It was supposedly the Duchess of Bedford who first introduced the world to afternoon tea. One of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, the Duchess was afflicted — so many were back then — with a “sinking feeling” everyday at 4 o’clock. So she asked her servants to begin sneaking a pot of tea and assorted breads to her room. She eventually outed herself, asking friends to join her and brazenly drinking her tea and scarfing down teacakes in public.
I wonder how the Duchess would have felt about the newly revived afternoon tea at Orchids at Palm Court (35 W. Fifth St., 513-421-9100). My guess is that she would have been there every Saturday, when tea is served from 2-4 p.m., because she would have felt at home. The Orchids tea service is very loyal to the tradition of English full tea, serving savories (tiny tea sandwiches), scones and pastries (éclairs, chocolate mocha tarts and other weekend flings).
But I’m not supposed to be telling you this ahead of time, because it’s like giving away the end of a good movie; at least, this is the way Orchids sees it. They keep what’s coming next completely secret, sharing only the tea menu with guests. The menu is short, including specialty loose teas from Sri Lanka, South Africa and China.
I recently tried the Lapsang-Souchong, long known as a “man’s tea” because of its searing, woodsy smokiness. With tea leaves dried over pine-burning fires, this tea might be made for a man, but it’s strong enough for a woman, I decided after one sip.
My dining partner ordered the Gunpowder Green Tea, a Chinese tea rolled into a pellet to preserve its freshness. It obviously worked; it was one of the most vibrant green teas he’s had.
Our first food came out after about 20 minutes — two trays of thin tea sandwiches (one for each of us). While the unintentionally dry bread tasted as it if it had been sitting out overnight, the fillings were fun, because you so rarely see them locally. Goose p�té and apricot jam, carmelized figs with mascarpone cheese and cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches. Football, anyone?
We were a bit sugar-shocked by what arrived 20 minutes later — a four-tiered silver tray overflowing with chocolate croissants, blueberry scones, chocolate covered strawberries, eclairs, a variety of tea breads and walnut tarts that rival every mother’s Thanksgiving pecan pie. Of course, no tea is complete without Devonshire cream for optimal scone enjoyment.
This is what is known as the “dessert tray” in most restaurants. Here, however, you get the whole thing. In fact, we had a shopping bag full of leftovers. You could tell that some of the pastries were made by Chef Kathleen Kessler, an award-winning pastry chef, such as the chocolate croissants that tasted very similar to those my dining partner ate everyday for weeks in France; only the chocolate was better there, he said. But the éclairs needed some resuscitation — they were too dry and bereft of cream.
Yet, all in all, the experience was superb. Orchids’ tea is for anyone with a love for the British, tea or a romantic adventure. It’s well worth the price of $27 per person.
With tea leaves dried over pine-burning fires, this tea might be made for a man, but it’s strong enough for a woman, I decided after one sip.
CONTACT HEATHER SMITH: firstname.lastname@example.org