Henry James spoke the truth when he said, “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” The appeal of afternoon tea is easy to see. A stolen hour (or two) in the middle of the day devoted to nothing but warm tea and delicate bites. What’s not to love?
Though its origins are British, afternoon tea is a celebrated pastime in a number of cities, each with their own interpretations. Afternoon tea at The Kahala Hotel in Honolulu offers a distinct touch of local Hawaiian hospitality (while seated at tables overlooking the Pacific Ocean), while tea at The Peninsula Paris is elaborate and beautiful, and that at Baur au Lac in Zurich is decidedly precise with every detail thoughtfully considered.
There are certain afternoon tea trends that come and go — the latest being Vegan afternoon teas, “Healthy” afternoon teas, and Children-focused afternoon tea. But the one trend that remains consistent is that of the seasonal afternoon tea.
A traditional afternoon tea set consists of savories (often tea sandwiches), sweets, and scones. These specific offerings rarely change–cucumber sandwiches, currant scones, and chocolate cakes. Often times they’re not even delicious…as everyone knows, afternoon tea can be more about the experience than the food itself. But with a growing focus on the concept of seasonal afternoon tea, the food itself has emerged as a star component to the tailored tea offerings and top presentations.
Served on the 17th Floor, afternoon tea at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo required the kitchen to hire an entire pastry team, solely focused on creating seasonal sweets, savories, and drinks for the afternoon tea. A late spring visit welcomed warm taro flan, flaky savory pies stuffed with salmon, and tidy quiches bright with market vegetables. We then moved on to scones, also served in tune with the season – chocolate speckled for the winter months and berries for the summertime. On our visit, we had them paired with clotted cream and housemade fresh blueberry jam.
Next up, the best part of tea: sweets. Come in March, during peak strawberry season, and all the sweets have strawberries incorporated – picture delicate shortcakes of vanilla sponge, heady strawberry-chocolate tarts, and layered parfaits complete with the softest whipped cream. In the fall, out goes the strawberries and in come the apples, layered on tiny crumb tarts and tucked in sweet gelee creations. The flavors get darker and more intense as the weather goes from warm to cold. The seasonality is subtle but focused and very clear.
Regardless of the time of year you visit, the classic hot tea menu (all loose leaf teas), with offerings like Assam and Darjeeling, is accompanied by an ever changing menu of different tea-based drinks. These concoctions blend brewed tea with housemade syrups and fruits. Our favorite during the cold months is Imperial’s Royal Chocolate Milk Tea – it’s a crowd favorite, taking the classic milk tea and blending it with just enough housemade chocolate syrup. The result is velvety, rich and just sweet enough. Winter also welcomes Hot Caramel Tea, an elegant drink that echos with a spoonful of salted caramel stirred into black tea. And that previously mentioned, strawberry-focused month of March is complete with a Sparkling Strawberry Tea made from fresh pureed strawberries.
All these little touches might not be obvious for the casual diner stopping in for afternoon tea, but the magic in the details is what will make your experience — and for those who do notice, tea at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo suddenly becomes an extra special treat.