Here at New Times, we're not exactly the tea-and-scones crowd. You're more likely to spot a tattoo or a death metal t-shirt than a frilly floral dress on one of our contributors -- and ninety percent of us have no clue which fork to use when or that Miss Manners strictly forbids twirling spaghetti with a fork (What are we supposed to do, suck it up whole ala Lady and the Tramp?).
Still, there's something alluring about high tea. Call us old-fashioned, but we're fans of anything that gives you permission to lounge your afternoon away nibbling tea sandwiches and scones while being waited on hand and foot. I indulged in two local afternoon tea services in hopes of finding one that will make you feel like a queen (or king).
In One Corner: The Phoenician
6000 E. Camelback Rd. in Scottsdale
The Phoenician is like the Audrey Hepburn of local boutique hotels -- classy, refined and elegant enough to always be in style. Everything is bathed in shades of neutral ivory, from the
stone floor tiles to the updated glass chandelier, sitting couches and table linens. High tea is
Minus the bitter leaves of the first cup, the tea was lovely; lightly sweet and refreshing, with a strong blueberry flavor and undertones of blackberry and honey. It was the kind of delicate, mild tea that you can drink a large amount of -- good thing, too, because I had a whole pot to myself.
The server came around with a tray of two-bite finger sandwiches in five traditional varieties including smoked salmon, egg salad and cucumber with cream cheese. Chicken salad on marble rye was a little heavy on the mayo, but the egg salad was fresh and the cucumber atop the cream cheese and white bread round crisp and pure. The smoked salmon was my least favorite, the sharp flavor of the salmon giving the sandwich an artificial taste that was too much like cleaning fluid for my palate.
Another issue was the pace at which the sandwiches were served. I was barely a page or two into my book when a server showed up with another sandwich tray in hand. The second I'd finish a sandwich, the tray would show up and I'd lose my place in the novel. And my stomach had no time to settle before the next course landed on my table.
Up next were traditional buttermilk and cranberry scones -- one of each, served with Devonshire cream, lemon curd and raspberry preserves. This was the most delicious and dangerous course. The scones were expectedly dry, but moist enough to hold together under the weight of the accompaniments. The curd was a brilliant balance of sweet and tart, with a rich texture that balanced well with the lighter Devonshire cream. The seeded preserves seemed pedestrian (and teeth-clogging!) in comparison.
Already feeling stuffed from the scones, barely ten pages into my book, the dessert tray showed up and two requested pastries were plopped on my plate. Stop this thing, can my stomach get off??!! It was worth the boa-constrictor-pants feeling to indulge in a glazed doughnut-like pastry with Bavarian cream filling, and the decadent chocolate round with chocolate ganache was mouthwateringly bittersweet, with a hint of hazelnut.
"Take your time," my server said when she delivered the check. It was the only time I didn't feel rushed during the one-hour meal.
In the Other Corner: The Ritz-Carlton
2401 E. Camelback Road in Phoenix
If the Phoenician is Audrey Hepburn, then the Ritz-Carlton is The Queen Mum. Everything here is what a kid might describe as stuffy. I call it "old-world opulent" -- oil paintings in gilded frames, red tapestry carpeting, curved sofas paired with more masculine nailhead-trimmed leather wingbacks. Vintage hats including a pink fuzzy gem likened to "cotton candy" by a
few guests hang from brass hooks along the thick molding. Having been encouraged to participate in an August Hat Month contest by the reservation agent I'd spoken with, I donned my favorite Carol Brent netted straw chapeau for the occasion.
I was guided to a small table for two near a grand mahogany china cabinet, just feet away from pianist Nicole Pesce. Tea Maitre d' Jeffrey Hattrick greeted me and presented a menu of teas to select from, including four seasonal blends he created. My favorite "scentsual" memory is the first time I smelled orange blossoms in the Phoenix springtime, so I couldn't resist the orange blossom green tea. It was light and citrusy, with notes of lemongrass and a slightly floral undertone that reminded me of fresh orange blossom honey.
Sandwich selection was much easier here. When I called for reservations, the Ritz rep inquired about any dietary needs or preferences. I opted to stick with the standard menu, so I received a personal plate of 10 finger sandwiches (2 of each variety). "Classic" egg salad was anything but. Ripe cherry tomato gave the deli-style salad a nice tartness, and a full slice of egg on top grounded the normally mayo-heavy salad.
Chicken salad on puffy high-protein flour bread (similar to a cream puff) was dry and tasteless. Cucumber slices topped with chive cream cheese were fresh and summery and decadent goat cheese and mascarpone tarts with caramel were practically desserts unto themselves. After downing 8 of 10 sandwiches, I was already fighting the battle of the "food baby" bulge. But at least Jeffrey allowed me time to rest in-between courses before proffering more food.
Dessert arrived alongside the scones, patiently awaiting my eventual need for a sweet ending. Screw that! The benefit of being an adult is that you can eat dessert first. The summery fruit tart was average, while the decadent chocolate tart with coffee bean topping was like an orgasm on a plate. Or at least, a condensed venti mocha frapp. Tasty!
Buttermilk and white chocolate-cranberry scones with Devonshire cream, lemon curd and raspberry preserves arrived piping hot. Tastewise, they were similar to the ones at the Phoenician, though the Ritz' version was slightly moister and the cranberry scone less citrusy. I could've eaten while the tub of Devonshire cream by itself, it was so light and fluffy and gracefully sweet. The lemon curd, on the other hand, had a metallic aftertaste that curdled my tongue
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and left me frantically spooning sugary preserves onto my next scone bite to erase the bitter memory. A frothy berry mousse dessert also helped.
Despite the fact both the scones and tower of 5 dessert bites were set down at the same time, this meal lasted nearly two hours instead of the one it took me at The Phoenician. In addition to the lovely classics and showtunes Pesce played, Jeffrey serenaded his guests with a heartfelt rendition of "What a Wonderful World" -- and I was left alone to finish 5 chapters of my book between bites.
The Winner: Both places were a splurge at about $50 per person including tax and included tea gratuity (an additional gratuity slot on both receipts caused some confusion). But I have to go with The Ritz-Carlton, for their whimsical take on a Victorian era tradition and the laid back, no-rush service.