It would be all too easy for The Rosebery at The Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, to fall back on the standard, over-priced London afternoon tea fare of crustless sandwiches, pastel macarons and plain scones.
Instead, what they’ve come up with is a contemporary twist on an English classic, while still remaining unashamedly English (think Cotswold egg, Portland crab and Devonshire clotted cream) with the undeniable style and swagger of Paris on a plate.
The Rosebery is a bright, fruit-filled room, its nod to the Orient unmissable. Guests can choose between standard, champagne, teamaster’s choice of rare Chinese and Persian teas, or sake afternoon tea, with ‘little ladies and gentlemen’ also catered for (due to its prime location and popularity with tourists The Rosebery must make every effort to be family friendly). And this was certainly reflected through the clientèle – there was no stuffily-enforced dress code, and as a result guests seemed relaxed and jovial. There was no pretence of grandeur, rather the experience and accompanying price (starting at £48 per person for the standard afternoon tea) still made the outing feel like a real treat and not just another weather-worn English tradition.
And so, to eat.
Usually subjected to a singular eyebrow raise at my request of peppermint tea, I was greeted with not one but three options: fresh mint, peppermint, and ‘Balance’, a cleansing mix of peppermint and fennel. My fiancé had the Staunton Early Grey, which he described as “tangily refreshing”. I find balancing sips between tea, champagne and water perfectly acceptable to my palate, but I could see how others would be less open to the combination.
Next came an assortment of sandwiches, cakes and pastries, swinging on a tiered cake stand, clamped to a curling tree branch bearing glass apples that I’m seriously considering stealing for my wedding.
Highlights were the flavourful Wiltshire cured ham and heritage tomatoes, curled inside soft bread like sushi. The Portland crab and crayfish with asparagus on nori bread was a pleasantly green contrast to the beige (an ailment that ALL afternoon tea is blighted with), although slightly too large for finger food. Personally, I like to be able to ration my post-noon carbohydrates into sensible, bite-sized portions – not be overwhelmed with the thought of an impending food coma. Overall, The Rosebery succeeded in portion size.
The seasonal finger cakes were moist but just OK – perhaps more to do with my indifference to cake than anything else – the flavour plain, the icing sweet. The pastries looked like they’d come straight out of a patisserie window display, the violet and raspberry maca-long superbly light, the dark Guanaja chocolate and hazelnut rocher close to a religious experience for a chocolate indulgent like me.
And then, of course, that staple of any decent afternoon tea, the scones. I always feel scones taste better in a vintage cafe after a long, bracing walk in the countryside. This is the one area where they could’ve afforded to be a little more generous and rustic – a bit more crumble, more fruit, more lashings of cream. The rose petal jelly was inoffensive but didn’t belong with my strawberry jam.
Service was exceptional: cushions were regularly plumped, glasses filled, food replenished. Our host, Assistant Manager Siegfried Marko, was attentive without being over-bearing, while perfectly comfortable with our (incessant) photo-taking. He even offered us a very un-English doggy bag to carry our leftovers home. We politely declined, because, well, we’re English.
And therein lies The Rosebery’s secret: its seamless hat-tip to an unashamedly English tradition, elevated to another level with the delightful flavours of the colonial.