Mr. Tea

Phoenician, 6000 East Camelback, Phoenix, 423-2530. Afternoon tea: 3 to 4:30 p.m., seven days a week.

Your boss suddenly decides to give you the afternoon off. Choose the sentence that best describes how you'll spend the time.

a) You finally get around to picking up the load of clothes that has been sitting at the dry cleaners since Columbus Day.

b) You grab the remote, hit the sofa and thank the programming geniuses at Channel 15 for scheduling 3 p.m. reruns of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

c) You start working on this year's batch of lies to put in your annual Christmas letter.

d) You interpret the boss's unexpected gesture as a sign from God, so you head to the nearest Indian gambling hall, shouting "Amen" and "Bingo" at regular intervals out the car window.

e) You forget about worldly cares by taking a civilized break for afternoon tea.

Sure, I enjoy retrieving my laundry, lying prone with Dr. Quinn, putting acquaintances into a jealous lather with tales of an imaginary Greek-islands cruise and breaking the bank at Fort McDowell. Still, during my rare free afternoon hours, I'd rather be pampered with tea and sympathy.

Afternoon tea started about 200 years ago in England. As industrial timetables pushed the day's main meal from midday to evening, the ritual developed to fill the hunger gap. Sometimes it's a mere snack, sometimes a meal in itself. At its most elaborate, you can expect finger sandwiches, fruit, scones and pastries, all washed down with enormous quantities of tea.

No place in the Valley does afternoon tea with more panache than the Phoenician. This swanky spread could make even the most class-conscious working stiffs forget their proletarian roots and imagine themselves part of the leisured aristocracy.

The setting will certainly feed their imagination. The tea court is located in a cozy, plushly carpeted nook just off the main lobby. A museum-quality, 300-year-old French tapestry hangs from the wall, and a gorgeous crystal chandelier hangs overhead. A tuxedoed host leads you to your linen-lined table, set with stunning, hand-painted Herend porcelain china from Hungary. An English-accented server and on-the-ball staff anticipate your every whim, while a pianist reinforces your growing Anglophilia by elegantly tinkling out "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square."

You can go several tea routes here. Folks interested in just tea or a quick nibble can order a la carte. But that makes as much sense as visiting the Empire State Building and getting off at the 20th floor. As long as you're here, you might as well go all the way.

All the way, in this case, is the royal tea, a $26 per person celebration of the good life. The good life gets under way with a cocktail--a Kir Royale, a fizzy blend of champagne and creme de cassis, a sweet black currant liqueur.

Then, prepare yourself for the parade of goodies. The finger sandwiches are first up, six bite-size varieties. The servers won't blink an eye if you sample all six, and they'll even give you a chance at seconds. The asparagus wrapped in Parma ham and the crab salad freshened with orange and coriander are particularly tempting, although I couldn't find any deficiencies in the egg and watercress, chicken salad with sweet relish, cucumber with dill cream cheese or smoked-salmon pinwheels.

Next, loosen your belt for the two warm scones (they're like buttermilk biscuits), one plain, the other studded with sun-dried cherries. They don't require any additional gilding, but most people won't be able to resist slathering them with the strawberry preserves, lemon curd or wickedly luscious Devonshire cream the Phoenician serves with them. (According to our server, the Devonshire cream is imported in vacuum-packed tins from the Mother Country.)

Finally, prepare yourself for a mind-boggling selection of miniature cakes and pastries, heaped on a three-tiered serving tray. Among the choices: white chocolate mousse in a chocolate shell; espresso-soaked chocolate cake; a chocolate Grand Marnier cookie; strawberries dipped in chocolate; a custard tart covered with dried fruit; fig cake; macaroons; an outstanding cream horn dusted with powdered sugar and filled with candied walnuts; and madeleines, the famous, shell-shaped cakes whose taste inspired Proust's Remembrances of Things Past.

As with every other part of the afternoon ceremony, the Phoenician doesn't stint on the quality of tea, either. You can choose from 18 loose teas and infusions, supplied by Jacksons of Piccadilly. Darjeeling and Earl Grey are best bets, but the smoky Lapsang Souchang from China is also exotically effective.

Although afternoon tea was originally designed to carry you through until dinner, the royal tea here is more likely to substitute for it. And I found the perfect activity to follow it up: the royal nap.

Ritz-Carlton, 2401 East Camelback, Phoenix, 468-0700. Afternoon tea: Monday through Saturday, 1:30 to 3 p.m.

The Ritz-Carlton makes you feel like you're taking tea in the sitting room of a blue blood's manor house. It's served in a salon off the lobby, an elegant room richly furnished with ornate chandeliers, paintings from the English hunting school, marvelous Oriental urns and china-filled breakfronts. Guests can sit either on chairs or sofas, in front of little tables with crocheted tablecloths and a vase filled with fresh flowers. While waiting for their tea to steep, they can tap their toes to the sophisticated rhythms of Gershwin, Kern and Berlin, courtesy of the talented musician behind the Ritz-Carlton's grand piano.

The Ritz-Carlton offers three levels of tea: light tea ($8.50); full tea ($12.50); and, our choice, royal tea ($17.50).

The royal tea starts you off with a champagne cocktail, which I found to be a highly effective method of jump-starting an afternoon of leisure.

The high-proof theme continues with the first course, a plate of juicy strawberries doused with Grand Marnier and topped with a mound of fresh whipped cream. Dizzy, perhaps, from alcohol and the opulent atmosphere, unwholesome thoughts about why I didn't marry for money--so I could live like this every day--started creeping into my mind.

Fortunately, the next round of finger sandwiches snapped me back to reality. You get the traditional assortment: sliced hard-boiled egg and chives on bread lined with a tasty roasted tomato cream; cucumber and plum tomato adorned with a cucumber cream; ham rolled around a gherkin and asparagus; and lovely smoked salmon burnished with a few grains of caviar.

The Ritz-Carlton puts out first-rate scones on which you can apply a coating of jam, lemon curd or Devonshire cream. Then get ready to finish up with an attractive variety of pastries. Chelsea buns (they resemble a sweet raisin Danish), chocolate raspberry cake, excellent berry-topped custard tarts and moist carrot and pound cakes are all skillfully crafted.

Unlike the Phoenician, the Ritz-Carlton doesn't burden the uninitiated with too many tea options. Our server offered three: English breakfast, black currant and (ugh) decaf peppermint. I must have made a bit of a face over the choices, because she quickly asked if I preferred another variety. I did, and she was able to rustle up a pot of Darjeeling.

Tea for two? Try puttin' on the Ritz.

Tessa's Tea & Treasures, 4700 North Central, Phoenix, 234-3422. Afternoon tea: 2 to 3:30 p.m., seven days a week.

Looking to chat it up with the ladies over tea? Consider Tessa's Tea & Treasures, which is definitely designed for members of the female persuasion.

Don't take my word for it. "You're the first guy I've seen in here for eight months," said our server, who seemed a bit anxious about what this charge of rugged, manly testosterone that naturally crackles through me would do to Tessa's afternoon chemistry.

One look at the surroundings should tell you why tea at Tessa's is as popular with men as a lip-waxing procedure. This tidy place looks like a setting out of Little Women. The flowery wallpaper, lace curtains, lace tablecloth, frilly waitress outfits, dried flower arrangements, Victorian knickknacks and antique furnishings will take most women back to the New England girlhood they once dreamed about. Guys, however, may find it a little suffocating. The place is also thick with the scent of potpourri, an aroma whose charms are genetically inexplicable to bearers of the XY chromosomes.

The fare itself, however, will appeal to just about everyone. You start off with hot, crusty, fresh-baked scones, right out of the oven, teamed with lemon curd, homemade jam and creme fraiche.

They're followed by a big tray supporting enough hearty sandwiches and fruit to satisfy even the fiercest female appetites. You get cream cheese and cucumber, tomato and cheese and turkey, accompanied by pear, strawberries, watermelon, pepperjack cheese and candied walnuts.

Desserts feature three kinds of yummy miniature cheesecakes (chocolate, cherry and chocolate chip), cream puffs and an assortment of store-bought cookies.

Too bad, though, the tea itself doesn't do justice to the spread. Vanilla, cinnamon spice and decaf currant teas have the same effect on me as potpourri. Fortunately, the waitress scrounged up a Lipton tea bag, for which I was grateful. But it seems to me that Tessa's ought to take its tea more seriously.

When afternoon tea is over, you can wander through Tessa's well-stocked antique shop, browsing for the $5,500 sideboard or $1,200 pump organ you've always wanted. It sure beats picking up your dry cleaning.

Royal tea

Royal tea

Tessa's Tea & Treasures:
Afternoon tea


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