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Friday, 21 November 2014

Fit for Royal Tea - The Afternoon Tea at Hotel Café Royal's Sumptuous Oscar Wilde Bar

Words & Photography by Felicity Spector and Luiz Hara

Everything about the High Society afternoon tea at the Hotel Café Royal screams opulence. First, the room. The Oscar Wilde Bar took four years to restore to its former glory, a rococo extravaganza of gold and mirrors and cherub painted ceilings. It now looks exactly the same as the room where Wilde once lunched, except I've a feeling he didn't fare nearly as well as we did.

To drink, there was Veuve Cliquot champagne and a choice of 21 different teas, some of them exclusive blends made just for the hotel. We tried one of them - Celestine - a subtle, light black tea with a hint of vanilla, and a very refreshing triple mint tisane.

Our maître d' was eager to explain the menu. There was a lot to get through - three pages of my notebook covered in scribble. It all sounded incredible: not a white bread sandwich in sight - the chefs have clearly let their creativity take charge.

An amuse bouche arrived, a 'Low Sidecar Muffin', along with a lovely story about Victorian muffin sellers who used to ply their trade in Regent Street outside. The modern day version came adorned with a generous swirl of truffle cream cheese and a pipette containing apple juice which you could squirt inside. Light and moist, it got things off to a great start.

Then came a vast tiered stand of savoury sandwiches and pastries: a brioche roll with prawn cocktail, and a beautifully crisp gougere filled with goats cheese and the slight sweetness of wine jelly.

There was a roundel of chorizo Wellington, a sort of next level sausage roll, a bun topped with crackling and stuffed with wild boar salami. Next, a toasted bagel piled with silky smooth smoked salmon and horseradish mayo, and my favourite, a beetroot bread sandwich with cream cheese and a sliver of cucumber, topped with caviar.

We were already getting slightly full, but more was to come. Much, much more.

A palate cleanser, a tiny glass of plum and lychee iced tea was tart and refreshing. It came with a mousse like disc of chocolate and hazelnut marshmallow, the first time I've seen chocolate and hazelnut described as a palate cleanser. But why not? It was delicious.
The beaming maître d, who by this stage was beginning to seem like an old, beloved friend, ferried over another vast tier of cakes and pastries, with not one, but two baskets of warm scones. There were dishes of strawberry jam and clotted cream and a tiny bowl of lemon curd. And another three pages of description in my notebook.

I tried a raisin scone, loaded with jam and cream. It was warm. It was melt in the mouth. "Buttery, isn't it!" said our waiter, as more pots of tea arrived. He wasn't wrong.

We tackled the cake stand. A mini flower pot contained a fabulous mix of apple purée and pistachio paste, crowned with a buttery crumble. There was a neat cube of banana opera cake layered with passion fruit cream. Choux buns cradled a hidden filling of lemon curd. There were vivid green macarons, spiked with absinthe, herby and sticky.

I tried a disc of shortbread topped with apple purée, blackcurrant crème and the thinnest chocolate glaze. It was....I searched for a word....buttery. By this point we could barely move, but the feast wasn't over yet. On the counter were three whole cakes which you could order by the slice. Our friendly maître d was desperate for us to try them. "The lemon drizzle is gluten free!" I went over for a look, unable to resist a piece of the hazelnut cake, beautifully light and moist with just enough hazelnut frosting and the crunch of caramelised nuts. And, of course, so very, very buttery.

Four hours after the tea began, I was ensconced in a vast leather chair in the hotel lobby, clutching a takeaway box of the scones we hadn't quite been able to finish, fretting about the rain. A concierge leapt into action, lending me not only a hotel umbrella "oh, bring it back whenever you're in the area..." but also going the extra mile, finding some waterproof covers to protect my new shoes.

The afternoon tea at Hotel Cafe Royal isn't cheap - £42 per person, or £55 with a glass of champagne. But it's opulent. It's inventive. And the staff are all prepared to go above and beyond, to make sure you have the best possible time.

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