Coming off a recent afternoon tea in Cape May, I didn't expect one at the grand, sumptuous St. Regis Hotel (2 E 55th St.) in Manhattan to be all that different.
I was pleasantly mistaken.
The last time I stepped inside the St. Regis was back in my bright-eyed food editor days, and I was invited there for a Celestial Seasonings tea press event. I was agog at all the gleaming silver serving pieces and realized that morning that even when you're drinking bagged tea, if it's out of a gilded cup and you're clutching a cucumber-mint sandwich in the other hand, it can taste pretty good.
It's been more than a few weary years since then, and this time I was the one making the reservations and paying the bill (or rather, everyone I dragged in with me, since it was for my birthday). But it was no less splendid than I remembered.
Afternoon tea is served in the Astor Court, a golden, glowing, chandeliered room. Unlike at my house, the linens on the table are actually linen, and the plush couches and chairs practically beg you to stay for hours. It's just too hard to get up, especially when a waiter who dresses better than you do is pouring tea from a silver pot with a flourish and whisks in tray after tray of sweets. For all I know, the harpist in the corner would even take requests.
The tea list is outstanding on its own: there are over 20 varieties, from golden Assam, imperial osmanthus oolong and organic green to heady house blends with vanilla, cornflower petals, mangoes and lemon verbena. I picked a Chinese green scented with pear, and it couldn't have been better prepared: The water wasn't too hot, so the gentle, earthy flavor of the tea really came through.
The first course of savory sandwiches made me want to never eat anything with crusts again. The smoked salmon roulade with lemon-chive butter on pumpernickel bread and the sundried tomato and goat cheese spread on whole grain took the concept of finger foods to lofty new height.
The ensuing sweet course was layers of unimaginable delight, from the pineapple-almond tea bread, miniature lemon meringue tarts and two types of bite-sized chocolate cakes to the tender scones and accompanying spread choice of apple butter, strawberry jam, lemon curd and clotted cream- like an exquisitely unhealthy salad-bar toppings section.
Shockingly, the food, which all seemed so diminutive, proved more than enough to push my blood-sugar to dangerously high levels- especially when I was surprised by a rich, caramel-kissed tarte tatin topped with a scoop of green-apple sorbet and a birthday candle at the very end.
For the first time in my life, I didn't think I was going to be able to eat dessert.
I rallied, however, cleaned my plate, and then my party and I all tried to roll ourselves back out the door. But even more deliciously overstuffed couches in an adjacent mahogany sitting room beckoned, and we sat for awhile longer, digesting like true Astors.
Why can't just one afternoon every week be like this?
Afternoon tea, $48/with champagne $60; served Mon.–Sun. from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.