Peter Ormerod has a tea to savour at the hotel's Podium restaurant, home to the reigning champions of Bake-Off: The Professionals
Afternoon tea has enjoyed something of a renaissance of late. There was a time not too long ago when the traditional tea room was being supplanted by the cafe, most likely owned by a global corporation. Afternoon tea was a somewhat fusty old thing, at best a nostalgic throwback struggling to compete in the age of the latte and blueberry muffin.
Yet for all manner of cultural and culinary reasons, tea is back, and hotels seem ever keener to offer the definitive version. It is easy to see why: even the finest tea is relatively inexpensive, while the requisite sandwiches, scones and cakes should not be a great challenge to even the most modestly skilled pastry chef. Often, what is being sold as much as anything is an experience, with some affectations towards refinement and dollop of retro charm.
It is fair to say however that the Hilton on Park Lane in London does things differently. All the necessary components of afternoon tea are present, but here they are done with such originality, invention and skill as to elevate them into an art form. This comes as no surprise once one learns of the people responsible: executive pastry chef Emmanuel Bonneau and junior sous chef Sam Leatherby, the reigning champions of Bake-Off: The Professionals. The only drawback is that no afternoon tea will ever quite feel the same.
Afternoon tea is served in the Podium restaurant, a sleek, modish place, and a far cry from the faux-rustic, bunting-bedecked decor beloved by so many establishments. It could all seem rather serious were it not for the warmth and charm of the staff, who are as friendly and attentive and smiley as one could wish for, without tipping over into obsequiousness or over-familiarity. The menu, stuffed as it is with all manner of delights, is bewildering at first glance but makes blessed sense once one is talked through it. Essentially, you choose your drink and they do the rest.
What follows is wave after wave of indulgence at its most delicate and tasteful. There is Pommery Champagne with a perfect balance of zest and mellowness. Then come the sandwiches; purists may question whether a sandwich with only one piece of bread is a sandwich, but when they are this exquisite, such quibbles seem churlish. The toppings - smoked salmon and horseradish, cucumber and cream cheese, prawn cocktail, ham and chutney, coronation chicken - are time-honoured but presented with contemporary flair. All were crisp and refreshing, complemented ably by my pot of Assam; I cannot remember the last time a brew tasted quite so fresh and energetic.
Had proceedings ended there, the afternoon would still have been a triumph. But goodness, so much more was to come. The scones, pastries and fancies were presented with some elan; there was not a doily in sight. There were plain scones, raisin scones, chocolate-chip scones, but the variety was barely necessary, for these were simply perfect scones, sufficiently substantial yet carrying a light finish. They were served with the most opulent whipped cream, the zingiest of jams and a salted caramel sauce to which the word 'smooth' barely does justice. The one problem was the temptation to eat too many, thus leaving insufficient room for the delights to follow; along with the spreads, a goodly portion of restraint was needed.
We were on to the pastries and fancies. A word of advice: do not go to afternoon tea at the Hilton for conversation, because you will be unlikely to have any. You'll just be lost in the sumptuousness of it all. Each creation had been crafted with apparent affection and care. There was a luscious and lively fruit cake; a mixed berry and violet parfait of quite sublime texture; a coconut and mango sphere which was akin to the sweet equivalent of a perfectly poached egg. And so it went on, through a raspberry and rose almond biscuit, a chocolate fudge handbag (yes, handbag) and more.
But perhaps most impressive of all was there skill at gluten-free baking. My wife's GF scones were barely distinguishable from my gluten-full ones, and were the best she has eaten; similarly, the bread for her sandwiches was wondrously soft and smooth, while the variety of sweet treats means there are plenty of gluten-free options. For once, being gluten-free didn't mean settling for second best.
Of course, anything good enough for the Bake-Off judges is probably good enough for most of us. But there is no sense of complacency here. Everything is vastly better than it really needs to be. There is nothing twee or contrived or ironic to it, nothing crass or try-hard; there is style by the bucketload, but never at the expense of substance. It may have seemed unfashionable barely a decade ago; but here, it feels like afternoon tea is enjoying a golden age.
* Afternoon tea at Podium at Hilton on Park Lane costs £39 per person, with Champagne afternoon tea costing £49 per person. Call 020 7208 4022 or visit www.podiumrestaurant.com to book.