“If you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are too heated, it will cool you; if you are depressed, it will cheer you; if you are exhausted it will calm you.”
– William Gladstone, 1809-1898, British Statesman
The time-honoured English tradition of afternoon tea has been reinvented several times over in recent years, with contemporary spins ranging from the deliciously fashionable Prêt-à-Portea at the Berkley Hotel, to the boozy Tipsy Tea at Mr Fogg’s. And in keeping up with the health-conscious wave sweeping over London, Brown’s – London’s oldest hotel – has introduced the “Tea Tox” for a healthier alternative to its traditional afternoon tea.
Suitably intrigued, a friend and I booked in for what promised to be guilt free indulgence on a Sunday; although we made the good call of opting for one of each type of tea on the evening…
To begin with, tea of course. As expected, a quality selection is on offer featuring black teas alongside fine oriental options including a delicate silver needle white tea and earthy green teas, in addition to herbal infusions.
We chose to have Brown’s house blends – both excellent. Swirling with rich and vivid flavours, the morning blend definitely had a kick to it, while the afternoon blend was more bodied, a refreshing and fortifying choice as suggested in the tasting notes.
We started with Tea Tox, which didn’t take us very long to get through, mainly because we didn’t attempt to finish what we started.
Finger sandwiches were replaced with open-faced fillings (smoked chicken and guacamole; poached salmon and dill creme fraiche) on either spelt or dark rye bread, alongside carb-less options that saw smoked mackarel and a soft-boiled quail’s egg cocooned in a chicory leaf; and tabbouleh atop a gem heart leaf. The relative lack of vegetarian options here was disappointing, especially as my only choice, the tabbouleh, was far too dry and quite bland.
Next, a plate of a “fruit kebabs” substituting for scones – skewered fruits served with a honey-yogurt dip. We actually found ourselves quite enjoying these, but likely did so as we were safe in the knowledge that we did have the scones to look forward to.
Now my good friends, family and dear readers will know that I am usually quite open to and appreciative of desserts that are vegan; gluten-free; sugar-free and/ or dairy-free – there’s nothing quite like the discovery of really good food that’s also really good for you. And so I was quite excited to try the (mostly sugar-free) Tea Tox pastries, but these proved to be a bit of let down.
The cranberry jelly (made with vegetarian gelatine and sugar-free xylitol) was a lacklustre affair, as was the mango & coconut rice conde, a chilled and set coconut milk rice pudding glazed with a mango gel – the flavours were surprisingly quite muted with a distinctive absence of any moreish quality. A dark chocolate cup filled with creme fraiche and blueberries, the chocolate tulip, was good but not great. The chocolate raspberry soya slice was the only redeeming one of the lot – a gluten-free sponge cake layered with custard-enriched ‘Valrhona’ Xocoline (a sugar-free chocolate), topped with a rich dark chocolate cream.
We had an altogether better experience with the traditional afternoon tea.
The finger sandwiches may not have been dainty, but they were quite wholesome and tasty, and the bread was of wonderfully good quality. Favourites included cheddar cheese and tomato layered between a tangy gooseberry chutney thickly smeared on sun-dried tomato bread. Egg mayonnaise was delightfully creamy, served on a cream bun for added measure. Avocado on brown bread was pleasing, but then when has one ever found fault with this simple but winning combination.
If I’m being honest, the pastries satisfied but did not wow. Highlights included the delicate strawberry eclair (perfectly golden outside as eclairs should be, with a soft centre) and the light yet flavourful pina colada mousse (devoured before a good picture could be taken).
The glazed scones ceremoniously presented later (so that they could be enjoyed warm) were the saving grace really – so perfect were they, that I may have had the lion’s share.
Soft and fluffy yet quite sturdy, they withstood generous dollops of thick Cornish clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam. As with my recent experience at Thomas’ at Burberry’s – the jam here deserves special mention. We loved its natural sweetness, enhanced by tiny pieces of fresh strawberries swimming indulgently within the generous servings.
Piggishly full from the scones, we had no room left for the slices of cake brought out at the end, so these were kindly boxed up for us to take home instead! I took with me a slice of the Victorian sponge which had just the hint of lemon drizzle – as with much of what we had, this was fairly standard fare though and so I’m afraid that it was nothing to write home about.
We were also given little pouches of our chosen teas, this was a really thoughtful gesture we felt. Overall, I have to say top marks for the effort and flawless service. The staff never hovered but were discreetly on-hand throughout, ready to replenish plates and tea at a moment’s whim.
And the ambience was just lovely. While the food may have underwhelmed for the most part, it was nonetheless quite easy for the hours to slip by, ensconced as we were in our comfy armchairs in a cosy corner by the fire place, the melodious lilt of a piano being played softly in the background. Spread out over a bright and airy set of spacious interconnected rooms, the hotel’s English Tea Room certainly has a homely feel, while the kitsch pop art against the wood-panelled walls lends a touch of quirkiness.
So despite our mixed views on the overall quality and appeal of the offerings at tea, it was nonetheless an afternoon well spent given the level of service, the atmosphere and those scones, which we definitely found worthy of going back for just on their own. If only Brown’s offered just a cream tea option too. Hmmm…
Brown’s Hotel, 33 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, London W1S 4BP