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Mr. Tea

Biltmore Afternoon Tea, Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, 24th Street and Missouri, 955-6600. Afternoon Tea: 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., seven days a week.

How come Americans drink coffee instead of tea?
You can trace the answer back to 1773, when 60 men, dressed as Indians, dumped 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. Textbooks sketchily explain that they were protesting Britain's Townshend Act, which levied a tax on the colonies' favorite hot drink. In the old days, when schools believed imparting information was more important than building self-esteem and supervising random drug tests, we learned that our principled forefathers refused to recognize the Mother Country's right to tax them, since no colonists served in Parliament. Only their own elected colonial legislators, they argued, had that right. Their stirring cry still resonates today: "No taxation without representation."

The real story behind the Boston Tea Party, however, is a lot more complex, and a lot more fascinating. In 1772, Britain's East India Trading Company, the world's largest commercial firm, hit hard times. Business was bad, and the company found itself sitting on a huge surplus of tea. But its economic distress gave the government an unexpected political opportunity. King George III and his ministers hatched a brilliant scheme, one that, if successful, would ease the company's financial problems and break colonial opposition to Parliamentary authority in one stroke.

They decided to send the excess tea to the colonies--and sell it at a bargain price. Though the Townshend duty would remain, the wily British believed that tea-loving colonists wouldn't care: Cheap tea would be an irresistible temptation. Economic benefit, the government gleefully reasoned, would trump political principle. Thirsty, weak-willed colonists would drop their objections to the tax, and Parliament's right to tax would no longer be questioned.

Boston's small band of revolutionary agitators immediately recognized the plan's sinister genius. Like the British, they too believed that New England tea drinkers wouldn't be able to resist the markdown. So they made sure their fellow citizens wouldn't get the chance. On December 16, 1773, a band of patriots (including Sam Adams and Paul Revere) sneaked aboard the tea ships anchored in the harbor and threw all the tea overboard. This bold, desperate act helped set the War of Independence in motion.

Driven by revolutionary fervor, Americans shunned tea. Over the next two centuries, we acquired a coffee habit instead. Had iced tea not inexplicably taken hold (and every other country on earth considers it undrinkable swill), we might not have consumed any tea at all.

About a decade ago, however, our attitude toward hot tea began to change. Posh hotels and tea shops started offering English-style "Afternoon Tea"--a light p.m. refreshment of sandwiches and cakes, washed down with a pot of tea. (Don't confuse this "Afternoon Tea," originally devised by the English leisured class as a pre-dinner snack, with the aristocratic-sounding "High Tea." The latter is actually a working-class supper, a substantial meal.)

The Arizona Biltmore is the latest of the Valley's high-end resorts to feature an Afternoon Tea. Management has clearly studied how it's done elsewhere in town. The formula: Install comfy chairs, plush couches and linen-draped tables in a nook just off the lobby; set out expensive, lovely chinaware (the Biltmore uses Luxembourg's Villeroy & Boch, whose stamp proudly proclaims "anno 1748"); and decorate the area with potted greenery and flowers. Also, hire deferential European servers with attractive foreign accents--Americans find that classy.

The Biltmore departs from the formula by not offering live musical accompaniment. No tuxedoed pianist tickles the ivories at tea time. The only music you'll hear is the sound of two birds, cooing from their nearby cage.

Other parts of the design formula need some tweaking. The chairs and couches are comfortable enough, but the fraying beige fabric requires a thorough and immediate cleaning. The tea area sits across from the front desk, so you can't escape the hum of noise and activity. And instead of overlooking a garden or other peaceful area, the window gives you a good view of limousines and luxury vehicles pulling up to the valet parking station.

The Afternoon Tea itself is pleasant enough, but not yet in the same class as the competition's. The Biltmore offers teas provided by Harney and Sons, a well-known Connecticut outfit that supplies teas to America's swankiest hotels. The variety of tea pickings here, though, is slim: chamomile, black currant, English breakfast, Earl Grey (misspelled "Gray" on the menu) and Ceylon. Where's Darjeeling? Where's Assam? Where are the fancy blends?

Even worse, no one has taught the staff how to brew them. It's essential that the water be boiling hot. But the tepid H2O in the Sterno-fired samovar wouldn't raise a blister on a newborn.

The Afternoon Tea's first round begins with a choice of five kinds of tea sandwiches, dainty little morsels. Don't fret about looking piggy--it's perfectly acceptable to sample them all. But if I were to return, I'd stick to the scrumptious model filled with white and green asparagus, quail egg, smoked salmon and chive. Curried chicken salad with smoked grapes and Brie, as well as cucumber with watercress, black olives and dill cream cheese are two other sandwiches worth considering. But neither the ham and havarti cheese, nor the roast turkey with cranberry mayonnaise holds much excitement.

Rounds two and three come simultaneously, on a two-tiered tray. Round two starts with two outstanding scones, one fashioned from buttermilk, the other lined with a sugar glaze and studded with apricot bits and raisins. In a departure from custom, however, they're not served with Devon cream, an unbelievably thick, rich English cream that's spooned on scones. There isn't lemon curd, either, another traditional accompaniment. Instead, you can gild your scones with jam and whipped cream. But I don't consider them satisfactory substitutes, especially when you factor in the Biltmore Grand Tea's $23 tag. (The Royal Tea, which includes a Kir Royale--a creme de cassis/champagne cocktail--is $28.)

Round three is dessert, a half-dozen mini-treats that end the afternoon on a high note. It's hard to choose a favorite among the creme brulee, orange tea bread, eclairs, chocolate truffle, berry mini-tart and chocolate-dipped strawberry.

Half the fun of afternoon tea is getting pampered. The Biltmore's sweet, attentive staff does it right. Our Bosnian server repeatedly dashed over to pour and replenish our tea, encouraged us to take seconds, wrapped up two scones to take home when we told her how much we liked them, and gave us time to relax. And when the manager had trouble ringing up our bill (the computer hadn't absorbed a recent price increase), he charged us the old price instead of making us wait while accounting got its act together.

At the moment, though, the Biltmore Afternoon Tea is still a work-in-progress. Someday, perhaps, it will be good enough to raise the cry, "The British are coming!"

Gooseberries, 13216 North Seventh Street, 789-0622. Afternoon Tea: Monday through Saturday, 3 p.m.

Men, be warned: Enter Gooseberries at your own risk--it's a high-estrogen zone. If you've got XY chromosomes, this place works on you the same way Kryptonite works on Superman.

The ladies, though, seem more than happy. Maybe they like the overpoweringly sweet aroma of potpourri and who-knows-what-else that smacks you upside the head the moment you walk in. To me, it smells like Grandma's house would, if she'd gone berserk.

They probably also enjoy shopping here. Gooseberries could be named Knickknacks "R" Us. The shelves are filled to overflowing with stuff I see no earthly use for (or can even identify), but the goods apparently drive women wild: china, bath crystals, stuffed animals, candles, tee shirts and dried-flower arrangements.

And the ladies seem to enjoy eating here, too. That's because Gooseberries is also a restaurant, offering a midmorning brunch (muffins, granola, quiche, omelets) and lunch (soups, salads, sandwiches). No doubt they also enjoy the piped-in music, elevator arrangements of patriotic tunes like "America the Beautiful" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Gooseberries clears away the lunch dishes at 2:30, so it can get its Afternoon Tea ready by 3. But don't show up on the spur of the moment--reservations are required, so the kitchen can know how many folks it must prepare for.

It's a low-key, three-course, $12.50 refreshment. There's only one kind of tea, a fruity, feminine blend of black currant, apricot and passion fruit. You'll do your own pouring--the harried waitress doesn't have time to run around and do it for you.

The first round brings three kinds of uncreative finger sandwiches: chicken salad, tuna salad and tomato with watercress. None of them tastes particularly remarkable, either.

The scones course is a highlight. They come two per customer, in a pretty flowered basket. The plain one is plain in name only--it's luscious. Even better is the walnut cinnamon model, moist and rich. And you get to embellish them the right way: ladle on the strawberry preserves, lemon curd and heart-stopping, artery-clogging Devon cream. (You can get an abbreviated, scones-only "Cream Tea" for $6.95.)

There's only one dessert option, but if you come on a day when it's the tiramisu toffee torte, you won't mind. Chocolatey and creamy, it's also flecked with toffee bits, which add lots of unexpected crunchy pleasure.

Gooseberries' Afternoon Tea isn't where milord and his pals will want to hang out. But if milady and her friends have some free time, it's a good spot for a civili

Biltmore Afternoon Tea:
Grand Tea
$23.00
Royal Tea
28.00

Cream Tea
$6.95
Afternoon Tea
12.

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miles
Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa

2400 E. Missouri Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85016

602-955-6600

www.arizonabiltmore.com/spa


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