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High tea

Wednesday, May 9 2001
As the apocryphal story goes, brewed tea was invented when a long-forgotten Chinese emperor was sitting in his garden sipping a cup of freshly boiled water. A windblown leaf of Thea sinensis (green tea) dropped into the mug, the emperor sipped it and loved it, and voilà -- a new herbal beverage was born. Tea has since become a genre unto itself, with all sorts of noshes and rituals springing up around it as it progressed globally. After the bush's cultivation and culture spread south to Ceylon, Indonesia, and India, tea headed west with a vengeance, picking up variations en route: mint in the Muslim countries, cream and sugar in Britain, health-conscious cachet in the United States.

It's the British version of the tea ceremony that turns San Francisco's top hotels into tranquil pockets of oolong-scented civility almost every afternoon. Over the centuries the British have turned their mania for tea into a ritualistic quasi-meal in which the sipping, accompanied by all manner of complementary tidbits, comes just in time to relieve that late-afternoon between-the-meals lethargy. Reminiscent of the British Isles, our city's equally foggy weather has allowed the habit to acclimate nicely, offering local tea-and-crumpet opportunities ranging from the properly proper to the exotically fusionist. And while none provides the abundance of the original model -- you couldn't call any of these high teas so much as a quasi-meal -- each is a fine and festive method for keeping the blood sugar afloat till suppertime.

You won't get much more upper-crust authentic than the afternoon tea served in the Ritz-Carlton's Lobby Lounge. It's a hushed, elegant experience down to the smallest detail: the Wedgwood china, the Demerara sugar, the mood-enhancing harpist. The setting alone inspires extended-pinkie deportment, from the pale-rose color scheme to the crystal chandeliers to the towering bouquets to the gilt-framed oil paintings. The 15 varieties of tea come from Taylors of Harrogate, "supplier of tea to the British Houses of Parliament," and include a fragrant and flowery chamomile, perfectly brewed, then strained and brought to the table without the blossoms to ensure an even-tempered sipping experience. It's accompanied by a variety of dainties presented on a three-tiered silver server. There are four slender, crustless, impeccably constructed sandwiches to start things off: smoked salmon and caviar, cucumber and Roquefort, prosciutto and asparagus tips, and a light egg-chive combination. They're followed by a warm-from-the-oven scone and its ideal companions, clotted cream and lemon curd. To end the repast you'll receive rich, dense shortbread; a tiny hazelnut tart; a moist marzipan cake; a light little muffin dotted with pecans; an airy madeleine; and a miniature tart topped with slivers of kiwi, blueberry, and nectarine. The graceful, attentive service is like a wholesale import from Buckingham Palace. During our rainy-day visit, a fire crackled in the handsome gray marble hearth, rounding out the ideal teatime experience.

The high tea served at the St. Francis' Compass Rose is decidedly less formal but gorgeous nonetheless. The room is a high-ceilinged, richly toned oasis of pewter sconces, cloisonné vases, 18th-century settees, and hand-carved woodwork. It's the most pleasantly urban of high-tea hideaways, with towering windows overlooking Macy's, the cable cars, and all of that entertaining Union Square mishegoss. Instead of a harpist there's a cocktail pianist giving out with the Gershwin, and the service is of the affable pro variety you might encounter at Sam's or Tadich's. But the St. Francis' culinary quality isn't up to the Ritz-Carlton's lofty standard. The sandwiches, which include cucumber, egg salad, and artichoke, are pleasant enough but not worthy of the lovely surroundings and the lovelier stipend. The raisin scone, while tasty, has a distracting Bisquick-y quality, and the accompanying clotted cream is light and sugary, a far cry from its thick, satiny exemplar. The bowl of strawberries features its fair share of sweet ruby reds, but there are too many white, watery, unhulled stinkers padding the bottom.

The array of sweets concludes things on a high note, however. There's a thick slice of moist, gingery carrot bread, delicate marzipan cookies spread with apricot and raspberry jam, and petits fours of cheesecake and angel food dipped in citrusy frosting. But the best thing is the tea itself. From a selection of 14 we chose the exotic Ginger Twist, an herbal cornucopia of lemongrass, mint, ginger, and ginseng. It's peppery, fruity, and invigorating all at once, and when you lift the lid of the teapot you'll see the roots, stalks, and berries brewing within and find yourself surrounded by the fragrance of some marvelous tropical jungle.

San Francisco's most beautiful dining room is also one of its oldest, the Garden Court of the Palace Hotel. Since a restaurant's culinary quality inevitably decreases in inverse proportion to its beauty, we were pleasantly surprised by the venue's excellent tea service. The sandwiches, as intricately composed as a still life, include tomato, aioli, and slivered zucchini; prosciutto and melon; goat cheese, red pepper, and cucumber; and smoked salmon, cream cheese, and caviar -- really good caviar. The adjacent scone is light, moist, and scented with orange, but what's great about it is its three accompaniments: a subtle lemon curd, a thick, citrusy, slightly sour clotted cream, and an exotic rose-petal jam with all of the intensity of a Middle Eastern bazaar. The sweets are equally memorable: a robust shortbread bar layered with dried fruits, nuts, burnt sugar, and butter; another shortbread bar dipped in thick fudge; and three delicate tartlets, one filled with bittersweet chocolate and pecan dust, another with custard, mandarin orange, and raspberry, and the third with coconut cream. The 17 varieties of tea include my favorite, the bergamot-scented Earl Grey, properly presented in loose-leaf form in a handsome, continually replenished pot. And the setting is ravishing, like a terrifically ornate English conservatory with potted palms, marble pillars, bas-relief alcoves, crystal chandeliers, ivy trellises, wicker armchairs, satin-covered sofas, sunbeams filtered through intricately etched windowpanes, and carpeting the color of springtime wildflowers.

A different sort of afternoon tea comes about at the Mandarin Oriental, where California's East-West proclivities have done unexpected and delightful things to the most hallowed of British traditions. It's served just off the lobby in a suave setting of black lacquer, red leather, strikingly patterned cushions, and an enveloping sense of sleek, low-ceilinged quietude. The gleaming black tables are set with red mats, beautifully detailed black chopsticks, black enameled teapots on round black trivets, and framed menus propped up on individual black racks. Four courses of tidbits arrive in a lacquered black bento box on four pastel-hued squares of porcelain. The first square holds three round, tasty canapés -- one with sea scallop, caviar, and scallion, another with lox, caviar, and cucumber, the third with portobello, Gruyère, and cilantro. The next plate holds two overlapping "purses" (turnovers) of buttery phyllo pastry stuffed with warm curried beef jazzed with spice and shiitake, set on a bed of peppery field greens. Two dried-out slivers of avocado-unagi sushi decorate the third plate, but the fourth plate's Selection of Confections is a delight: a chocolate bonbon filled with peanut purée; a tiny triangle of rich, creamy brownie; a petit four of shortbread, marzipan, fudge, and pistachio; a moist and spicy oatmeal-raisin cookie; a juicy wedge of candied ginger; and a delicate cookie butterfly resting on top.

There are five teas to choose from. The Rainforestmint, despite the advertised presence of bergamot and herbs de Provence, is amazingly bland, even after half an hour of steeping. Other teatime basics are off-kilter as well -- the food arrives long after the teapot, and the service is distant and inattentive. But the food -- shiitakes and all -- lives up to the great high tea tradition, and if you want something more traditional there are at least three other places nearby.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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