We struggled at first to find the tea room in the St. Regis hotel. There is a large, prominent bar space, but no clear dining room— just a typical high-end hotel lobby full of plush sofas and low tables. As the concierge informed us, that is where afternoon tea is served. The logistics of eating and drinking off of small coffee tables were a bit tricky (involving lots of holding saucers and plates over our laps), but we managed. The rest of the tea service was matched to the environment: narrow rectangular étagères fit neatly on the tables; the teapots and sugar container were small enough to avoid overcrowding; and clear, oddly shaped teacups fit the modern vibe. An elegant white lacquered box contained samples of the dried tea leaves for us to sniff and choose from.
Our very attentive server, Milan, greeted us with a brief and historically accurate explanation of afternoon tea and offered to bring us samples of two off-the-menu teas. Eventually, we selected our five teas: the St. Regis Blend (a refreshing, light black), the Thunderbolt Darjeeling (another, rounder black), the Cherry Blossom Green (a delightfully flowery, crisp tea — our favorite), the Herbal Spiced Chai (invigorating but — perplexingly — decaffeinated), and the Mountain Berry (a full, tart choice that unfortunately reminded Marissa of cough syrup). All were served in small French presses, which mostly avoided oversteeping problems. A cute hourglass tea-timer helped us know when to push down the plunger in each pot, though with five different teas we sometimes lost track.
Since it has a full liquor license, the St. Regis also offers options for adding alcohol to the tea service. We decided not to spring for half-bottles of champagne ($20 extra per person), but Marissa was intrigued by the “Art of G&Tea” placard on the table, which, for an additional $11, adds on a gin-and-tonic made with spirits from San Francisco’s own Distillery №. 209. This proved to be a light, refreshing, afternoon-appropriate cocktail—served in an enormous wineglass that made it dangerous to contemplate drinking the whole thing, even with other H.A.T.S. members having a taste or two.
We loved nearly every item of food we were given. The only miss was the “gin-soaked” cucumber tartine, which proved bland without any spread to complement the cucumber and bread. The crumbly tomato tart, cheesy biscuit topped with asparagus and bacon, and delicate stone fruit salad all hit the spot. This is also the first place we’ve visited where having a dietary restriction was a decided advantage. The chef interpreted “pescatarian” as “seafood required”, so instead of the standard selection of savories, Ilana received a scallop, a smoked-salmon cheese biscuit, a tuna tartare salad, and a crab-topped cucumber tartine. In all four dishes, the choice of (shell)fish was extremely fresh and well-suited to its culinary context.
We also enjoyed all of the sweets on the étagère, which were varied and tasty without causing a sugar rush. The moist, not-too-sweet cornbread made a good transition from the savory course to the dessert course, and the brightly colored watermelon macarons were adorable (though Marissa protested that they tasted of cucumber, not watermelon). Our favorites, though, were the crispy cloud of berry-topped pavlova and the rich carrot cake with cream cheese frosting — don’t make us choose between them!
The only thing keeping the food at the St. Regis from a perfect score is the lack of a real scone course, usually the highlight of afternoon tea. Adding to our frustration, we were served a surprise amuse-bouche course of miniature scones with real clotted cream and heavenly rhubarb compote. They were so small, they served only as a tease: proof that the St. Regis kitchen can make and serve perfect scones, but has (inadvisedly) decided not to!
Given the small size of the food items and the tragic scone-less-ness, we emerged from The Art of Tea much less full than from most of our afternoon tea excursions. We enjoyed every bite, but we still felt a bit shortchanged given the steep price tag.
Date attended: July 15, 2018
Attendees: Hannah, Ilana, Marissa, Erica & Tom
Price/seat: $69 (without alcohol)
Location: 125 Third Street, San Francisco