Tea is the new wine.
It's almost as complex, and after visiting a few of London's top tea rooms you will start to detect nuances.
The Lanesborough hotel, located just across from Hyde Park, is everyone's fantasy spot for a refined afternoon tea. Diners in the newly refurbished, light-filled conservatory that holds Apsleys sit on posh sofas and chairs amid soothing light green walls accented in pink. Cloth-covered tables are set with china sporting a delicate pattern of blackberries and leaves, and live piano music sets just the right tone. While eyes are still feasting on lovely ceiling plasterwork in the raised arcade surrounded the tea area and busy examining large oriental pots holding bamboo and ferns, fresh red strawberries and cream arrive along with flutes of Taittinger Champagne. They are followed by a small pot of panna cotta topped with blood orange puree. This is the top-of-the-line Belgravia Tea--named for the area of London--and it additionally includes all the items in the regular Lanesborough Tea.
The preparation of the tea itself is overseen by Tea Sommelier, Karl Kessab, who says, "I've taken tea here to a higher level." He is passionate about his craft and uses a modern silver samovar to heat water to precise temperatures for specific teas, all of which are served in graceful silver teapots. Kessab says that because "people are more savvy about tea now, like wine," he personally visits tea estates in Sri Lanka to select extraordinary teas.
Guests can try several teas, even starting with one and finishing with another—not a bad idea if you're trying to minimize caffeine. The signature Lanesborough Afternoon Blend created just for this tea room consists of Darjeeling, China Keemum, and whole rosebuds. A Forest Berries infusion (herbal tea) produces a gorgeous muted raspberry-colored brew. Several rarer teas can be sipped for a small additional charge, including a mellow hand-picked Hajua Estate White Assam that is known for being especially rich in antioxidants.
Three-tiered trays hold sandwich squares, triangles, and circles filled with traditional egg, tuna, and salmon, as well as classic curry-chicken on wheatberry and cucumber and cream cheese on white. Teeny loaves of walnut bread, lemon-poppyseed sponge cake, and heavenly buttered cinnamon teacakes are paired with housemade strawberry jam and clotted cream. Scones come with butter and lemon curd, and sweet endings include tiny pistachio cakes topped with a circle of fresh raspberries and petite Black Forest cake circles. Oh my.
And all the while, servers flutter around pouring more tea and making sure all is well. (Afternoon Tea, $61; Belgravia Tea, $77.)
Another day, another tea.
The Orangery is located right in Hyde Park and ties in well with a walk through the park and a visit to its free Serpentine Gallery, and to Kensington Palace (most recently lived in by Princess Diana from 1981 to 1997), which is located adjacent to the tea room.
Designed in 1702 for Queen Anne, this elegant Baroque greenhouse was once the palace's citrus house and used for court ceremonies. Now it is a cheery place indeed for a revitalizing tea break, with large windows flooding its long hall with light. Katie Fluester, who oversees the tea service here and has a high energy that is probably enhanced by caffeine, enthuses, "We are trying to make The Orangery a center of excellence for tea. We are precise about the temperature of the water and brew tea at the optimum brewing time." In reference to the Tregothnan Single Estate Tea that is available with tea service for an additional $40 per person, she adds, "We're the only restaurant in the world that serves the pure, unblended version of this rare domestic black tea grown right here in Cornwall, England."
At these prices, perhaps we're heading back to the days when tea was so dear that it was kept in a locked chest, and the lady of the house wore the key around her neck. After brewing the tea in those days, the servants would be given the leftover leaves as a bonus.
A mega-cake table laden with an array of sweets greets diners at the entry, providing food for thought about delights to come. The Orangery Tea includes traditional sandwiches and scones, and among the sweets are its famous Orangery orange pound cake and the Victoria sponge cake with thick cream.
In good weather diners can take tea outside in a grassy garden.
Another day brings yet another exceptional tea at the Four Seasons Hotel London, which is on another corner just across the street from Hyde Park. Most guests want to be seated in the cozy main floor Amaranto Lounge just off the lobby, but when celebrities have usurped the space, you'll most likely be redirected upstairs to the Hamilton View Room. This room also has its charm, with live piano music, dark green walls hung with a large collection of bird prints, and tables covered with white linen edged with openwork.
The Four Seasons has been serving its seasonal Champagne Afternoon Tea for 35 years now. It begins with a glass of Louis Roederer Champagne and a choice of more than 60 teas and fruit infusions (the whole rosebuds might be the most lovely). The hotel's own Anniversary Blend combines four ingredients—lemon, orange, cornflower, and bergamot--each representing a season of the year. Delightful hand-tied flowering green tea is also an option.
To excite your palate, a three-tiered tray holds the traditional British items but with an Asian twist, and the menu changes with the seasons. Sandwiches might be Thai chicken salad on a round coconut brioche or lemongrass-braised beef on granary bread. Freshly baked scones come with pear-ginger jam and the de rigeur Devonshire clotted cream, while sweets are presented on a separate elegant tray. Selecting only two from an eye-popping assortment of five—perhaps a sour cherry, chocolate, and pistachio roulade or an orange and strawberry mousse tartlet—is difficult.
After any of these teas, you'll be good for the evening. Plan your time for tea well, and you'll be able to dash out after for clubbing or a blockbuster play.
●Afternoon tea usually is served between 3 and 5 p.m., and reservations are advised.
●London’s official website.
Carole Terwilliger Meyers blogs at Travels With Carole.
copyright 2013 Carole Terwilliger Meyers