The British tradition of taking tea is filtering into Washington like late afternoon sunlight through lace curtains.
Maybe it's the time of day we associate with cookies and milk after school, maybe it's the appeal of a tea party, with dolls or the Mad Hatter, or maybe just like the ritual.
When we asked about tea at the British Embassy, Lady Henderson, the ambassador's wife, said they no longer serve afternoon tea. "I think that's a long time out," she said. "It's not that we don't have tea -- cups of tea -- but we don't have tea parties. We are much more likely to have a coffee party in the morning than a tea party in the afternoon."
Several hotels and restaurants in town do serve tea though, and the search for a proper tea uncovered such gustatory gaffes as teabags and cream -- both ruinous to a good cup. And every bite of tasty English tea bread there was a dry mouthful of stale white.
A proper tea usually mean fine china on cloth. The tea itself can be anything from a sprightly English breakfast blend to Lady Henderson's favorite, smoky lapsang souchong. In Britain, milk is often added to the tea -- some people call it calico tea -- and warmed milk is frowned upon. To nibble on, there are some or all of the following: light finger sandwiches, petits fours, tea breads, small tarts, perhaps some fruit, and scones with fresh marmalade or preserves and -- if it's not asking too much -- thick, clotted cream that comes from cows in Devonshire, England.
They serve tea at the Four Seasons Hotel, where the Garden Terrace is like a living room, one's very dream of a parlor for receiving guests, a living room with a fountain surrounded by palms and ficuses, enormous picture windows, the help soft-tredding on the plush carpeting, a handsome young man playing Rhapsody in Blue on the grand piano. This is where you want to meet your very dearest friends and share secrets on the flowered settees, or settle in on a velvet love-seat among begonias.
At teatime a warm amber light, the color of tea, filters through picture windows and fills the room.
The fare is elegant: six kind of Twinings tea served in little pots, with and extra pot for hot water should one need to weaken a brew, both nestled on a napkin-lined tray. There's s tea strainer for the edge of the cup. The pinwheel-design finger sandwiches were very fresh, and most were on brown bread. With rich cream cheese, there were dainties of smoked salmon, prosciutto ad nut, watercress and a light and airy egg salad. Tartlettes -- we each had one -- were kiwi fruit or green grapes topping a light custard filling and a crunchy-cookie crust.
Two English tea breads were offered: one a walnut bread and the other a fruitcake, which was really a lesser poundcake laced with cherries and walnuts. The breads, moist with few crumbs, contrasted with the raisin scorn which crumbled, drippling blac currant preserves and imported Double Devon Cream -- the real thing -- onto the fingers. Resisting the urge to like them, we found it a most civilized way to spend a late afternoon.
The view from the Potomac Lounge at the Watergate Hotel, where they serve tea every afternoon, takes in the river, Key Bridge and the Georgetown shoreline. It's a secluded L-shaped room of plush brown velvet banquettes and Chinese touches. The pianist comes on at 5, and while you're waiting for her Chopin, tea may be ordered from menus written on ceramic hotplates. The choices: Wendell's Earl Grey, assam, orange pekoe and lapsang souchong, as well as peach tea, hot and iced. Because the lounge is out of the mainstream there's a sense of informality here, reflected in the plain white Corning china and the brightly patterned napkins.
Teatime sandwiches were an unadulterated turkey salad between a slice of pumpernickel and a slice of rye, cucumber with butter and sourcream, and watercress with a very piquant blue cheese. Tea stimulates talk, but the cheese spread was so thick on a cheddar-and-chutney canape that conversation became difficult.
We could choose from an array of Watergate pastries: tiny apricot or almond millefeuilles or cherry or strawberry tarts, their crispy shells painted with chocolate and filled with cream cheese filling. Perhaps not enough of a good thing: we simply had to order another taste and were charged accordingly. A controlled teatime strictly from the menu would be a pot of tea, three sandwiches and a pastry.
There are places, like the Perfect Cup in White Flint, where they don't pretend to have a particular teatime, byt you can stop and have a proper cuppa most any time of day. There are no teapots here, tea is brewed by the cup. They offer 15 different kinds -- Earl Grey, jasmine, lapsang souchong, Russian, orange spice, black currant, to name a few -- from which they filter the leaves before serving it piping hot. You can order hot croissants with a bit of butter and strawberry preserves (perfectly acceptable tea fare), or croissants with brie or ham and gruyere. It is an efficient teatime. There are no tablecloths and inside, where the tea and coffee are brewed behind a tiled bar, there are small round tables with copper surfaces, and little more than outdoor furniture in the mall area. It's not conducive to lingering, but the tea is delicious.
By contract, the Bread Oven in Spring Valley says it has teatime, but the waitress was confused on a recent visit when asked about afternoon tea. There was only one kind of tea offered, though assurances were made that the restaurant soon would offer 10 kinds, and a call to the restaurant later showed they had gotten it up to three: Earl Grey, jasmine and English breakfast. For food, there were French pastries -- delicious hazelnut buttercream eclairs, almond puff-pastry oozing with raspberries and cream, creampuff swans, babas au rhum, tarts -- great if you're looking for desserts.
Teatime at La Fleur in Alban Towers puts the emphasis on the tea: 20 varieties are on the menu, of which 11 are available. There were 18 ways to have coffee. (The vigilant waiter recommended his favorite, hot chocolate with whipped cream.) "Assorted pastries" on the menu were whatever the chef had baked that day and were heavier than a late-afternoon snack should be. There was a pear tart with almong filling, which had a delicate crust, not too sweet; and a multiple-layered chocolate sprinkles. Except for the pleasant piped-in chansons, the restaurant is quiet at teatime, a romantic, attractive setting among oil paintings and mirrors, a single rose on a table covered in pale pink cloth, and touches of art deco -- no doubt dating from when the Towers was originally built.
Entering Twigs in the Capital Hilton at teatime, you must pass the etagere displaying the afternoon's offering, and what you see is what you get: simple flat sandwiches, white bread cut in rectangles -- the sort a child might make -- and sparsely filled with something salty. The barest touch of cream cheese offered little relief for the flattened, dry watercress. The salmon in one sandwich and turkey in another were both decent, but couldn't compensate for the spent white bread on which they were served. The crysanthemums seemed to be the freshest item on the table.
Twigs offered their version of the traditional Dundee cake, a teatime staple of fruitcake topped with almonds. The sort of fruitcake you refuse over the holidays, it was tinned, as were some almond maccaroons; we were encouraged to use a sour-cream concoction on them, an ersatz clotted cream.
We were served from a common tray: a true test of ladies and gentlemen, for each one to get an equal portion. We did enjoy the French pastries but wished we could have selected them ourselves from what we saw on the way in.
The tealeaves weren't a problem here, they were safely tucked inside a teaball. But alas, the tea was only warm.
The Sheraton-Carlton gets high marks for an Old-World, European, dignified atmosphere, with the Palm Court in its lobby most like the lobby of the Plaza.Tea is served under the crystal chandeliers and carved ceiling, with an excellent view of the guests' comings and goings.
A friendly waiter dropped off the metal teapot. Dangling under the lid were the labels from two bags of Twinings English breakfast tea, which saved us the trouble of asking. Upon a request for milk, he brought a pot of cream. The simple finger sandwiches, white bread slices decrusted and cut in half, were, in ascending order of quality, egg salad (dry, bread not terriby fresh), watercress (creamy and pleasantly tangy) and cucumber (delicious, with fluffy cream cheese and a dash of pepper). Other offerings were a delightfully textured pound cake -- slightly dry with a well-browned crust and a streak of chocolate running through it. The cake, if one wished, could be topped with fresh strawberries and a dollop of whipped cream spruced up with zest of lemon.
Then there was carrot cake, much different from the pineapply variety sold in local delis. This rich and moist carrot cake resembled a German chocolate one, with the same sort of crumbs that you mash on your plate with a fork to get the very last. Both cakes were not too sweet and not too heavy for a snack.
Here there were many sconces, but, alas, no scones.
Tea is restorative to body and soul and afternoon tea has a sense of occasion, a way to brace oneself for going on with the day -- especially a day spent wandering art galleries, or a day lasting into a theater evening with dinner at the end.
In Great Britain, afternoon tea represents an era of more leisurely living. Said Lady Henderson, "I think people have a lot of cups of tea. That will never die out. I don't think that they have cake or tea and muffins, it's not something that sort of fits in with a busy life; it's more something you can do if you are in the country or on a weekend. Then you can sort of sit down to muffins, scones or cake." AND SPEAKING OF SCONES Here's Lady Henderson's recipe for them. They may be kept warm in silver bowls covered with starched napkins. For 20 scones: 500 g. (1 lb. 2 oz.) flour, sifted 1 dessertspoon baking powder 3/4 dessertspoon salt 200 g. (7 oz.) fresh butter 250 ml. (scant 1/2 pint) milk yolk of 1 egg 2 dessertspoons milk a mixing bowl a crinkled cutter a pastry brush a baking tray Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and quickly mix with the butter and milk. The exact quantity of milk depends on the quality and type of flour: you should aim at a soft dough. Knead very lightly and roll out to a thickness of about 2.5 cm. (1 in.). Cut with a round crinkled cutter. Brush over with a glaze made from the egg yolk and extra milk and bake in a moderate oven, 200 degree C. (400 degree F.), for 15 minutes. Serve warm. (From Mary Handerson's Paris Embassy Cookbook, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.) In the absence of Devonshire cream, whipping cream on the scones is just as good. "Whip it and serve with strawberry jam," said Lady Henderson, "and that's the end of your waistline.