From, say, 3 to 5 p.m. the place to go in London if you want to spoil your dinner is one of the city's grand hotels, where you may take afternoon tea. Yes, all-day restaurants such as The Wolseley and its new sibling The Delaunay are giving them a run for their money, as are stylish, low-key hotels in the Dean Street Townhouse mold. But for impressive surroundings, polished service and hefty silverware, no one does this peculiarly English meal like a peculiarly English hotel. Think "afternoon tea" and you must think The Savoy, Claridge's, The Ritz, The Dorchester and a handful of other establishments that in French would be known as palaces but that in my language are simply called fancy hotels.
These hotels devote spacious and lavishly decorated areas to afternoon tea, on which they focus a great deal of attention: it is clearly profitable. The Savoy and The Ritz in particular wow their visitors (many of them out-of-towners) with palatial décor. The sandwiches, the scones with jam and clotted cream, the pastries: all are good -- and all are somewhat similar. Each kitchen, of course, tries to put its stamp on what it serves, but familiarity and tradition are important when you want to show people a predictably good time.
An outlier here is The Connaught, a fancy hotel by any standard. Tea is served not in a chandeliered ballroom but in a nice glassed-in extension called Espelette, the less-formal restaurant of Hélène Darroze, who is also chef of the hotel's two-Michelin-star dining room. From here you can look out onto Mount Street and watch people spend money. The crockery, silver, linen and service are all palace-grade, yet nothing is flashy. The crowd seems less touristy.
The full structure of an English afternoon tea is there: little sandwiches, followed by scones, followed by pastries and cakes, all served on multi-tiered stands. On a recent visit, the sandwiches were gentle diversions from the norm: a little wasabi with the smoked salmon; chili and coriander with the prawn salad. This was wonderful. (At teatime half a year ago, the assortment was more unusual, with foie gras and other hints of Ms. Darroze's Southwest French origins.) The pastries are up-to-date French and are excellent: this style of pastry, while beautiful, can be insipid, but these were delicious. A favorite was a glistening chocolate affair lightened with a fruity banana and ginger filling, as fine as you would find anywhere. There's not a Victoria Sponge or a Battenburg in sight (for delicious examples of these try the non-palace options mentioned above). What was in sight in mid-January was an amazing citrus-zest-scented galette des rois, complete with prizes for guests who find the special "bean" in their slice.
What really sets The Connaught's tea apart, however, is one crucial element: the jam served with the scones. It comes from France, but so does lots of pedestrian jam. It is made by a woman who, we are told, is a friend of Ms. Darroze, but friendship is no guarantee of quality. However, this friend is Christine Ferber, who to my mind is the best of commercial (albeit small-scale) jam-makers. In her simpler jams and jellies, she coaxes bright, fresh flavor and aroma out of high-quality fruit and achieves perfect sweetness and acidity; with her creative ones, she wins over people like me, who normally hold that jam should contain nothing but one kind of fruit, sugar and perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice.
On the day we were at The Connaught, there were seven Ferber jams on the menu; we tasted rhubarb (with an intriguing spicy background note); cherry-rhubarb-mint (tasting of bright, fresh mint leaves); limpid pink quince jelly; and the most intense blackcurrant you can imagine. We ate only one scone each, and gobbled the rest of the jam with a spoon.
Oh yes: tea. I never touch the stuff and drank Champagne, then a cup of coffee. But my wife is a tea-drinker: The nine-tea selection is wide enough to be interesting but not so wide as to be confusing. In any event, this afternoon tea wasn't about tea. It was, as far as I'm concerned, about jam.
The Connaught, Carlos Place, London W1K 2AL, +44 (0)20 7499 7070, firstname.lastname@example.org. Full afternoon tea, £35 (about $52); with Champagne £45 / £55 ($66 / $82)