It’s been a while since the last installment of my High Tea Series, but that is not because I haven’t been to tea lately. In fact, afternoon tea is probably the most stable gourmet routine I’ve had in the past year (my weekly trips to Uva notwithstanding – you can’t beat having such an awesome eatery at the foot of your building). However, my sense of adventure in trying new tea houses has been severely diminished** by having found what I feel to be the perfect luxury tea time in the city.
The Urban Tea Merchant moved within walking distance of our abode last year with the opening of their second location on Alberni & Burrard. The salon room possesses a tranquil opulence akin to your favourite day spa; it’s a welcome oasis amidst the bustle of Georgia Street.
About the tea
Afternoon tea is ironically less about the tea than it is about the accoutrements. At the outset, it was the preciousness of cucumber sandwich triangles, crusts without, and scones smothered in jelly and Devonshire cream that got me addicted to the whole experience. I barely registered the tea itself other than to wash down the goodies – and for the most part, the drink was so unremarkable at tea houses that it wouldn’t have made an impression even if I had been paying attention.
It took The Urban Tea Merchant to revert my focus back to the tea. And theirs is a global collection that has deeply impressed me with its clean notes, consistent quality, shelf life, and out-of-the-tin aromatics.
My favourite aspect of The Urban Tea Merchant — which I shall henceforth refer to as UTM for brevity’s sake — is the spectrum of options on menu. The tea list is a four-page pamphlet organized by country of origin, with secondary columns indicating type (black vs green vs rooibos, and so on) and one-line tasting notes…it’s a datasheet that seduces my inner nerd!
If you are overwhelmed by choice or don’t know where to begin exploring, ask your server. They’ll inquire into your tea preferences and usher giant canisters of tea to your table for you to inspect to your heart’s content. [You could discuss the finer points of a particular blend until your curiosity is sated, and even sign up for a one-to-one tea consult if you want a more educational experience.]
Once you choose, your tea will be brewed at the tea bar to the exacting specifications required for that particular brew. It’ll be strained of the tea leaves before being placed into your teapot and swirled in a most stylish, aerating fashion into your cup.
My pot has been resteeped without extra charge if I happen to run through the entire serving, but one pot is usually more than enough for me. In fact, I savour my teacup for so long that my next portion is at least 15 minutes after the first…which makes the prior straining of the tea leaves a much appreciated detail of the service.
Favourite teas to date
I usually ask my server to introduce me to a new tea each time I visit, so here’s a quick matrix of the ones that have captured my heart. I’ll update this list as others come across my radar.
|Chamann||Flavoured rooibos||My favourite tea out of everything I’ve tried. I’ll never run out of this in my pantry if I can help it.||$32.95 per tin|
|Earl Grey Royal||Black||My usual afternoon tea selection when I want a milk-and-sugar experience.||$32.95 per tin|
|Melange O||Black||Floral and fruity black tea that I drink iced on a hot summer’s day.||$32.95 per tin|
|Milky Oolong||Oolong||Milky, creamy oolong taste even when served clear. I splurged on 50g of this on a friend’s recommendation and don’t regret the spend. I break this out to pamper myself or impress my guests.||$66 per 100g|
About the food
Few, if any, tea houses in town can match UTM in the selection, consistency, themes, and variation of the food presented with your afternoon tea service. The scones are delectable and flavours are rotated so that your table gets a full selection; the smoked chicken tian, now served in a mini waffle cone, is more addictive than the hardest street drug.
The macarons that are flown in from Paris are difficult to top, even if I did wish it was possible to be served local macarons without sacrificing quality. Perhaps things will change once their new neighbour moves in this year.
There’s also an exemplary à la carte menu of casseroles, sandwiches, and nibbles for those with specific cravings or a smaller appetite. Many of my friends swear by the pear and brie sandwich. I’m partial to the pot pie, myself.
Getting your money’s worth
You do pay for all the quality that you get. The Signature Afternoon Tea runs at $48 per person, while the other options range from $20-30 a pop. This puts UTM in the upper end of the pricing spectrum, but they’re hardly alone at the top. The Fairmont Empress in Victoria still takes the title at $55 a person, while Bacchus and the Empress’ Vancouver counterparts start at $30.
If we’re talking about value, however, your money goes a lot further at UTM than at the others in the business of luxury tea. Practically every food item served is top-notch: the savouries are excellent, the scones one of the best in town, and the desserts worth saving room for. If you go out for afternoon tea a lot, you’ll know that inconsistency across these tiers is rampant. I’ve griped about it when trying the tea services at Bacchus, Secret Garden, and Adonia. But no complaints here.
If a high price is a dealbreaker, that doesn’t mean you should strike UTM off your list:
- Go splitsies. The $48 Signature Afternoon Tea is a lot of food for one person, even on an empty stomach; the Petit Afternoon Tea is consequently my staple. However, the Signature can be a great choice to split between 2 people with a light appetite or those who want to go lighter on the wallet. There’s a surcharge – around $10 to cover the 2nd diner’s drink and such – but it’ll allow you to experience the exclusive nibbles offered in their top-tier tea service for ~$30 each.
- Order à la carte. You could grab your choice of a $3 scone and a $5 pot or an $8 sandwich with your tea without causing your wallet to cry. The macarons are a buck and change apiece if you want to go the sweet route.
- Book a featured tea service. UTM announces featured tea services every month, usually at a discount to the regular price. I’ve enjoyed the occasional Petite Afternoon Tea at a $19 price point – it’s usually $25 a person.
- Go for brunch. Start the day off with elegance – the Signature Brunch Service is $24 and the Petite Brunch Service is only $16.
The Urban Tea Merchant is unequivocally my tea salon of choice in the greater Vancouver area. I go there so often, in fact, that the staff has watched my daughter grow from infancy to toddlerhood.
If you haven’t tried them yet, save up your pennies and go. And call me up so I can join you!
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** PS: Don’t fret. This post does not conclude additions to the High Tea Series. I have a backlog of experiences to recap from 4 of the tea salons on my list, plus a particularly impressive afternoon tea nestled in the woodlands around Harrison Mills.