Even though I told her it was like a milkshake, Kate wouldn’t go beyond this first sip of a frozen butterbeer after it was gifted to her by a server. I gladly took it off her hands. (I believe it was butterscotch ice cream and root beer, but don’t take my word for it.)
At the end of September, Chefs’ Table Society members were treated to a tour of the then-unopened Brassneck Brewery. Wish I had been able to capture the photos they placed inside the knots of the walls’ wooden panels.
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My favourite time to be outdoors in Vancouver is when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Our new neighbourhood is lined with aged blossoming trees, shaped with an artist’s precision by city stewards. The avenue that we frequent the most, from a distance, looks as if a guard of bonsais had been trained to rain pink and white petals on Marpole denizens.
The sakura zensen, or cherry blossom front, is an official weather pattern in Japan, where citizens emerge from their homes in droves during the fleeting Ohanami season. Ways to reflect upon and admire the sakura are numerous, but for many, it begins with a picnic under the blooms, often enjoyed with treats and tea. Celebrations can also linger beyond dusk, getting tipsy as the night goes on.
You can approximate this Japanese tradition in Vancouver if you know where to go. My top picks, in no particular order:
Nitobe Memorial Garden (UBC)
My shutter finger goes wild at this beautiful Japanese garden retreat in UBC. This year, one of the trees is laden with tags that people write on with messages to loved ones. It’s said that the well wishes will spread as the petals scatter in the wind.
Bike the Blossoms – April 28, 2012
Got bike? Follow the flowers with your cyclist brethren on the 28th. Your route will be lined with petalled trees, and vendors that you pass will sometimes have goodies for you to enjoy when you pause.
If you’re bereft of bicycle or not free that day, find your own viewing spot using these resources from the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival:
The Urban Tea Merchant
The Urban Tea Merchant remains unrivalled as my afternoon tea service of choice, much of it due to its rotating collection of top-tier teas and the seasonality of its tea services. Their courtyard on Alberni is canopied by cherry blossom trees each spring.
The courtyard blossoms have already come and gone this year, but their Ohanami tea service, featuring several items infused with cherry blossoms, is still being served until April 30th. This menu ranks as my favourite high tea food pairing to date–it is not to be missed.
Sakura West Coast Tea Service
$30 per person (minimum 2 persons; 90 minute seating)
Tea Sommelier’s choice of chilled white tea
tea-infused macaron, chevron strawberry, chocolate truffle
edible spring flowers, Sakura! Sakura! tea-infused jelly, sous vide vanilla watermelon, green tea-infused melon ** LOVED THIS! **
open-faced smoked salmon & wasabi aioli with in-house ponzu jelly
miso-maple glazed sable fish wrapped in butter lettuce ** LOVED THIS! **
spring rice roll with honey & balsamic, shiitake mushroom and crisp vegetables
Japanese fish crackers, crisp soba noodles with tangy seaweed salad and sesame crumble ** LOVED THIS! **
My seasonal tea pairing picks for the Sakura service
Both of The Urban Tea Merchant’s Ohanami tea features pair beautifully with the Japanese-fusion menu.
Enchanted Beauty Tea: “Sophisticated oolong tea leaves are handcrafted into a bouquet with amaranth and orange lily. This TWG Tea composition will bloom in the teacup.”
Sakura! Sakura! Tea: “An ode to spring, this fragrant TWG blend evokes Kyoto’s most celebrated season. A scattering of cherry blossoms and green tea yields a most aromatic and elegant fragrance.”
Where will you go for your cherry blossom celebration?
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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.
Of the four afternoon tea experiences I’ve had since my High Tea Series began, it is strange that the first one I embarked upon is the last one I’m writing about. It’s not that I was reluctant to publicize the place – more that the days slipped by without me ever taking the topic off the backburner. Thank goodness for Blogathon days! You and I both get to catch up on the subjects I should have brought up long ago.
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Anyhoo, let’s get back on that subject of the T Room & Bakery in Point Grey.
Design partner Jason Lau accompanied me on my first afternoon tea excursion to the hard-to-spot T Room along the far west stretch of 10th Avenue. Finding the storefront, which presents itself more like a cookware store than a tea room, was worth it: the left-hand side was a cozy but bright and modern bakery, with plenty of kitchen gadgets to peruse on the store off to the right.
We were seated for our $13 mini-tea at 2pm to a table decked with spring flowers and plateware adorned with a scroll wrapped in green ribbon. Unravelling it revealed the tea menu – and what a menu it was! Nearly 40 varieties to choose from, as easily seen from the wall of leaves to my back. I went dizzy with choice.
Luckily, our server was more than happy to recommend a tea to fit our individual tastes. Within minutes, we each settled on a tea: I with an unusual fruit tea and Jason with a black tea variant. Wish I could tell you more details, but my mommy brain is blanking on me at the moment.
While I cannot report the specific tasting notes this far removed from the experience, I can tell you that unlike most other afternoon teas I’ve had, this first visit still strikes up memories of delight, intrigue, and curiosity to explore the rest of their tea arsenal. Jason enjoyed his tea as much as I did mine, though I must say that in hindsight, I really should have ordered a tea that went with the food that came with our service.
The 3 tiers that came with expedience sported your standard afternoon tea fare: savoury sandwiches, scones, and desserts at the top. Other than the desserts, which numbered one per person, we were treated to at least two of each item. I’m not sure if this was because we were a table of 2 and they had a minimum service amount, but we did deliberately order the mini-tea and were surprised by the quantity.
The consistently of quality was what struck me most about the dainties we sampled. Usually, the places I’ve tried excel at savouries, or have terrific scones, or make fabulous sweets to the detriment of the other categories. Here, we were satisfied with the entire selection, though I cannot say that any one tier would get top ranking against the others I’ve now had.
By the end of our meal, we still had half of our food left on our plates. Not because we didn’t want to eat it (it sure was good enough for that) but because we couldn’t possibly stuff ourselves further.
This quantity, combined with the consistent quality of both food and drink plus the cheapest price tag I’ve seen yet, makes the T Room my value pick for anyone that wants good eats without paying a premium for the typical chintzy or ritzy atmosphere.
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Another recap of a jaunt with Island Bites contributor Bruce. Where did we go? To the Wedgehood Hotel, home of the luxurious Bacchus Restaurant, whose lobby delivers an afternoon tea in the midst of purple plush.
We were both impressed by the refinement of the Bacchus lobby. A fireplace exuded warmth at the far end of the room; the bar reached floor to high ceiling, slightly resembling the elegant yet creepy bar in The Shining.
We were much less impressed by the people that served us. Our receiving hostess was pleasant enough, but our server! By God, I swear she could have been an Air Canada attendant, from her haughty demeanour to the figure skater’s bun to the scarf she tied to her neck. That is not a favourable comparison, dear readers.
At any rate, we did our best to enjoy the food and drink despite the chilly reception. Our servicable Pear Tree Green and Thunderbolt Darjeeling teas were served in ultra-modern clear teapots that are basically French presses.
Our sweetener was a nice touch: multi-coloured rock sugar in a little bowl at our table by the window.
I particularly enjoyed the bottom-tier savouries that accompanied our tea. My favourites were the smoked salmon pinwheel and shrimp salad sandwich featured above (even though I had to spit out a piece of shrimp shell during one bite – oh well, at least I know they peeled it themselves!).
Bacchus’ scones are on par with the others that I’ve had to date. While no one has yet to top those made by the Secret Garden Tea Company, Bacchus does stand apart in offering chocolate eclairs as an alternative (or addition, as is your fancy) to scone indulgence.
The sweetstuffs were just that – too sweet. Even the lemon curd cakes were sickeningly overloaded with sugar. It competed too much with our rather delicate choices in tea, and caused Bruce, who already has an aversion to sugar, to barely touch the top tier.
All in all, the quality of the tea and dainties plus the ambiance that we experienced at Bacchus merited the $29 a person price tag. The customer service was disappointingly lacking – both of us felt like our server didn’t think we were classy enough to be in her Lobby. It was more than enough to taint our afternoon and dissuade us from being regular patrons.
That is really a shame, because everything else is something both Bruce and I would have otherwise endorsed.
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On July 11th, I was joined by 7 lovely ladies and 2 distinguished gentlemen for another tea party for my High Tea Series. The venue: the Fish House in Stanley Park, tucked away between the tennis courts and Second Beach inside Vancouver’s largest urban greenspace.
We started off slow due to guests being delayed by the changes to the Burrard Bridge, but that just gave us more time to admire each other’s creative choices of hat.
What wasn’t acceptable was the slowness of pace that continued even after our full contingent arrived. Tea took 15 minutes from the time of order; the food didn’t show until nearly 20 minutes of tea drinking had passed. By then, some of us who had deliberately fasted for this 2pm meal were getting frustrated and somewhat dizzy from hunger.
Our table tried 5 of the 7 teas on offer. Those who took cream and sugar favoured the Flowery Earl Grey. A couple were seduced by the concept of the Mountain Berry, a rose-hued tea that contained Saskatoon berries, red and black currants, hibiscus, and Seneca root.
I wish I could say a few good things about the tea that the Fish House served, but the general feel was that our drink was poorly set up, flat in taste and occasionally in aroma, and at best, forgettable.
Sad to report that the food verdict is similar. The overall selection was plainly presented. Overall tastings felt bland and lacking in contrast. A few piped up to defend the scones and the brownies, which were the best of the bunch, but I’ve personally had better at all of the other places I’ve been to for afternoon tea.
The one true highlight for me was the Devon cream, whipped energetically to airy deliciousness. It would have been more appropriate to say that I took my Devon cream with scones – in fact, I might have eaten it on its own if I hadn’t been concerned about what my companions might think.
Despite this small bit of praise, don’t you think it’s a shame that something akin to butter is the best offering in the Fish House’s afternoon tea array? I do.
The verdict: don’t bother.
You can probably sum it up like this: while the Fish House does have afternoon tea on the menu, they only pay lip service to it. No one else was there to have tea. Not many people were present in the dining room, period. I guess they’re not known as a lunch or tea destination, as we learned the hard way.
Ah, well. Our $24 a person fees weren’t entirely for naught. It did give our party an excuse to don fancy clothes and frou-frou hats, and we did have a great time just being in each other’s company. But if I were you, plan your next afternoon tea excursion elsewhere – I’d rather you to enjoy both your friends and your food.
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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!