Thursday 8 October 2009

Review: Hidden Tea Room, EC1

Cupcakes vanilla chocolate standLast weekend I got a chance to attend a secret tea event. When I read about the Hidden Tea Room in a magazine recently it sounded as if it was designed just for me. An underground tea party hosted by a afternoon tea enthusiast in their own home. I immediately tried to make a reservation only to discover that they were fully booked until December. But last week fortune smiled on me when the hostess Lady Gray emailed to offer me a place thanks to a last minute cancellation. So on Sunday afternoon Coffee Boy and I rocked up to a secret location in EC1 and after giving the password were escorted through labyrinthine halls to a flat high above the hustle and bustle of the outside world.

I hadn't really known what to expect but I had a vague idea that the flat was going to be super-swish and owned by someone terribly rich who did this as a little hobby or it was going to be artsy and eclectic and bursting with bohemian chic. In fact the venue was neither of those things - it was actually the kind of flat that I could imagine myself or any number of my friends living in: nice but decidedly normal. We started the afternoon on the terrace (quite a luxury in central London) where the group got to know each other over a glass of champagne and an absolutely delicious cheddar biscuit - which actually reminded me in texture of a cheesy rock bun.

There were twelve of us, not including Lady Gray and her husband, and I suppose that is the real excitement/risk of an event like this. What will your companions be like? Coffee Boy was initially concerned to be the only male guest but the last group of four to arrive included two others so he didn't feel too much like he'd stumbled into a hen weekend. We were all twenty or thirty somethings and came from locations as diverse as Bethnal Green and Australia. Everyone was very smiley but, inevitably, it took a little while for everyone to relax.

Once we'd all eagerly scoffed our appetiser we moved inside to the dining room which had a large table set for the twelve of us and a bookcase absolutely stuffed with cookbooks of all kinds. Lady Gray then told us how the Hidden Tea Room came about and asked us to take our pick from the impressively extensive tea menu. There were teas of every hue from black to green and blue to herbal infusions - all pleasingly loose leaf. I chose a Darjeeling and Coffee boy went for the Afternoon Tea blend and in a few minutes our own full-size individual teapots (hallelujah) arrived along with our sandwiches. There was a really good selection, including for veggies, with each of us having four different crustless sandwich fingers. Then to prepare us for the upcoming sugar-fest we were served a beautiful bowl of palate cleansing mango and pineapple sorbet. It was incredibly refreshing and certainly whetted my appetite for what was to come next.

We began our selection of sweet things with some lovely, still warm, mini scones. Sadly they were plain but Lady Gray explained that she mixes it up and chose to forgo fruit on this particular day - just my luck! But they were served with proper clotted cream and a choice of either strawberry or blackcurrant jam which almost made up for it. Next up Lady Gray brought out two cupcake stands filled with vanilla and red velvet cupcakes. One of the guests was having a birthday and the hosts brought out a single cupcake with a candle which seemed to go down well. Just as everyone was starting to feel full to bursting out came plates of shortbread, lemon drizzle cake and incredibly rich toffee brownies. I have to say as a group we were well and truly defeated. We didn't manage to finish any of the sweet offerings - and believe me we all gave it our best shot.
Hidden Tea Room cakes biscuits
Finally, and perhaps my favourite part, we were served beautiful flowering jasmine tea with a fantastic truffle - just in case we hadn't had enough chocolate... It was such a lovely idea to finish the very rich afternoon off with a delicate tea - even if it was accompanied by a truffle - that it inspired me to finally buy those glass teacups I've been coveting.

It was quite an afternoon, and no mean feat for the hosts to keep a disparate group happy for the best part of four hours. Obviously a lot of the enjoyment came from the fantastic baked goods on offer but I certainly felt lucky to have such a nice bunch of people to chat to. How it would be if you had more trying companions I don't know. Lady Gray's husband (Lord Gray? Earl Gray?) told me that they had had really nice people so far but I can't help thinking it would ruin the enjoyment if you had a real bore next to you. But I guess that's all part of the fun with the underground restaurant movement - you never quite know what you're going to get.

My one slight reservation is the price. At £25 per head, paid in advance, it's not cheap. And although there was no question that lots of time and thought and effort had been put into the afternoon, I do think that some people may find £50 for two people a lot to spend. Afternoon teas in London's top hotels are usually in the region of £30 per person and for that you are getting to sit in some pretty sumptuous surroundings. Although the food and drink at the Hidden Tea Room was every bit as good as you would get in those other venues and the crockery and cutlery were all top notch, the surroundings are much more down to earth. That may very well be the appeal for many people - and I'm never one to pass up the chance at a nose around someone else's home - but if you are wanting a really luxurious environment, perhaps for a special occasion, this may not be quite right for you. The whole experience was like going to a delicious afternoon tea party hosted by a friend who is an excellent cook. The only difference in this case is that you don't know the friend or any of the other guests. It really was quite an experience.


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  2. My goodness, I'm slightly dribbling (sorry) with excitement at the sound of all that delicious stuff ... I didn't know anything about the "hidden restaurant Scene" so I'm excited to learn about that too. Thanks for a real insight into something most of us will never get a chance to do! I think having a two-year-old kid might put the kybosh on such an event ... (!)

  3. Hello lovely :)

    really glad you enjoyed the food and overall experience. And so glad you enjoyed my cakes, and little touches like truffles and flowering tea. Thank you so much for coming and the lovely review :) Its always nice to know when people notice the nice small things (like crockery and cutlery and such) and that all the teas are loose leaf etc.

    Its a shame you feel the price is a drawback. Its always good to hear honest and straight feedback, but what I will say to the point on price is that what I am offering for the £25 is 6 courses with champagne and 2 types of tea (with a selection from 25 teas and 2 coffees).

    I would hazard a guess that the top hotels arent doing that ( i know as i've been). Its a point that people who talk about the price dont seem to think about. Champagne tea at Browns is £44 almost £20 more than me. and you arent getting an amuse or truffle with flowering tea to finish... just a point to think about. Champagne tea at the ritz is £48 (almost double) the cost of mine... I just dont think £30 is a fair comparison... especially considering the extra courses I am offering. (6 to their 3 or 4)

    Sorry to make such a point, but considering I am not really doing this to make money, and barely cover the cost (dont cover cost when we have last minute cancellations) its hurts a bit to have the cost questioned.... or compared to something not like for like...

    Thank you again for all the very very kind comments :) its lovely to know you really enjoyed it. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts if you went along to any other undergorund restaurants.... :)

    wishing you all the very best and thank you so much again for coming and the review
    Lady gray xo

  4. Hi Lady Gray. The fact that you take the trouble to read and comment on reviews of the Hidden Tea Room is testament to your care and attention to detail. You are quite right that a champagne tea in a posh hotel can cost a lot more than £30 but I guess my attitude is champagne schmampagne - I'm all about the tea! I realise not everyone may share my view...

    I was in no way suggesting that your lovely tea was a rip off - there was certainly more than enough really delicious food and drink, and you've obviously spent a pretty penny on tableware etc. I just think that when your average person splashes out for a special occasion afternoon tea, the sumptuous surroundings are all part of the deal. I'm also aware that other underground restaurants charge anything upwards of £25 - although I do think that, rightly or wrongly, people just don't expect to pay as much for tea as they would for dinner.

    Nonetheless, I thought it was a lovely, enjoyable afternoon tea experience & one I'm very happy to spread the word about. Good luck!

  5. Nothing like a secret, underground tea club to get your blood pumping! Haha very interesting, I wonder how they started that in the first place?

  6. This reminds me of what you might find in China. A tearoom for only the initiates. And how they rather force the food on you, pushing the experience to the extreme. --Teaternity

  7. Sounds like I need to high-tail it over to China!