My recent trip to Victoria with Coast Hotels & Resorts gave me the perfect opportunity to take on the mother of all high teas in British Columbia: the historic Empress Hotel.
At an eye-popping price tag of $55 (make that $67 for Royal Tea), I was a huge skeptic. Even if the tea really is fantastic and the dainties to die for, can a bunch of micro sandwiches, scones, and leaf-infused hot water really be worth all that money?
Read on and decide for yourself.
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Our group of six strolled around the ivy citadel that is the Fairmont Empress, already in awe of its Victorian glory. The room that housed us for tea was no less impressive:
The Tea Lobby was elegant, airy, luxurious, and filled with the tinkling from a baby grand piano. I clapped my hands with glee when it became clear that he was playing the theme song from the Harry Potter films. Fittingly majestic and magical for a space such as this.
Full service afternoon tea
Have you ever gone to a tea house in Vancouver and had the equivalent of a butler see to your every need? If you have, you must tell me where, because this has only ever happened to me at the Empress.
Paul, our stately server, welcomed us with full pomp, pulling out the chairs for the ladies and placing our napkins on our seats as one would expect at a fine dining restaurant. His delivery of our strawberries and chantilly, presented elegantly in cut crystal goblets, was crisp and expedient. It was bettered only by his performance with our tea. Apparently, we were to have him wait on us completely, with our teapots set on its own table as he poured cup after cup for each of us. He even executed the cream and sugar himself on the first round.
He was so prepared to continue pouring our tea for us, having remembered what each of us had ordered, that we had to stop him in the middle of service after we decided to sample each other’s teas. After one incident where he poured Angela’s tea into the teacup she had already half-filled with Anny’s tea, Paul realized that we were quite happy to help ourselves. He consequently pulled back a bit, returning only occasionally to top up our cups and plop more cream and sugar into those that warranted it, confirming the tea we wanted from then on.
Giggle! All the attention made me feel like a princess.
A closer look at the food and drink
It may be partially due to the service and our surroundings, but by God, did I ever love the tea here!
I naturally had to try the The Empress Blend, made exclusively for the hotel with the express intention of pairing with the dainties of afternoon tea. Here’s what the menu told me about it:
Exclusive to The Fairmont Empress, this delightful blend boasts a bright coppery colour and takes milk exceedingly well. The Assam component lends a rich malty character, while the Kenyan black tea provides subtle floral hints. Kenyan green tea infuses a bright and lively aroma, complemented by the fruity, sprightly, and airy piquant flavours of Dimbula from Sri Lanka. Small amounts of Kemum draw the elements together with a burgundy depth and light oaky notes.
Half the table had the Empress Blend along with me, while others selected from the menu of eight delicious sounding options. We all seemed to prefer the ones we ordered for ourselves, and my tastings of the rest, while personally paling in comparison to the Empress Blend, were fragrant, colourful, and beautiful with the food that we had in front of us.
Anny evidently enjoyed her strawberries and chantilly, as did I.
The presentation of our dainties was utterly refined. My eyes were immediately drawn to the marbled chocolate tulips on the top tier and the smoked salmon pinwheels and mushroom crostini on the bottom one.
For me, the savouries were clearly a cut above your average afternoon tea fare. The plate popped with colour and contrast, and the flavours were bright and full without being overbearing. A lot of care seemed to be put in to ensure that these items would complement the teas (which still should be the star of the meal, no?). Best cucumber sandwich I’ve had; the horseradish in the spread was the magic ingredient, I think.
The scones were good but not anything to write home about. They weren’t a match for the scones that I still fondly recall from Secret Garden, but they are better than those from T Room & Bakery and Bacchus. Although I downed every bite, I do wish they had served us the crumpets instead (their cookbook has a recipe dating back over 100 years).
By the time we reached dessert, our group was pleasantly stuffed. I was barely capable of trying even a mouthful of each of the sweets on the top tier. Besides, I find that the desserts are often made much too sweet to be served with tea, so this part of the service was not one that I was particularly looking forward to.
Again, as you can see, Anny enjoyed whatever had been put in front of her. Others reported the deliciousness of the sweets, ultimately favouring the the most delicate ones due to their pairings with the tea. From my nibbles, I leaned towards the lemon tarts and the shortbread with crumbles of Earl Grey tea leaves baked in.
Is high tea at the Empress expensive? Hell, yes! All told, the six of us spent nearly $400 for an afternoon that didn’t even qualify as a full meal.
Is it worth it? Absolutely. Best afternoon tea experience I’ve had to date, in an atmosphere of opulence and a city of much Victorian charm.
Make your own Empress afternoon tea at home
Anyone that helps us give to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society for Blogathon 2009 has the opportunity to win a tin of The Empress’ Centennial Blend plus a copy of If Teapots Could Talk, which is filled with recipes for the food you see above and more. See full rules and eligibility below.
- By day’s end on July 24, 2009, every $10 that you donate towards Tiny Bites’ Blogathon drive for the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society grants you 1 entry to the draw. If you donate $50, that equals 5 entries for you and $50 x 3 = $150 worth of food for the people that the Food Bank helps.
- Please contact us about your donation and/or bookings before July 25th so that we can make sure you get all the entries that you deserve.
- The winner will be announced at 4:30am on July 26, 2009, while I am on shift for Blogathon 2009.
Thank you for your donations and best of luck in winning this Early Bird prize!