Monday, April 1, 2013

Tea at the Shangri-La Hotel (Toronto)

Last December, three Certified Tea Sommeliers (friends: Debbie, Raymonde, and I) went to the Shangri-La Hotel in downtown Toronto for pre-Christmas afternoon tea.  

Yeah, you heard me, I said afternoon tea, not high tea.  Traditionally, high tea was the evening meal of the working class, after the Industrial Revolution in England, served between 5pm and 7pm at the end of the work day.  It consisted of strong tea and hearty foods like kidney pies, shepherd's pies, finger food, and sandwiches. It was their supper.  

Afternoon tea (or low tea) was credited to Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford circa 1840 because she needed something to tide her over between the long hours of lunch (the main meal) and their late dinner.  The tradition of taking tea and a bite to eat in the mid-afternoon soon became fashionable and it spread across the kingdom and continued to this day.  

Don't believe me?  Click here

The afternoon tea service at the Shangri-La Hotel is served in the lobby lounge just outside the Bosk Restaurant.

Who wants this in their living room?  I do!
We were seated in front of the fireplace.  The lobby looked like a luxurious living room with deep leather sofas, and marble floors with carpet. Toronto Life magazine did a great photo spread of the Shangri-La Hotel, click here to view.

Their tea menu is a red fabric bound book.  How elegant!
The cover poem, "Seven Bowls of Tea" by Lu Tong is translated below.

We were told they carried as many as 68 teas.
The staff was friendly and helpful.  We settled on two pots of tea and two tea services to share.  We asked for the Nilgiri and Keemun.  Our server took our order and went off to get our tea.  She came back to inform us that they didn't have the teas we selected.  She brought a few tins of tea with her to help us make another selection.  We asked for Darjeeling and Kenyan Purple tea.  Off she went and back again.  No Darjeeling.  Okay.  We consulted the tea menu book again and settled on the Yunnan Ancient Tree.  She went to check and said they have that.

It's nice to say you have a big selection of teas, but not in stock?  hmm...
Our teas were brought to the table and the server poured for us.  We tasted the Yunnan Ancient Tree, not much flavour, we looked at each other and lifted the lid to check the leaves.  We glanced at each other, all shook heads in unison and then poured our cups right back into the pot to let it steep longer.

4 or 5 minutes later, we tasted it again.  Much better, more like the earthy taste of a Yunnan black tea.  It was nice but it wasn't as rich or malty as some.  The Kenyan Purple tea tasted nothing like what I had read before.  It was okay...

The leaves from both teas already looked spent, fully opened after one pot.  There weren't enough leaves and they may have been sitting around a while.  It was a bit of a let down.  
Beautiful setting for our afternoon tea
The scones were good with plump raisins and tasty fruit compote.

The sandwiches: sliced ham with grainy honey Dijon mustard, and the egg with a touch of curry, but the bread was noticeably dry.  The cucumber sandwiches were soggy and mushy.  Must have been sitting around.  Not very creative, in fact the girls proclaimed they could make better!

The sweets (from left clockwise): almond tarts, lemon meringue tarts, pumpkin tarts, brownies, and carrot cakes.
The almond tart was like a biscotti, dry and hard, and tasted like the almond cookies you get at a Chinese restaurant.  Tasty.  A clever presentation.  Perhaps it was designed to be dunked in the tea.

The lemon meringue and pumpkin tarts were good.  I enjoyed those.  The brownie was nice.  The carrot cake was pretty tasty.

pumpkin tart, mmm
lemon meringue tart, yum
The sweets were definitely the highlight of the tea service.  The sandwiches and teas themselves were disappointing.  The service was very good.  But you'd expect a 5 star hotel in a big city like Toronto to be a little more creative and put a bit more care and attention into their tea and food service.  All three of us were surprised.  We were, however, very happy to get together and catch up during the holiday season.

I decided to email the hotel to tell them about my disappointment.  I received two emails back from the hotel, including one from the Food & Beverage Manager.  She thanked me for my feedback and notified me that they were in the process of revamping their tea service for the new year.

I had been wondering about their progress until a couple of weeks ago.  Then I noticed that The Tea Emporium was posting photos about preparing the tea room and the staff of the Shangri-La Hotel.  So that's who they've been working with to revamp their tea service, how intriguing...

I look forward to visiting the Shangri-La again to see how they've improved.
"Rising" by Shanghai-based sculptor, Zhang Huan

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