604 Brazos, 474-5911
Tea served Fridays through May 20: 3pm, 3:30pm, 4pm
Recognizing one's strengths and taking advantage of them fully can elevate a good and decent endeavor into a sublime one. In restaurants, this can mean any number of things. Got a great address for foot traffic? Build yourself a huge picture window. Blessed with land and a towering canopy of live oak trees? Pour a slab and outfit a patio. In the Driskill hotel's case, the strengths are many and varied. Outfitted with opulent architecture and interiors that recall and celebrate its cattle baron beginnings, it's right smack downtown at the hub of urban action. Its two restaurants, the grand and celebrated Driskill Grill and the more casual 1886 Cafe and Bakery, boast two renowned chefs in the kitchen: the nationally recognized David Bull and pastry chef Mark Chapman. With these singular elements in place, a proper high tea seems obvious.
The Royal Victorian Spring Tea takes place in the grand lobby of the hotel just off from the entrance to the 1886 Cafe. The soaring Tiffany-style glass ceilings, ornate woodwork, and marble floor are the ideal surroundings for a tea of royal standards. Recently, we took a very proper 12-year-old to the 4pm seating. We were seated at a table draped with heavy white linen and scads of flatware, crystal, hollow ware, Wedgewood bone china, and tea accoutrements. A harpist strummed nearby, lending the appropriate musical element.
Upon seating, a flute of champagne was poured and a nonalcoholic version was offered to the younger guest. Menus were distributed, and we read over the descriptions of the dozen tea offerings. At $36 per adult and $18 for children 12 and younger, the seating includes a selection of two teas plus nibbles. Not being tea aficionados, we took the advice of our server and began with an herb variety (Chamomile Citron) and then moved to a stronger black tea (Himalayan Peak Darjeeling Organic).
In short order, a Wedgewood china pot of tea was delivered. Our server expertly balanced the silver tea strainer over our china cups and delicately poured the aromatic beverage. A bowl with lumps of sugar and a creamer of milk were on the table for doctoring the tea to our specifications.
The first course was delivered plated on more Wedgewood. Four gorgeous open-faced sandwiches were offered: a toast square spread with a niçoise olive paste and topped with an elegant loaf of goat cheese and a sprig of lemon thyme; a toast round with a perfectly round cut from a yellow tomato, fresh mozzarella, and a layer of arugula; the requisite cucumber sandwich with watercress and dill yogurt; and a towering square column (well, towering is relative: It was probably an inch and half high) of pink smoked salmon alternated between layers of white chive sour cream. Visually, the plate was a still life. Each offering showcased the care and delicate, labor-intensive work involved with the preparation. The flavors were not overlooked in favor of visuals, either; each sandwich was uniquely tasty and fresh. Seconds were offered from a silver tray while more tea was poured.
Pacing ourselves and knowing that the object of the afternoon was to satisfy, not stuff, we availed ourselves of one more morsel each. Assured we were done with that course, our solicitous server cleared our plates and replaced them with dainty china plates with miniature cranberry scones served with tiny but adequate crocks of Devonshire cream and strawberry jam. No drop biscuit scones, these beauties were uniform in size and shape and sported a shiny glaze. And they were utterly delicious and crumbly, slathered with the impossibly rich cream and fruity jam.
It was time for our second tea and the pastry finale, so our server proffered another china tea pot and set our places with ornate Wedgewood plates. Out came the signature item of a proper tea: the tripled-tiered tray donned with an assortment of sweets. In this case, it held chocolate covered strawberries, cardomon sable cookies, raspberry cakes, chocolate pot de crème tarts, and blackberry/Mandarin orange tarts. Each of these delights were Lilliputian in scale and Herculean in flavor. The crust of the fruit tart was buttery, flaky, and superb, and a perfect conveyance for the pastry cream and tart fruit. The raspberry cake was a tiny, elegantly decorated petit four, the cookie topped with coarse sugar and sporting just enough cardomon to make it interesting, and the chocolate tart ... well ... sinful. But in a delicate portion that made it justifiable.
In fact, one of the many strengths of this tea is that its creators understand that this is repast, not a full-fledged meal. It is designed to satisfy the senses and appetites, leaving you refreshed, not bursting. Another strength is the service, which is attentive and schooled in proper tea techniques while remaining friendly, personable, and never snooty. After all, this is a Texas-friendly tea, not a stuffy London affair.
The Driskill Hotel has hit a bull's-eye with this tea. It showcases the talents of its kitchens amid the grandeur of its setting, and we look forward to its return in autumn when hot tea once again is a beverage to savor.
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