A Tea Two-fer

Local takes on the tradition of afternoon tea.

Among the gastronomic pastimes that are now nearly extinct, afternoon tea ranks with the legendary smorgasbord and the three-martini lunch. True, we are lucky to have many shops in town that offer fantastic teas, like Miro, Remedy, and the Panama Hotel, but these are very much contemporary cafes in the Seattle fashion. Only a couple institutions are left that offer the full delightful Anglo rigmarole, the restorative splurge, the ritual that amounts to the buying of edible trinkets. And it was this romanticized teatime that I sought this past week. The entry to the salon-sized Queen Mary Tea Room will make you want to hug yourself, your companion, or maybe even your assigned and endearing server, doting in her doily cardigan. The small storefront of the Queen Mary, just a few blocks up and around from the behemoth of University Village, greets you with only a hint of the English country decor waiting to ambush you inside: perfectly hedged bushes and vines surrounding curtain-framed windows. Stop and listen to the caged doves sing before you enter the small space divided into a little front counter and attached salon. You might walk into a child's birthday party, a meeting of the Red Hat society, or ladies (and lads, to be fair) out for a relaxing chat. The tables in the tearoom are set with ornate castaway thrift-store china that comes together in orphaned patterns of soft pinks, blues, and gold edging. The tea list is almost paralyzing, with a page each devoted to rooibos and flavored black teas alone. I recommend one of the many champagne cocktails to help with navigation and to stave off selecting. The servers will help you choose, diagnosing with all the right questions and checking to make sure you're pleased with your choice. We started with strawberry pepper, a black tea with bits of dried strawberry and pink peppercorn that is pure aromatic heaven, and Yunnan Gold, a unique black tea that smells like a hayride and has a rich and hearty taste. Then teatime begins in earnest. First you receive a trio of sorbets with a giant lavender shortbread cookie. Then the tier of tea snacks arrives, more than enough to tide you over until dinner, maybe even enough to let you skip it. In addition to fresh scones, our tier had lemon tea bread (pound cake) and soft yet toothy crumpets, with plenty of jam and marmalade to slather on every bite. The middle tier had an ample amount of fruit, judiciously portioned for two, down to the blueberry. I sighed at the corn muffin with deviled-egg salad—my two favorite tastes, together. The chicken, almond, and mustard-butter sandwich and the pear, blue cheese, and walnut sandwich were flavorful without overpowering the tea. (The requisite cucumber sandwich was absent, but I barely missed it.) Our second round of treats included some very grandma-worthy butterscotch bars, extra-moist chocolate hummingbird cupcakes, and double-chocolate cookies. Instead of playing to the idea of prettified tea sweets, the Queen checkmates and goes straight for the sentimental jugular with desserts that could easily have come in a tin from my nana. There's a light and easy generosity to the entire affair, carried through the service, the table, and the food, but behind it lies people who know their stuff, people who love tea. The owner was very friendly, impressing me most with her handling of a small birthday party of 6-year-olds. Presents were swept away to the back, to avoid distraction and interfering with other guests. The girls were allowed to be little girls, but gently reminded to keep their voices down, elbows in, and mind the china. Fun but firm, the owner was just the right amount of Mary Poppins, with the promise of consequences if crossed. The Queen Mary serves afternoon tea from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The cost of a full afternoon tea here is $26 per person, and it's worth it. You leave feeling as sated as by a fine lunch and as pampered as by a pedicure, for a little more money than the former and a little less than the latter. Though The Georgian at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel has allegedly had a complete remodel, it looks to me like exactly the same giant box in the same shade of butter. Afternoon tea is famously served here from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. I met a friend on a Friday at noon and we counted as the fourth occupied table in the dining room—cavernous enough when full, dreadfully so when empty, especially in broad daylight. We ordered the Empress Blend 1908 and the 1907 Blend, the only two black teas on the list, which is like choosing between Irish and English Breakfast—barely a difference to an occasional tea-totaler. Sensing our reticence when we ordered, our server sweetly offered tea choices that weren't on the list. My normally chatty friend and I then proceeded through an awkward half hour; there wasn't enough conversation to let us feel our own wasn't being overheard, and not enough bustle to create any semblance of ambience. Two tables of couples next to us barely spoke through their meal. Not the room's fault, was it? Being in the Georgian felt like finally getting a date with a pretty girl, only to find out she has absolutely nothing to say. My friend tells me of the back room in the kitchen, the silver room where a man sits all day polishing and protecting the hoard. Our tier arrived, and the cranberry pine-nut scones were fantastic, but I wished we had a choice of jam besides strawberry. (I mean, the two things teatime should have, besides tea, are orange marmalade and cucumber sandwiches, right?) There were other disappointments. The chicken-bacon-salad round was no bigger than a half-dollar, and though it was topped with an impossibly tiny house-made potato chip, I would have loved to see the cost of that chip go into about a half-ounce more chicken and bacon. The tiny macerated half-slice of candied kumquat on an open-face wispy-thin sliced cucumber sandwich summed it up: The menu promised; the sandwiches didn't deliver. What really soured the Georgian's tea for me were the sweets. The pastries were a bit, how should I say, fit for the banquet table? Surely they are meant to awe with their looks, precious and meticulously presented, but what we got was an uninspired shell filled with bland pastry cream and topped with berries, pistachio macaroons that were far too chewy, a rubbery pineapple custardlike thing, and a cold (!!) cupcake topped with some very mediocre buttercream. Sweets suitable for the afternoon coffee breakout at the Association of Orthodontic Professionals conference, maybe, but they did not stand alone for individual patrons seated in The Georgian. The hotel would be better off wholesaling from Belle Epicurean, the little bakery attached to the hotel's western flank. Why should I come back here when I could go there? As we sipped our pot of tea, a few more tables of businessmen dropped in, choking down chicken salads while texting. The few banquettes on the far wall were full, but everyone was looking at a mostly empty dining room, and at us. I'm wondering who still takes afternoon tea in these older hotels that dot American cities, since everyone else at that time is eating lunch. And what's the point of those giant windows if they're too high for anyone to look in and envy you? With nothing to look at, why am I here if no one can see me? The cost of The Georgian's tea is $35 per person, same as a three-course dinner at a fine restaurant or a two-martini lunch, and nowhere near half as satisfying as either. This tale of two teas got me to thinking about so many historically petit bourgeois pastimes, such as the act of going to restaurants, or even affording coffee and tea, and how these activities have become mundane. Wouldn't the society ladies of yore just die over a drive-through coffee stand? Though afternoon tea is expensive, don't we have our own expensive, caffeinated trinkets we buy every day? Who's to say what's too much or too fancy? The Queen Mary isn't reinventing the wheel, but it did inspire me with the way they preserve the idea of teatime, tapping into that little girl inside of me that wants a fabulous tea party. Whereas The Georgian reminded me that pedigree isn't everything, and some traditions die for a reason, because going through the motions just isn't enough. mdutton@seattleweekly.com Jonathan Kauffman is on vacation.

 
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