Le Meridien King Edward
37 King Street East
Afternoon tea for two with all taxes and tip: $65
Afternoon tea often gets categorized as something fussy and old-fashioned. Perhaps it’s the dainty china, or the teeny pastries or even the sandwiches with the crusts cut off. It also has a reputation as being very girly, its origins firmly ensconced in British tradition dating back to 1661 when Catherine of Braganza brought the custom with her from Portugal when she married Charles II.
In modern usage, many places serving afternoon tea have taken to calling it “high tea”, a custom that makes tea aficionados screech with horror. For my part, I make a point of avoiding places that claim to serve “high” tea yet roll out tiered trays of scones and pastries – if you don’t, as a restaurant, even know what meal you’re serving, that doesn’t leave me with any faith that you’ll be able to do it well.
One place that does serve a proper high tea – in addition to the standard afternoon tea – is Le Meridien King Edward (although on some of their literature they try to hedge their bets by calling it “afternoon high tea”), which is where we settled in with a friend recently to see if they could get it right. The draw of the tea at the King Edward was the fact that they did offer a couple of different options, and not just the regular scones/sandwich/pastries combo for everyone.
Service is a little scattered as we arrive on a recent Sunday afternoon. There is a large party of about 16 older women and they’re requiring much of the staff’s attention. The King Edward does not actually serve their afternoon tea in Victoria’s Restaurant, but at tables set up just outside the restaurant entrance in the hotel lobby. And while on one hand this does allow patrons to watch the comings and goings of the place, it also leaves us feeling vaguely on display. The ladies at the end with their table piled high with party favours and gifts (birthday? shower?) don’t help matters – based on the ice buckets and champagne glasses, some of them must be having the champagne tea ($53) that pairs a glass of Perrier-Jouet Brut Champagne with the traditional King’s Tea. Guests can also go all out and add a selection of caviars ($130).
The King’s Tea itself ($30) is a generous tiered plate featuring a variety of finger sandwiches, an array of pastries, and scones with Devonshire clotted cream. The scones are slightly dense as opposed to flaky, but are nicely risen and brown on top. I’m always disappointed when so much trouble goes into the other aspects of the meal and the scones are served with jarred jam, and while it’s a decent, if slightly too sweet, strawberry jam, we’d all have been happier to have been served something made in-house. Really, jam is not hard.
The pastries all impress, but our favourites have to be the passionfruit mascarpone cheesecake (topped with a cape gooseberry), and the chocolate pistachio ribbon square which is a fudgy chocolate layer cake wrapped in pistachio flavoured marzipan.
Since most afternoon tea dishes are made in advance, it’s not uncommon to receive tea sandwiches that are dry and hard along the edges, but these are fresh with not even a hint of dryness. The traditional fillings are present but with a twist that adds another dimension to the flavour: egg salad is paired with pommery mustard and arugula; smoked salmon meets lemon shrimp; turkey gets jazzed up with sun dried fruits; and dear old cucumber and cream cheese gets a coriander kick.
The sandwiches appear again on the Ploughman’s high tea ($26) which also gets a quarter of a scotch egg, aged Tuxford cheddar with raisin walnut bread, pate en croute and warm tourtiere. This matches the proper definition of high tea which is a supper, mostly featuring cheese and meats, perhaps some fish, and only coincidentally, a pot of tea. The term high tea comes not from some kind of snobbishness or an allusion to high society, but simply from the fact that the meal is served on the high dinner table, compared to a lower table (slightly higher than today’s coffee table) in a parlour where afternoon tea normally took place. (It’s also perfectly acceptable to refer to afternoon tea as “low” tea.)
The King Edward also gives a nod to the origins of tea itself with an Asian-inspired tea box ($28). Served up in a lacquered bento box, we are delighted by a dim sum style selection that includes a bun filled with sweet barbequed pork, slices of smoked duck on a chive pancake, tiny shrimp-filled wontons and a small fillet of rare seared salmon with a scallion and ginger vinaigrette. The box also comes with an egg custard tart and a green-tea infused madeleine that we fight over.
Of course, the star of afternoon tea is the tea itself and we’re given a list of 16 or so to choose from, as well as the tea humidor so we can smell the offerings before making a choice. The strong smoky Lapsang Souchon pairs extremely well with the treats in the Asian box, while a house blend of citrussy Earl Grey is chosen to match the King’s tea, and a strong malty Assam tea stands up to the meats and cheese of the Ploughman’s platter. The staff have got the party of ladies under control and are now almost overzealous in topping off pots with more hot water, which we eventually had to put a stop to, as the brews were becoming watered down.
As we finish up, surprisingly sated for having eaten such wee things, the table of ladies starts to get rowdy, and while there’s no pressure from the staff to clear out once we’ve finished our food, that’s our cue to go. With the exception of the jars of jam and only white sugar on offer to sweeten our beverages – I suspect honey and lemon may have been proffered had the staff not been so busy, or had we requested them – we are generally impressed, particularly by the variety of both teas and food available.
We consider our meals both good value for money and nice respite from a city afternoon. We could have done without the partying ladies somewhat, but despite efforts by the King Edward to expand the offerings, the afternoon tea party still seems to be the domain of girls and ladies.