Frank Sabatini Jr. | Uptown News
It took a decade after once washing down finger sandwiches and scones with multiple cups of Earl Grey at The Savoy in London to learn that the pampering experience isn’t called “high tea.” Faced with a strict dress code and a price tag of about $75 per person at the time, I had no reason to think otherwise until flexing my pinky at Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe & Afternoon Tea.
Elite-minded Anglophiles might be shocked by the fact that “high tea” is a term historically associated with working-class folk who caffeinated themselves on high tables over meatier meals at the end of the day. It’s merely a fancy misnomer in the American vernacular, explained Corner Shoppe owner Selina Stockley as she conducted classic “afternoon tea” dressed in housemaid attire from the British TV series, Downton Abbey.
Taking on the show’s character, Anna May Bates, this happened to be one of Stockley’s theme teas that she presents every six weeks. Although in between, tea service occurs daily on either the cozy deck just outside her British-imports store or inside a spacious, sunny room behind the shop that feels like a Cape Cod cottage.
In either setting, the affair is defined by English bone china, fresh table flowers and a host of memorable teas and victuals that could leave you skipping dinner afterwards. Compared to The Savoy, it’s significantly less pricey and far more casual, although if you show up in formal threads or a big, frilly hat, nobody’s going to point fingers.
Patrons start by choosing their tea from a lengthy list that includes everything from the blacks and greens to the whites and decaffeinated herbals. Individual tea pots are set upon candle-lit warmers and yield several cups each. And the foods that come with them are more substantial than you’d expect, with savories and sweets stocked prettily on a three-tiered tray and portioned to the number of guests per party.
A friend and I took part in a late-afternoon seating and came away adequately full, not to mention wholly impressed by the quality of everything we consumed.
His tea choice was white coconut cream, which unlike most flavored teas, tasted as robust as it smelled. I opted for green tangerine, a Chinese blend revealing faint whispers of orange peel and flower blossoms. The elements sprung to the forefront, however, after stirring in a lump of sugar and splash of milk.
“Americans think that we use cream in our tea, but we use milk instead,” said Stockley, breaking yet another assumption I’ve held about this age-old afternoon ritual.
The day’s food menu started with dainty plates of Welsh rarebit, a cheesy, beer-spiked fondue served over toast points. The beautiful tower of food followed, containing those crust-less finger sandwiches that no tea-goer ever leaves behind.
We loved the variety: cucumber with mint butter, egg salad with watercress and roast beef with horseradish. In the mix was salmon mousse and a couple of quail Scotch eggs accompanied by imported Branston Pickle, a sugary-tangy chutney of brined vegetables that people either adore or abhor.
The tiers below led to ginger biscuits, apple Charlotte tarts, raspberry meringue bread pudding and excellent raisin scones accompanied by double-Devon cream that Stockley ships in from England. The precious butter-like substance is a delicacy in the lineup, so rich and dreamy that you’ll wonder why it’s evaded American manufacturers.
The cream is sold on site along with other packaged U.K. staples like Bisto gravy granules, Marmite yeast extract and Spotted Dick sponge pudding by Heinz, which produces more giggles than serious takers.
Another outstanding confection on the tray was syllabub, a British dessert supposedly dating back to the 16th Century that’s made with lightly curdled cream and sweet white wine. It’s frothy, tangy and delicious.
“For all the bad press that British food receives, they got afternoon tea right,” my companion effused as we forked into a plated last course of peaches over Chartreuse-infused jelly. Stockley’s research shows that the dessert was served on The Titanic.
The experience carried all the charm I remember from The Savoy, with the exception of palm trees outside the windows and several of us in the room wearing jeans. Despite the informal, San Diego-esque atmosphere, the seducing formalities of afternoon tea are nonetheless captured here in full glory on a lace tablecloth.
Upcoming theme teas include “Jane Austin” on August 6 and “Tea with Alice: A Mad Hatter’s Day” on Sept. 17. Regular tea service is held from noon to 4 p.m. on weekdays and two sittings at noon and 3 p.m. on weekends.