Monday, July 26, 2010

Scone With The Wind (aka Afternoon Tea at Palm Court, London)...

There's a lot you could associate with those Brits, promiscuous kings, Shakespeare, bad teeth, Royal family, The Thatcher Pout...Afternoon Tea. Itty Bitty About to have a fitty, bite sized, sip smacking in silver against china, Afternoon Tea! The mere thought of it can get me going, and when I do, forget the cream, I get a wee bit clotted myself. Tea's empire is always the hegemon of my heart, and their most honoured of past times - when done well - is simply anglolicious. Nobody has ever asked me to lie down and think of England. But if they did, it would probably go a little something like this: Afternoon Tea at Palm Court at The Langham, London, which won the Tea Guild's blue ribbon. But then again, they've had over 140 years to get it right. I don't know how I did it, but on a mere midget of a jaunt to London I managed to surgically remove myself from Selfridge's and Liberty's for just long enough to tell you about two different divine Tea's, and here is your fabulous first.

Legend had it that all of this sugar-sandwiched frenzied-fancy began with the 7th Duchess of Bedford and a little 'sinking feeling' she had in the afternoon. Poor love. Well, what else is a gal to do when low blood sugar comes a-knockin at 3pm to say How-do-you-do, but have her footman deliver all her tea making equipment, posthaste, with some bread and butter up to the confines of her room privee! Those were the ways, and those were the days.

But we make do with what we can, and why pine for the life of a Bedford Blue Blood when you can do it like this, old world style with some new world currency...

Upon arriving into a room that was like a jewel box in its glitter of gold and glass and light, I was informed that there would be a tiny wait for any afternoon tea order, as the scones were just being baked at this very moment. After an internal eek!! over the thought of fresh, warm, still carrying the oven's breath scones - glossed over with a composed and nonchalantly - ohhh alllriiight, I was seated at a great vantage point to take in a room full of The Stylish and The Powerful, Taking Tea. A chilled flute of Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV was brought over as I struggled through one of life's toughest choices: do I get the Wonderland Afternoon Tea, or the Bijoux? When all else fails, go with the priciest. At 59 Pounds a decadent pop, I was positively impoverished and breathless with anticipation. The bespoke Bijoux was ordered and underway and it was a tantalising tale in three agonising Acts:

Speciality Sandwiches Including
Duck Egg & Mustard Cress
Cream Cheese & Picalilli
Poached Scottish Salmon & Cucumber
Pastrami & Marie Rose
Coronation Chicken

Selections from The Palm Court Bakery
Bedford Scone
Raisins Soaked in Champagne
Chocolate & Marinated Orange
- Served w Devonshire Clotted Cream & Strawberry Preserve

Pastries & Cakes based on Jewels
Asprey Diamonds
Baccarat Eclipse
Chanel Pearl
Delices de Cartier
Bulgari B.zero

...God Save The Queen, This is Going To Be Goooooood!

Enter, Stage Left, The Three Best Scones I Ever Had In My Life. Still warm, and light, and moist and fluffy, and delicate and dainty in their beautiful basket cradle. I oohed and aahed as I selected the first little victim to gobble up. I started with the basic Bedford Scone and decided to take it from there. A little pre-jamcream bite told me all the texture wonders of a long forgotten world. I swooned. I fluttered. I fed. Buttery and delicate and beautiful, SconeNirvana. I cut it in half, smeared the clotted cream on the bottom and then the strawberry on top, in careful, generous globs of gluttonous glee. Fucking Hell. This scone hurt, it was simply wonderous, it melted into itself inside my mouth and I was simply scone with the wind. And English cream...it's the Mr Darcy of all Cow products. Smooth and deep and whispering vanilla. It goes in waves, the taste - just like the memory. Scone with the wind, indeed...

...But tomorrow is another day - and if I had thought the plain scone was to be the height of my fickle fancy, I was very gladly wrong. The champagne soaked raisin was divine, buttery, innocent in white scone floured flesh with startling little spikes of champagned sweetness, gently exploding as you bit into them, deepsweetsharp. One murderous molar after another!

But what really did me in was the chocolate and marinated orange. Strewth! I thought they'd gotten too cocky for a second, a bit like Coppola in Part III, a wee bit too sure of themselves. No way this was going to work, it was going to be too much, especially with the jam and cream. Oh, wrong! Deliciously wrong! Decidedly, contrivedly and alivedly wrong! This is one of the best chocolate and orange tastes to ever go down in my mouth, and believe me when I say much ChocolateOrange has gone down before. It was a wicked chocolate, dark and so sanctimoniously saucy, and CrownJewelRichRichRichness spiralling into and through one of those most startling in citrus sharp and profound oranges I have ever known. Almost a burnt orange, but a singing orange and a serpentine cocoa. It left a Union Jack all over my tongue.

And it was just the barest of smidgings of ChocolateOrange within the beautiful scone body, it didn't overpower it, it just gave you the faintest but the most fervently finalising murmurs of flavour. Just a little edge, that was so liquifying to body and mind, to affect and reason. Forget Queen and Country, i'd die for this. A scone as pretty as Scarlett and as deep as Rhett, and burning forever in my memory like Tara. The bakers here really understand their scones, and it's always wonderful to try something seemingly so simple that completely alters all the experiences you've hitherto had - like really good bread after so many ho-hum slices. Something you didn't know could possibly be done better. Try the scones at the Palm Court and, frankly my dear, you will give a damn.

The sandwiches were lovely enough, but not as enjoyable as i'd hoped they'd be. Because this was the bijoux tea, they'd crafted them to appear different and jewel-like. I'm a bit of a sucker for simple, plain, soft little sandwich parcels, the kind you get at most afternoon teas. That type of sandwich was part of the Wonderland but not the fancier Bijoux. The combinations were thoughtful and the flavourings were intense, my favourite was the duck egg with mustard cress and the Scottish salmon.

I was in AmandaHeaven during the whole bloody experience. A bit giddy on the champers and totally revelling in impeccable and gently attentive service and the magical succession of perfectly pretty plates of this and that that kept returning to me like a trusted tide. It is luxurious, sumptuous but subtle, opulent and dreamlike. A constellation of imagination.

Tea pots with the lurid flush of blood red English roses, the perfume kept wafting through the champagne high, grounding me back and into my beautiful table, spread in white and checkered with cups and saucers and plates and spoons. Closed eyes. A sigh. Cheeks in flushed and hurried red.

The whole grand room is a gentle play on light, multicoloured glass fracturing it into beams of emerald green and sapphire blue. The space is hushed, padded, gentle clankings here and there. It is a space for watching and thinking and especially for sinking - into yourself. The experience is precious, it adorns you. Flowers and silver and lights and glass and heavy, cushioned furnishings, protected and treasured, indulgent and extravagant. Sophisticated. The atmosphere is voloptuous with its own imagining, gently, soft like a whisper, and silently sybaritic - that is, until a travelling foreigner, let's say an Aussie, sitting alone and in want of some manners, emits a deep and very audible grunt from a pleasing pause in pineapple.

Argh! Just when I thought panna cotta had been done to Italian death, enter this little number in pineapple to teach me the error of my epicurean ways. It was a memorable pineapple, suspended somewhere between the natural, clean and clear taste of the naked fruit with a subtle infusion of BurntSugarCream. A little pot of pristine pleasure. Gleaming and glazed cubes of curious pineapple crowning a gentle panna cotta cream - and this as a precursor to cake. My inner delight exited my body, took 3 dimensional form and occupied one of the empty seats beside me, too much!

A rose,

a shadowed light,

and cake! As polished as these desserts look, I must give the Palm Court a tongues up, as none of them was too sickeningly sweet. They all had body and flavour and richness, usually when desserts have too much sugar, they don't taste that different from each other. Each of these jewels was beautiful in its own unique perfection.

Dainty, this was about the size of my nose, which probably isn't that dainty actually. It was a delicious little sponge packed in tightly under some creamed icing. Buttery and gentle and beautiful. I broke it down into about five mouthfuls to draw it out.

This little like-a-lollipop was a stylish affair in intense rose macaroon. Candied and moist and creamed inside, as sweet as the little pink bow tied beneath it.

And this spunky cross section here was my absolute favourite. Pert and berried in cream with moist sponge underneath.

Embarrassingly, I tried to eat the sparkly stuff that this lollipop was suspended in, only to find out it was purely decorative. But, like a good glutton I requested an additional dish off the High Tea menu (you'd like more cake? yes, I would), the carrot cake. It was a thimble sized, moist orange buttercreamed beauty. Gone in about two bites.

The Palm Court is probably a definitive London experience. As much as it is girly, there were groups of well suited men discussing things I was oblivious to amid my sugared-champagne haze. There is an impressive list of tea, but the Earl Grey I ordered was lackluster for me. It was an assam, and as far as I am concerned assam usually tastes a lot like its first three letters. The tea was a bit dull, not very bergamoted. If you do make it to the Palm Court there are far better tea options, such as Darjeeling Silver Tip White. But really, Alice's had spoilt me for other tea selections forever.

So, sweethearts, there are two tea settings:

Afternoon Tea, which is seated at 2, 2.30, 4, 4.30 and 5, and

High Tea, which is seated from 5 - 6.30.

Those planning a trip to London can book in advance online at www.palm-court.co.uk, or call them on +44 (0)20 7965 0195.

Palm Court at the Langham Hotel, London...Indeed.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Amanda in Wonderland (aka Alice's Tea Cup, NY)...

Amanda was getting very tired of sitting by her boyfriend on the corner of Columbus and West 73rd with nothing to do, when suddenly a white rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. There was nothing so very remarkable in that, nor did Amanda think it so very much out of the way to hear the rabbit to say to itself 'Oh Dear! Oh Dear' I Shall be too late! Amanda started to her feet...and burning with curiosity, she ran down some steps and after it, and was just in time to see it pop through a painted door.

In another moment down went Amanda after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again...

Cake + knifelings, it was almost exactly three years ago that I was first stung by a gentle bergamot note which, in a double-filtered, super-boiled and steamingly startling strain - pierced me. I was not who I was before. I was un-Amanda-ed. It was Tea. True Tea. A sea of tea, and me. Me, and oh my! The clank of silver against the pearly hollow of china. A breath, a broth, a simmering dream. A Darjeeling Earl Grey. A sip something like a slumber and something like a waking. A sip like a first gentle kiss from a prince in the middle of dreaming centuries. It jolted the purkinje fibers of my long forgotten heart. It happened in a place so perfect and it happened so suddenly. It happened in a place that was cake, that was cookies, a place that was berried scones, that was pudgey wholesome sandwiches, a place that was tea, a place that was love.

On my first trip to New York in 2007 I discovered Alice's Tea Cup. I had fallen, ardently and forever, down and into the magical rabbit hole of a dainty china tea cup whose deepest Darjeeling voice implored... drink me. It was an experience which became a memory, another life lived beneath this one, always in the hope of a golden return.

3 long, dry, cakeless years it had been. Then, in 2010, I returned. But had I ever really left?

C + K'ers, I give you, humbly, Alice's Tea Cup Chapter I, my favourite place in this whole wide world (and any other). Even if I live in Sydney, a part of me is always here, amidst the smells and slices, the clanking and the beautiful clutter, in a place that is so resoundingly my idea of perfection.

As always, it starts with the bright spark of your own private imagining. I am going to have to ask you...to picture it. A little cave, a subterranean denizen of darjeeling and green, of rooibos and rose. Down some steps, through a glass paned door. Under and inside. Private and buzzing. A center, within. Wooden tables, polished silverware lovingly used, mismatched cups and saucers in flowers and in patterns, in bright colours and in warm, dull gold. Bejeweled jugs in rubies and emeralds. And pots! Perfectly hot pots! Pots to drive you potty pots! Stout little sure pots! Perfect pots and what nots! Red pots and green pots and cream pots! With lids of another colour. Oh, my! And little tea dripper contraption thingies with china cats that preside above. Qauintly, quaintly. Painted walls. Fairy Wings. Precious jars and towering cake... If I wasn't a Lebanese girl from the Inner West, this is where i'd faint. Make no mistake, troops, you've stepped inside just about the best thing of all... a story.

And as with all stories, let's start at the beginning. Tell me, then, how do you fancy your scones?

Once upon a time, there was beautiful Buttermilk, Lemon and Strawberry, Blackberry, Strawberry and Chocolate and Pumpkin, and there were many, many more. Fresh baked in Heart Ache with little sidekick pots-in-lovely of dolloped ivory cream and beautifully berried jam. Cream and Jam for spreading thickly and mixing into deep dreamy sink-pink stains. Swirls of pink in swirls of cream in swirls of jam. Slice and Cut and Spread. Warm and enveloping and infused with bounding flavours. The Lemon and the Strawberry was a treat in perfection, SweetTartSourScream, it was Summer As Scone. The glazed Pumpkin was a spice-spliced-delicious-in-twice warming little golden glob of fanciful fury. A little cream on top and away you go. Scones with jam and cream always make a bit of Lizzy Bennett out of me, so decadent and glorious and anachronistic, my edible antiques. Alice's scones change daily, every flavour whim you ever had will find satisfaction here. There are a lot of saucy savouries to try as well, but I had trouble not ordering a berried something on the twelve visits we managed to squish into a 6 day NY stay.

Never fear, Alice has got your (ever expanding) back, and it ain't only cake you should be getting excited about. Check out what happens when Sandwich meets Imagination...

Ham and cheese? Not on your little, lovely life. Boring sangas are so 5 minutes ago and not at all on the menu at Alice's. Exclaimation mark snug in between two slices of wholesome bread goes down in so many delightful ways here: I can't pronounce it but that didn't hold me back from the lapsang souchon smoked chicken breast with granny smith apples and herbed goats cheese on 7 grain bread. Or perhaps an open faced smoke salmon with lemon dill butter on black bread? This one just goes swimmingly down your throat to glorify the empty caverns of your carnivorous bellies! So divine.

There's roasted cumin carrot sandwich with olive tapenade goats cheese and black sesame seed, black forest ham with gryuere and whole grain mustard. And a winsome cucumber and watercress number, as light and as cool as an annorexic starlet. Jesus luscious christ! What could be better than this sandwich line up? Perhaps an unlimited helping as part of the Jabberwocky Afternoon tea!? These sandwiches are little parcels of culinary HooHa! Even if you hated cake and tea (poor, pathetic you) you could come here for the sandwiches alone. Or for wonderful soups and salads or a kitsch little kiddie menu. And don't even get me started on breakfast, what with the hot caking and the bacon hashing that goes on here.

But come on, now. Let's get down to our real agenda, I don't want to waste your time. Let's talk about what really matters. The twin pillars of all good civilisation. Let us talk about tea, and then let us talk about... cake...

Tea, Myself and I. Where do I begin. How does one begin. Neil knows what I'm talking about. So does Leo. So do Celeste and Hela and Shirley and Jo and EB. So does Dan - when I don't make it too strong. So does Adrian these days as well. Mick likes it black, no nonsense. Ash likes it more often that I can brew it up. Tea. It just might be the only thing I can believe in in this world. CakeKnifeTealings...

...Blood might be thicker than water, but when you add some noble leaves of camellia sinensis to some still water, after youve heated it up and steeped it for just the perfectest of whiles and then poured it, languidly, in slithering waves of spiralling amber agony into an angelic arc of willing ceramic, sweetened a little here, splashed with milk a little there...well the family Bechara just gets lost in the haze. My perfect ritual. The sounds and the smells...a little beautiful leaf, into a warmed, solid pot, steaming water over and in, patiently patiently, and then the swill, the rise and the fall, the arc of the pour and the beautiful liquid cresent as it radiates from pot to cup, suspended, shimmering in the air, before it lays down to rest, languidly and forever.

Delicious Darjeeling, Darling Darjeeling, my Healing, Feeling gets-me-reeling Darjeeling. Earl Grey it and I Die. Earl Grey anything and I die. Beautiful, warming, exquisite infusion, bright and beaming and silent with the body of its own true flavour. Liquid Nabokov. RichnessLightnessSinkingFallingWarming. Drowning. Ahhh.

Tea at Alice's is the best I have ever had tea. They have a 'contraption', which double filters and pressure boils water into the most sublime medium for a range of tea so true and exotic that it becomes a heaven. The tea list itself gives me the jollies. Whether it's the noble and luxurious Gyokuro in a vivid green, or Rooibos Bourbon - very vanillaed, or a Mango Flip with hibiscus and raisins, you'll know you've arrived. The Darjeeling Earl Grey is a tea so perfect in its sound and fury that I can't even describe it. Kissed with bergamot oil and as smooth as an eternity in your lover's arms, it embraces you and cradles both your being and your knowing. Alice's Tea, with Indian black vanilla, rose and Japanese green is a sharp and cooling infusion with chirping notes of fragrant floral, it's what a Zimmermann summer dress would taste like - as beverage. The Drink-Me-Detox is a liquid Snow White, pure and innocent and beautiful. It's a maddening melange of Pai Mu Tan and Silver Needle Jasmine tea in White and gentle rooibos - and absolutely delicious. I could go on forever...

This is the face of the amazing man who managed to sit through daily jaunts to Alice's in stupefying New York heat. He was patient and loving, he could stand me ranting on about tea and how perfect this was, and how dainty that was. But there are just certain things some guys can't appreciate, a good hair day is one, and cake...is another. You reckon you've caked? Think again. Confection Perfection goes a little something like this...

Chcolate and Orange in OhMyGod. This is downright Jaw Jazz. Seraph as sponge, towering layers of cream and cake and gorgeous very velvety iced chocolate. Look and Please Touch. Drool and Swoon and Smile and Sigh. Cut and Slice and Box and Eat and Lick and Dream. This was glorious. Glory. So dense and moist and oranged, happy flavours, sure and clear and not too sugared. Smooth and rich and buttery, so deep. Just watch and awe...

At this...

And this...

and This one too!

But Stop. We need to talk - about something serious.

About something sticky. Something slightly Chocolatetricky.

About something gloriously, grandtastically gooey.

With Buttercream Icing so nicing. Nutella Cake with Buttercream Icing.

Okay, i'll attempt to maintain an illusion of dignity. But in all honesty, you'd have to alphabetise and file a list of all the illegal, immoral, embarrassing and down right stupid things i'd be willing to do (in public) for a piece of this Baby. It is wet, like a french kiss, Chocolately, like Willy Wonka's imagination, Hazelnutty, like a hazelnut and as Bananas as Mel Gibson lately - but with more ButterCream. Beautiful, angry, angel of a cake. Cake as Dream. Ache-As-Bake-For-My-Tummys-Sake Cake. It is delight, layered with decadence and frosted with pure, ailing joy. Leave to grow molten an hour or two in a take away box in NY summer heat, and you have got just about the most sensuous experience spare change can buy. It made its own memories inside my mouth and there it will hover in spirit and in legend, like a sweet, chocolately bananaed intangible, encased in its own gentle cream, until the very day I die, right besides...

plates of freshly baked cookies and

lively lemon tarts with deep, dark blackberry hearts.

I am spent. Spent with the memories, the love, the tea, the sugar, the sandwiches, the highs, the lows, the honey, the cups, the smells and sounds and tastes. The cubes of sugar. The looking hole into the kitchen.

Curioser and Curioser! This is one rabbit hole you want to get wandering down as soon as you can. It is a must do on any trip to New York, some of us have planned trips to NY merely as pretext for finding ourselves here again. I love Alice's. I love Lauren (who I met in 2007) and her partner who set this enchanted establishment up after never finding the perfect place for afternoon tea. Your efforts and your imagination could make me weep. Take my credit card, you already have my heart.

There are three Alice's in NY. Chapter I happens at 102 West 73rd, II at 156th East 64th, III 22o East 81st.

And, the REALLY good news, you can buy all teas online, ohmygodyes here! At www.alicesteacup.com

There you have it, my definitive tea and cake experience. The truth is, i'll never in the world be able to get out of it anyway. I got a commendable amount of Alice's loot (tea and pots and trinkets) back through Australian customs and am trying to recreate (as much as I can) - and like a bit of a Mad hatter - the experience of Alice's at home. It'll have to do for now.

I am so happy knowing this beautiful place exists and I can't wait to come back, even if Danny can.

Thanks to Dan, Jeff and Leo for comprising a little tea party, 3 blokes were better than nothing. Special Platonic Thanks to Leo who *got it* and almost weeped along side me.

Alice's, Amen x.