By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
I use a lofty benchmark for judging afternoon tea, the formal British affair also known as “low tea.” Conversely, “high tea” is a term born from England’s industrial class, indicating the hot beverage is consumed around dinnertime without the bone china and dainty finger sandwiches.
My ultimate experience with afternoon tea was at The Savoy in London, where each person in my small group paid the equivalent of $75 to lounge on plush sofas surrounding a low table filled with pretty teapots and fabulous noshes. We loved the entire ritual, and nothing has lived up to it since.
This isn’t to say I’m dismissive of other afternoon teas, such as the one served in the Grand Sala dining room of Old Town’s Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant (11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays). The service offers enough frills to incite pinky-finger protrusions, and perhaps raise a few eyebrows among traditionalists because of its culinary spins.
Guests kick off with a decent selection of teas that fall into three categories: black, green and herbal. Sourced locally from the Tea Gallerie, they’re served in heavy, ceramic pots and you can order as many as you like for no additional charge.
I tried two. The mildly caffeinated “Sicilian Lemon Love” was concurrently soothing and robust. One lump of brown sugar raised the love factor significantly. The other, a blood orange herbal tea, was sweet and floral with a quenching essence that likely would also taste fantastic if served iced on a hot day.
Both teas cheerfully distracted me from the conventional choices such Earl Grey, English breakfast and chamomile. It should also be noted that Brits use milk instead of cream in their teas, and just as you’ll find here, the preference is upheld.
Nearly all of the items on my tall, three-tiered food tray offered Latin variations from their English counterparts — or defied them altogether.
A well-constructed scone contained Manchego cheese, roasted corn and red peppers. Though savory, it responded lusciously to good raspberry jam served alongside.
Egg salad, used traditionally on crustless finger sandwiches, was spiked with chipotle aioli and spooned into a lettuce cup. It was a perky departure from plain, mayo-based versions. Also, a shot glass of cool gazpacho was a novel component. Though slightly acidic, I found it gulpable.
My least favorite nosh was the “roll up” sandwich revealing swirls of smoked ham, Swiss cheese and spinach. A fine concept — except that the unidentifiable bread was thick and dry, and the innards of the sandwich cried for a condiment. Yet the brioche on a mini open-face skirt steak sandwich with mango salsa and avocado cream was moist and spongy. The combined zesty flavors put me squarely in Old Town.
Perhaps the most classic-English item was the “cucumber bite,” which was more like four mouthfuls of salmon-dill mousse piped into a halved, de-seeded cucumber. Crisp, creamy and elegant, you’ll want to chase down the recipe and serve it to your party guests.
The bottom tier featured fresh fruit and a few sweet treats such as red velvet flan, a pleasing chocolate churro, and a palm-size phyllo pillow filled with blackberry and mango mousse. The latter was so brilliantly light, it was like biting into helium.
After downing it with about my fifth cup of tea, I felt as sated as I would after eating a moderate-size lunch. I tea’d alone. But for every extra person at the table, the quantity of food increases so that everyone receives equal portions.
The event seems underpromoted. There is little or no signage steering guests and looky-loos into the stately dining room for it. In fact, if you’re entering the hotel from the front, as I did, the check-in podium is toward the back, past all three entranceways that lead into the dining room. In the absence of staff stationed at those thresholds, you might get the impression the restaurant is a museum.
Also, if the hankering strikes for Cosmopolitan’s afternoon tea on the weekdays, the kitchen will oblige if you call and request it two or three days in advance.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.