Afternoon tea manages to sound civilized and superfluous at the same time. Let's face it, sitting down to a pot of tea and some prissy little cucumber sandwiches sometime between lunch and dinner doesn't quite jibe with the schedules of most Filofax-clutching Americans. "Tea" sounds like an archaic ritual preserved at anachronistic women's colleges and snooty hotels. Who, besides students and rich people, has time to waste in the afternoon? Well, occasionally, I do. And even if I didn't, I'd try to make time to take tea every now and then. You should, too. Think of it as part of your personal program to reduce stress. If you go with the right attitude, this relaxing ritual might do you as much good as an hour in the gym.
Locally, we have a limited but varied choice of tea rooms. There is an environment to suit all your tea-taking moods.
For special occasions, I recommend afternoon tea at the Phoenician. I go for the breathtaking view and elegant atmosphere as much as for the best tea offerings in the Valley. This might be the perfect place to take out-of-town friends. I know I plan to add it to my itinerary for special visitors.
The tea court is part of the Phoenician's large lobby. It consists of loveseats, armchairs and tea tables. The panoramic view from the terrace windows below looks south from Camelback Mountain. The people-watching inside is primo as well. You and your party seat yourselves; a tea attendant will greet you shortly. Today I am here by myself, a splendid treat. Full tea at the Phoenician is generous and unrushed. It is entirely possible to make an afternoon of it. First on the agenda is selecting your pot of tea. The Phoenician has at least a dozen varieties of the number one beverage in England. Several, including rosehip, peppermint and chamomile, are caffeine free. I choose an old favorite, Earl Grey, a blend of Chinese teas flavored with oil of bergamot. A young lady brings over a teapot and sets it down on the handkerchief linen covering my table. "We'll let it steep for a few minutes," she says. Earl Grey is a highly aromatic tea. It smells divine. One of the reasons I like tea so much at the Phoenician is the china. Made in Hungary, Herend's "Rothschild's Flower" pattern is covered with birds, bees, butterflies and rosebuds. More delicate and much more expensive than Wedgewood's "Wild Strawberries" pattern, it might be the perfect tea service.
My tea attendant brings over a plate covered with dainty sandwiches. She points and describes the four different types to me: salmon and cream cheese, egg and watercress, cucumber and dill, and chicken. Blunt individual that I am, I ask her how many I may have. "Four," says she. "Fine," say I. "I'll have one of each."
Dilled cream cheese is smeared on a round of fresh white bread, layered with cucumber slices and decorated with green olives. It is quite delicious. Chicken salad on pumpernickel is cut like an isosceles triangle and perky with sweet pickle relish. A rose curl of salmon sits on a round of pumpernickel and is enhanced by cream cheese, fresh dill, Bermuda onion and a smidgen of leaf lettuce. It is picture perfect. Finally, a three-layer watercress and egg sandwich defines the word "delicate." The white bread layers are as light as angel food cake, the filling decidedly refined.
I lounge on my couch, nibbling my sandwiches, sipping my tea. Behind me, two violinists play baroque chamber music. The trickling sound of the lobby fountain soothes as well. Lest you think this is all pleasure, I am using this pleasant atmosphere to sort and read my voluminous New Times mail. You see? Tea time needn't be downtime.
Next come the scones. Two of them, plus a chilled pot of pasteurized Devonshire cream, imported--I am told--from England and whipped up in the kitchen. Each tea table is also supplied with tiny jars of Tiptree preserves.
Scones, if you've never had one, are best described as close relatives of biscuits or Irish soda bread. They are slightly sweet, but more like bread than cake. Often they are studded with raisins or currants. These are quite good, still steamy hot, and light brown outside. They split easily into halves.
The proper method for eating scones is as follows: Place some jam and a dollop of Devonshire cream onto your tea plate; spread jam onto a bite-size section of your scone, top with cream and devour; continue until you have no more scone. I usually skip the jam. The way I slather it on, Devonshire cream has more than enough calories for my metabolism--probably an entire day's worth. Come to think of it, I think I'll hold off on that second scone. My server is wheeling over a cart laden with French pastries. She describes eleven different goodies for me; again, I must select four. It is a tough choice. I pick a lemon tart, a Napoleon, a dark chocolate-coated butter-sponge cookie and a slice of poppy seed bread. Only the sponge cookie is less than wonderful; the lemony poppy seed bread is excellent. All items, by the way, are available for purchase a la carte, if full tea sounds like too much for you.