Just as devout Catholics go to High Mass, your wife goes to High Tea. Something about her royal blood (illegitimate great-great-granddaughter of the King of Denmark) and a penchant for Jane Austen draw her to this regal experience. And though it would seem that High Mass and High Tea are utterly different, in fact, they bear similarity. Both are ceremonial and involve pastry.
Last year, you two went to afternoon tea at The Envoy restaurant located at The Pottinger hotel. Never will you forget this meal, not only for its poor food but also for the worker who inched by your table vacuuming the carpet.
You were determined to balance the scales. Online accolades convinced you that afternoon tea at The Peninsula hotel, “Hong Kong’s classic afternoon tea”, was the ticket. It’s expensive, but this only increased your confidence that it would be great. After all, the restaurant has a solid budget to deliver the goods.
The Peninsula lobby is opulently carpeted, pillared, gilded and overstaffed, surrounded by very high-end jewellery stores, much like sea anemones in the ocean stream, seeking sustenance from the customers flowing by. Its style can best be described as Imperious Rich Aunt. It is a place for air-kisses, not hugs. A quartet plays classical music and show tunes – none too frisky, mind you – from a balcony. For all its swank, however, it is always evident that it’s a lobby, which is a different take on ambience than a restaurant per se and, for you, less warm.
The restaurant admonishes you to dress smart, and by your lights, most customers do. A few, however, are dressed in gym shorts and trainers, which you resent. Not for aesthetic reasons. But because that’s how you would have dressed if your wife hadn’t flogged you into creased trousers and a long-sleeved button-down shirt.
With solemn ceremony, your wife’s Earl Grey is poured from a silver pitcher over a silver tea strainer into a china teacup. Then the silver strainer is reverently put within its own silver dish. There is a backup silver pitcher of hot water, for emergency purposes, like backup shampoo for the bath, so you can rest easy. Your peach-ginger tea is iced, and they bring it in a handsome glass along with a small silver pitcher of simple syrup. All tickety-boo. And then they bring the food.
It is three plates nested in a conical wire tower – bottom level: scones; midlevel: finger sandwiches; top level, confectionery. There is a small dish of clotted cream, the consistency of butter, and one of strawberry jam. The food is beautiful like Fabergé eggs – delicate, intricate sculptures dabbed with flower petals, herbs, mayonnaise squiggles and an open-pit mine of gold leaf – fit for a tsarina (or, much the same, the illegitimate great-great- granddaughter of the King of Denmark).
It makes sense to start with the scones, but instead you and your wife are drawn to a Lilliputian, four-deck, trichromatic cucumber sandwich at midlevel. It is strewn with bits of chive and one perfect flower petal that must have been placed with a tweezer. It is so oversalted, you gasp. Neither you nor your wife can eat it. It would fail a culinary school tasting. The sandwich is not slightly off, but radically off. You’re askance. This is the fabled Peninsula for goodness sake!
Forsaking the sandwiches, the two of you turn to the handsome scones, bottom level, that are warm, glazed and studded with plump raisins. They release steam as you pull them apart, stoking your anticipation. You spread cream and jam. You nibble. Your eyes meet. All the salt needed to make this pastry come to life is clearly missing (probably dumped into the cucumber sandwiches by mistake). They’re bland like nursing-home pap. But they’re not inedible, and you reluctantly eat them because you’re hungry, and divided into what the meal costs, each is incredibly expensive and you want a return on your investment. Pillsbury scones from a cardboard tube are better.
There’s a purée of carrot with little chunks of scallop and what you think is pearl barley in a shot glass. To you, this seems quite a random combo, like shark and parsnip, but it’s okay, not horrible (if you find that reassuring). Perhaps scallop and carrot purée are not meant to conjoin. There’s an architectural egg-salad sandwich with little bits of potato and seared bits of something on top, possibly tuna, possibly char siu – it’s hard to tell. But it doesn’t matter anyway because aside from the taste of egg, these top scraps are only barely distinguishable as vague nuggets of texture, with no flavour whatsoever.
There’s another gem-like sandwich of micro-diced tomato, a thin cylinder of chicken (or turkey?) and gold leaf, which must have taken a jeweller’s loupe to make. It is flavourless. Your wife hands hers to you.
Finally, and wearily, you ascend to the penthouse. Confectionery. Of these, one, a small square of what may be spice cake is forgettable. There is a gelatinous puck with a chartreuse disc on top (chocolate?), citrus in flavour, that would probably be popular at a child’s birthday party.
There is a beautiful coconut macaron that looks like an exquisite tribal earring – you love it. Such intensity of coconut! There is a little cookie sandwich filled with chestnut mousse jolted by a nucleus of sharp red jelly. Never before have you had fruit jelly juxtaposed with chestnut. You love it too. It is extraordinary. Had they only served the coconut macaron and the chestnut mousse cookie, you would consider this afternoon tea a roaring success.
Service is attentive but utterly devoid of personality or warmth.
It costs HK$790 (that is, by today’s exchange rate, US$101.44) for two for food that is extraordinarily pretty and mainly tasteless or inedible.
Yet, as you leave, you see people who are patiently queued to get in. Worshippers attend High Mass for the setting and the ceremony, not for the flavour of the communion wafer. Perhaps it is likewise for worshippers visiting The Peninsula for afternoon tea; the setting and ceremony are what beckon.
It is a poor repast though, wildly overpriced, and no amount of gold leaf, flower petals, dabs of mayonnaise, thick carpet, pillars, legions of waiters or music from a balcony can hide it.
There is a saying in architecture that form follows function. The culinary corollary might be that form follows flavour. This restaurant has it backwards. It is not your cup of tea.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall value: 1
Lobby, The Peninsula Hong Kong, 22 Salisbury Road, TST, 2696 6772
In order to review objectively, David Greenberg does not solicit or accept comped meals and anonymously reviews restaurants.