and the service wins awards fairly regularly. People line up for the experience; reservations are required and must be made months in advance. The Palm Court is certainly an opulent room, just off the hotel's Long Gallery (read: lobby), rich with golden decor and an air of wealth that stops surprisingly short of stuffiness.

But I must say, I found the whole tea experience there fairly underwhelming. I ordered a strong tea, Russian Caravan, which was not strong, though it was served in a splendid, heavy silver pot. It's a basic menu. But the sandwiches were bready and a bit stiff, the scones were biscuity and bland (they could've come from a tube, really), the sweets were OK (the coconut macaroon with a fruit jelly is a winner). The experience seemed more touristy than traditional. They pack people in for five seatings a day — the first afternoon tea seating is at 11:30 in the morning — and charge £38 for the basic tea and up to £49 with champagne. That's a lot of silver for tea that's fine but not spectacular, and an experience you can't really linger over because they're fluffing the tablecloths as the next round of hungry shoppers drifts in.

My favorite part of the Ritz tea was the pianist, Ian Gomes. This kind of playing — providing ambiance, background, subconscious support without performing — is so difficult, and this guy was so smooth knocking out lively but not too lively takes on standards from "Tea for Two" (of course) to "Puttin' on the Ritz" (of course). I chatted with him during his break. Fascinating career: he had a rock band in his native India ("playing real rock, you know, Elvis 12-bar rock — not like these bands today where everything is called rock") and then worked for Sinatra for 11 years. He wasn't Sinatra's on-stage pianist; Gomes played for the Chairman after hours. "He'd finish his show and want to hear piano music in his hotel suite while he entertained guests, people like Gene Kelly and others dropping by to see him," Gomes said. "I played every night for him, from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m." As Gomes returned to the keys Thursday afternoon, as he has at the Ritz for the last 15 years, he asked if I wanted to hear something. I said, "Play Frank's favorite song." He sat down and slid into "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" He then merged it into "Chicago," both as a Sinatra reference and a wink to where I'd just come from.

Afternoon Tea for Men at the Mandeville Hotel
Since afternoon tea is often viewed as a feminine pursuit, the deVille restaurant at the comfy Mandeville Hotel has fashioned a tea service that might appeal to XYs. The idea is, according to the hotel's PR folks as well as my waiter, to create an occasion for discussing business that's not as dramatic and maybe even more conducive to talking than a heavy lunch, dinner or cocktail hour. Makes sense. So imagine my surprise when, during my Friday afternoon visit, the tea patrons included me ... and about 20 young women, all in pink sashes and pink dresses sitting with pink balloons, celebrating some lass's impending nuptials.

Here's how the Mandeville butches up afternoon tea: heartier food, and whiskey pairings. It's pretty brilliant, really, and it works. The waiter was flummoxed when I asked for bourbon selections instead of whiskeys (damn Yank) but he brought me a neat glass of beloved Woodford. I have to say, the sweeter nature of a bourbon is a better choice for this than a peaty whiskey. It envelops the flavors of the manly chow — a sirloin sandwich with red onion and thyme jam (awesome), grilled veggies with brie on toast, a sesame beef skewer, chicken satay and a smooth crab salad. The only drawback to this approach is that this chow is served hot, as opposed to the typical tea sandies, and it cools quickly. The second plate, with the scones, included — get this — a deep-fried fig dusted with powdered sugar and with chocolate injected into its center (brilliant, and lighter than you might expect). The usual jams and cream were delivered, plus a chili-cream sauce (great on the satay) and an anchovy paste. Here's where we make our manly "Home Improvement" woofing sounds.

So you don't necessarily want a light green tea to go with this. I ordered the Mandeville Special Blend, made especially for the hotel by London's Jing; the menu said this was smoky, but it wasn't very — rather surprisingly light, but solid enough to mix cheerful company with the second and third plates. And it paired beautifully with the bourbon, creating an eye-popping butterscotch flavor when the tea followed the liquor. The only oddity about the tea service here is that the waiter pours your tea but doesn't leave you the pot, so when you want a refill you have to flag someone down — which is no mean feat while 20 bachelorettes are playing party games.

All in all, though, this was a great experience. And I felt very manly. Harumph, harumph.

Afternoon tea at the Dorchester Hotel
If the Ritz seemed to prostitute its traditions a bit for the sake of turning the tables, the Dorchester stands proudly with an afternoon tea service that illustrates how magnificent the experience of afternoon tea can be. No gimmicks, just superb service and fine offerings, presented well in a beautiful room.

If you're going to splurge for the glass of champagne during an afternoon tea, do so at the five-star Dorchester. They offer some decent basics, but they also have a bottle exclusive to the hotel, the Gabriel-Pagin 1er Cru 2000, and it's a treat for the tongue — glowing with honey tones and hints of citrus, and it pairs so beautifully with the menu that the sense memory is making me salivate as I write. The sandwiches are vibrant and obviously fresh; they're basic, really — egg salad, chicken, etc. (and roast beef "because it's Sunday," one of my servers said) — but each is made with a different bread (caraway seed with the cucumber, yum) so the basics seem not so basic. After that, the Dorchester offers something that might be my new favorite word: a "pre-dessert." Just a little vanilla panicotta to clear the palate. Then comes the tea, provided here by Harney & Sons. I went commie again, choosing the Russian Country, a blend of four blacks plus (finally, someone gets this) the exact right amount of lapsang souchong. The scones, fine. The jams, delish. The sweets, inventive. (One was a basil-lime macaroon, which was delicious ... but not with tea.) The service throughout was absolutely impeccable. When your tea pot needs refreshing, they don't just bring you more hot water; they whisk away your pot and cup and bring you brand spanking new ones. Huzzah!

The only bad thing I can offer about the Dorchester tea experience is the nature of the room. The Promenade is elegant without being showy, but pay attention to its name. It's called the Promenade because it's just that — a walkway for people strolling between the lobby and the rooms, and the restaurants, piano bar, etc. On one hand, this makes for some fine people watching — London is nothing if not diverse, even in its fine hotels — but, on the other, the traffic can be distracting.

The Dorchester offers just two seatings a day (2:30 and 4:45 p.m.) and is, no surprise, booked way ahead. But the maitre d' gave me a tip when I chatted with him on a very cold, rainy London afternoon: "My worst days are when the weather is beautiful," he said. "That's when we can get up to 20 to 25 percent no-shows." The lesson: If you want tea at the Dorchester (and you do) and you don't have a reservation, try them on a sunny spring or summer afternoon. They hold reservations for half an hour. If folks don't show, you can likely snag their table.


  1. The Dorchester is well-known for its formal afternoon tea served in The Promenade, but the hotel also offers a more intimate option.

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