The Highs and Lows of Tea

Those of you who know me or read this blog regularly know I’m a bit of a high tea aficionado. I definitely do my fair share of sconning around (he he) at five star hotels and well known bakeries and, as well as this blog, I also write reviews of high teas for highteasociety.com

The best high tea I’ve ever experienced was at The Dorchester, in London (of course!), where the waitstaff wore tails, the tea menu resembled War and Peace and the stawberry jam, I was assured, was made fresh on the premises that morning using locally sourced English strawberries (none of those nasty wastrel Continental strawberries here, thank you very much…) And, happily, Melbourne is also home to some stellar high tea options, from the classic pomp of The Windsor, to the cutesy nostaglia of The Hopetoun Tearooms, to the chocolate extravaganza that is The Langham on weekends and the modern high tea at The Sheraton, Melbourne does it extremely well. 

   

However…and here is where the slightly ranty writer takes over… I think there are some extremely substandard high teas in Melbourne. Teas that do not deserve the prefix of ‘high’ at all. Not mentioning any names (ahem Intercontinental Melbourne) but I recently booked for what was advertised as a Sound of Music themed high tea with a group of my closest girlfriends. Weeks before the high tea, we joyfully compared notes on how we thought The Sound of Music, a much-beloved film by all attending, would be incorporated into the high tea. Would there be crisp apple strudel (probably…)? Would there be gifts for guests in brown paper tied up with string (maybe…)? Would there be schnitzel with noodles (hmmm less likely…)?

I can tell you now that there were precisely zero of these things, with the only weak attempt at ‘theming’ being to play The Sound of Music soundtrack in the restaurant instead of their normal background music. The food was variously bland, blah and bleh, with only the scones and a singular macaron managing good scores from me. At one point we ordered cups of English Breakfast tea (memo to hotel: that is kind of a standard order for guests at a high tea) and were presented with a teapot but no teacups. We waited at least fifteen minutes, trying to flag down service, before I eventually got up from the table and chased down a staff member who seemed thoroughly confused by my request for teacups, milk and teaspoons.

Some important additional memos for this establishment include:

– Just because you have made something in miniature does not mean it is delicious. It needs to be both delicious and miniature to make it on to the high tea stand.

– Train your staff in basic etiquette, like not laughing when a guest enquires as to whether they serve chai lattes.

– Also train your staff to inform guests on what delights have been placed in front of them. A quick run though of what’s on each tier of the stand is generally helpful, but not when items are variously described as ‘a sushi looking cake’ (it was a miniature circluar black forest cake) and ‘um sorbet’ (it was a palate cleanser of raspberry sorbet).

– When you do serve sorbet in tiny shot glasses, try to fill those glasses evenly, so there’s not an unseemly scramble at the table for the ones that are not only half full. 

– Reconsider charging approx. $14 for a glass of second-rate Australian bubbles.

– Miniature apple crumbles should ideally contain apple, not some kind of kindergarten paste. 

Sadly that was not the only somewhat disappointing high tea I’ve had in Melbourne lately. At another five-star establishment (*cough* The Sofitel) I was disappointed to find the entire high tea was served buffet style. Don’t get me wrong, I love a buffet, but no matter how nice it is, it lacks the refinement of having a beautiful tiered stand and a glass of champagne arrive promptly at your table. I believe they serve tiered stands of afternoon tea during the week, so why no tiers on the weekend? Seriously, why? It brings me to tears…okay that was lame, sorry.

And, while the food at The Sofitel was actually of a very good standard, with delicious cakes and a flashy crepe station, the service was again disappointingly disorganised. There were no instructions on how the high tea was organised  or when or where to start on the buffet. My special order of vegetarian sandwiches arrived at the table 45 minutes into the high tea without explanation, long after I’d already eaten what vegetarian options I could find on the savouries table and moved on to sweets. And the tea itself again (what is it with serving tea?) took absolutely ages to make it to our table. Sigh. First world problems, I know.  

Review: A European Sandwich

Last weekend was a European sandwich, in dining terms that is, with my weekend sandwiched between two awesome Euro-dining experiences. 

First up, on Friday night, was dinner at Epocha. This is an intimately lit on-trend restaurant tucked away on the edge of the city opposite Carlton Gardens. The back of the menu features a reproduction of a historic map of Melbourne, including Carlton Gardens and Epocha’s location, but it was what was on the front of the menu that really captured my attention. It’s a lovely mix of classic French techniques, hearty German inspired dishes and a few summery Italian style salads and sides. That sounds like a confused menu, but actually it all works well together. 

We started off with a few lighter dishes that I’d class as Italian: polenta chips and a fig and buffalo mozzerella salad. The salad was really special – sweet and creamy and tangy, with just a little crunch. I probably could have just had a big plate of that for dinnner and been more than happy! Then we went a little bit French with duck-fat roasted  potatoes (minus the duck fat for me) and an heirloom carrot salad. Finally, my friend and I shared a big plate of spaetzle, which is sort of like a mini German dumpling-cross-gnocchi. That was served with a summery topping of roasted and creamed corn, tomatoes and zucchini. Being vegetarian, I opted for a lot of vegetable based dishes, but non-veggies are well catered for in traditional European style – you can start with three different varieties of oysters and back it up with anything from quail to crispy pigs’ ears to beef ribs or confit duck. 



We were too full for dessert that night, but I have experienced their extremely tempting dessert trolley in the past – it won’t disappoint, the Europeans know what they are doing when it comes to cake! You can also opt for a sharing menu, which includes dessert and will leave you feeling about the size of Europe, but very satisfied. With a bar upstairs (not always open), the wine list is extensive and on the expensive side of things and the cocktails are excellent, if not a bit limited in range. 

This dinner was followed, on Sunday afternoon, by a trip to Paris. Not an actual trip (I wish), just a short visit for my tastebuds in the form of ‘High Tea in Paris’ at The Waiting Room at Crown Towers. The high tea is part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival calendar and is offered until mid March. I hadn’t been to The Waiting Room before and I have to say the ambience wasn’t really 5-star in that you do sort of feel that you’re half sitting in Crown’s lobby, with a lot of people passing through. The food and service though were excellent and definitely made the high tea worthwhile. The menu starts with champagne and finger sandwiches, which is pretty much the most delightful way a menu can start! The finger sandwhiches, served on individual wooden boards, included smoked salmon, a mini toasted croque monsieur (ham and cheese) and rock lobster and caviar. For vegetarians the selection included more classic cucumber and cream cheese, egg salad and brie with fig and quince paste. The brie/quince one was not a winner at my table, as it was weirdly sweet and kind of dry, but the cucumber sandwiches were a standout. 



Following sandwiches, you get to choose three showcase cakes each from a beautiful selection in glass cabinets at the front of the restaurant. I went with a hazelnut chocolate mousse cake, a raspberry creme brulee slice and a macaron and amaretto sponge cake. The cakes are glossy, multi-coloured and many layered creations which look almost too good to eat. Somehow we managed though! They were all very nice, though probably too large and rich considering they were part of a high tea and I did see a few guests take away elements of their high tea in boxes provided by the staff. In addition to these cakes, you are also served a small square of nougat, mini madelines, chocolate fudge and a mini fruit gel. Finally, you get a choice of three chocolates each, again selected from a glass cabinet at the front of the restaurant. For the chocolates, which I ended up taking home with me, I selected a rocher au lait, a cassis violet and chocolate rose praline. Yuuuuum. Seriously yum. We were both in a sugar coma by the end, but a happy one. Considering the high tea includes hot drinks and a glass of Laurent Perrier champagne, I think it is good value for $65.