An afternoon of tea and crumpets

I’m half British, so it should come as no surprise to any of you that I’m a big fan of afternoon tea.  I love allowing a pause during those otherwise frantically busy days to relax and enjoy a good cup of tea and miniature-sized foods.  Today, in celebration of my mom’s birthday (again), I ventured to the St. Regis hotel for their once-a-week afternoon tea buffet–yes, you heard me right, an afternoon tea buffet. Strange, I know, but it was eye-opening.

Afternoon tea usually consists of a selection of small, light sandwiches, scones with jam, jelly, and clotted cream, then some assortment of cakes and pastries.  Sometimes I take issue with afternoon tea service because the sandwiches are typically my favorite part yet you may only get one chance to choose just a handful.  Not being able to choose your exact quantity when it comes to finger foods is a bit annoying, but another quandary I often face is timing.

A relaxing afternoon break should ideally be set at a leisurely pace, but as restaurants do I’ve been rushed through my sandwiches and scones much to my chagrin.  Fortunately, a buffet fixes all that: you choose what you want, when you want it, and how long to wait in between courses.  Unfortunately, though, I have little to no self-control, so I plow through those sandwiches and sweets like there’s no tomorrow.  I’m not a model student when it comes to learning the art of pacing a languorous meal, but you see my point.

I’m happy to report that the St. Regis did not disappoint at all.  Beginning with the sandwiches, there were six different types and all of them were as good or better than any I’ve had elsewhere.  The cucumber with creme fraiche and dill was my favorite, followed by the roast beef (though it was well-done and a bit dry) and the salmon (the bread could have been more complimentary to the fish).  All were classics, so the smiling face of innovation did not make an appearance, but afternoon tea isn’t really about innovation is it?  It’s a classic experience on the face of it, and should remain so through its soul.

Breaking from tradition, though, the St. Regis did have an assortment of salads that were quite out of place (caprese and Waldorf salads come to mind), as well as hummus (always good) and spring rolls (what?).  The food quality was excellent across the board, but since the St. Regis has a well-attended and absolutely fantastic Sunday brunch with all of those items, I question their choice to include the seemingly random assortment of Sunday food along with the classic Saturday afternoon tea.  Pick a theme and stick with it, I say.  If I wanted shrimp and dumplings, I would come on Sunday.

I must say that it was an interesting dynamic to be able to serve myself my small sandwiches and scones, since the foundation upon which afternoon tea is built is a relaxing seating.  However, given the buffet format, I found myself standing up every 10 minutes or so to move to the next course or get seconds of the current one.  Perhaps this was because I’m not very good and strategically planning my buffet trips, but either way I found that it disrupted the normal flow of the experience where moments of tranquility are punctuated only by nagging calls of nature.

Regardless of this relatively minor bother, the St. Regis truly shined in its dessert selection.  Beginning with the scones, a staple of any proper afternoon tea, I was quite pleased with them.  They were firm, but crumbly in the right places.  They were fresh and soft, and buttery to the core.  I appreciated the inclusion of authentic Devon clotted cream, but I was a bit disappointed by the homemade strawberry jam, which was really just sliced strawberries in a sweet sticky goo.  Maybe that is somebody’s definition of jam, but the texture was distracting and the taste was overly sweet.

And the rest of the desserts?  Well, what can I say, just look at the pictures!  All in miniature format, I tirelessly (and thanklessly I might add, you’re welcome) sampled creme brulee, chocolate mousse, blueberry muffins, carrot cake, lemon-almond cake, vanilla mousse, and chocolate truffles and ganache.  All were superb, if a bit sweet, and were as always an overwhelmingly unnecessary end to an entirely satisfying meal.

As for the tea itself, the St. Regis got it 90% right.  My problem with their tea service was that they brought the teapots with the tea leaves still in the pot (and not visible).  Without alerting us that we can (and should) remove the tea leaves soon, all too often the tea will be completely overbrewed, bitter, and unpleasant.  The best afternoon tea purveyors I’ve visited have waited the extra three or four minutes to allow the leaves to steep the correct amount of time, and then have brought over the teapots at the perfect balance.  This had the potential to make the experience slightly less exquisite, but fortunately my mom noticed and I promptly saved my blessed tea.

In sum, afternoon tea at the St. Regis hotel in buffet format exceeded my expectations.  I entered thinking that a “true” afternoon tea had to be served to you, possibly on multi-tiered silver platters, but definitely in a set order and a set pace.  Turns out, that’s not true.  Buffet-style, at the quality of the St. Regis, has become a new favorite of mine, and I hope to return on another Saturday in the near future.

Check out my photo gallery to see all the pictures of the tea, because some of the dishes were remarkably beautiful and they make my amateur photography skills look a lot better than they are, such as the macaroons pictured below.

Mark posted this on July 26, 2008 and is filed under Restaurants.

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