Find your feminine side and a killer scone
By Jennifer Wohletz
Tea rooms are frilly, estrogen-laden, antique-happy muffin pads for ladies only. Or are they? When debating how to review the year-old Collectabili Tea this week, I automatically thought to bring along a female associate of mine, who is fluent in both chick speak and antiques, and harbors endless reserves of information about Lapsang Souchong. But the more I considered having a nice, lacy, feminine tea time, I realized that what would be infinitely more fun would be to find a big, burly manly-man and treat him to an afternoon of china cups and those little sandwiches with the crusts cut off.
I found the perfect victim, er … dining companion. We’ll call him “Ike.” He wears a leather jacket, drives a red Firebird and loves loud music and meat. He was perfect.
We pulled into the parking lot, which was tiny and thus quite crowded, and had to slither out of the man-mobile to avoid smacking the vehicles beside us with the doors.
Ike appeared calm as we entered the feminine domain. We took a stroll through the front and back of the store before we sat down and got to see an array of antique furniture, jewelry and art, along with the inevitable doilies and fine china. I pointed out a beautiful silver tea service, at which Ike stared for a moment, looking bewildered.
We were seated at one of only a few garden-patio-style tables (this place is billed as a luncheonette with lunch reservations recommended, ostensibly due to lack of space) and I ordered us the four-scone plate with crème and jam ($9) for starters. We each had a cuppa tea, mine hot, his cold.
The small menu board up front proudly proclaimed the special soup, salad and sandwich of the day, but after inquiry, I learned the tiny kitchen supports only one choice of each per day, and the two scone flavors offered are the same every day. Our tea arrived, and Ike seemed pleased that his fresh-brewed iced tea came in a nice big glass so his pinky could remain in the downward position. I had an individual pot—about two cups—of the “Versailles Lavender Earl Grey” ($1.75), served in good form in a beautiful china cup-and-plate set with a tiny pitcher of milk and a bowl of sugar lumps with an itsy bitsy set of tongs.
We shared a couple of “one lump or two?” jokes as we proceeded, but all kidding aside, the tea menu is really something. The ladies that own Collectabili are a mother-daughter team named Teri Maulden and Nancy Ness, and they spare no expense when ordering their tea. The choices are decidedly British. The teas are separated into black, flavored black, green, white, rooibos, herbal infusions and British faves. On the short list of exotic options are Bourbon Street Vanilla Rooibos, Sencha Kyoto, Czar Nicholas Russian Caravan, Ciao Amaretto, Blue Mango and Royal Bengal Tiger.
My tea was delicious, sweet and perfumed with fine lavender essence. Ike was getting antsy, so the scone plate arrived just in time. The two scone selections are reportedly the two most popular, cranberry-almond and lemon-apricot. After partaking, I could clearly see why the proprietresses made them the house picks. These are some serious gourmet scones, served on a plate with two pots of crème and a tiny jar of strawberry preserves. One pot contained a healthy portion of Devonshire, or clotted, cream; a thick, rich cream made from unpasteurized milk with a high fat content. A second pot held the other, a house specialty, Ambrosia cream--clotted cream with almonds and almond flavoring.
The scones were rich, flaky and actually moist in consistency, like a good shortbread combined with a biscuit. The lemon-apricot variety was pure bliss. I was torn between schooling Ike in the proper way to eat scones and stuffing my face in an unladylike manner.
Watching Ike put delicate pats of cream on his bits of scone was truly a joy to behold, but taming a savage beast is a lot easier when you promise it meat later. We both ordered the specials, which were a roast beef sandwich on focaccia ($5.95), white bean and sage soup ($3.95) and a blueberry, strawberry, pine nut and feta salad ($5.95).
While waiting for our meals, I wandered through the front again and found several displays with jars of goodies for sale like imported Elizabethan raspberry, lemon and cherry curd (curd is a sweet, custard-like spread made with eggs, sugar and butter, perfect for scones and English muffins) in lovely 7.5-ounce jars for $7.50 a pop. I also basked in the cool air shooting out of the big Ionic Breeze machine in the corner, and found a really cute miniature ceramic tea set for sale.
Meanwhile, Ike was noticing the small mid-Victorian prints on the walls next to the table, and not unlike women in this day and age, he was contemplating the sheer dynamics of the hoopskirt. This made for some lively teatime conversation, which was interrupted before it got too naughty by the arrival of our lunch.
The sandwich was loaded with meat and cheese, and the bread was a tender focaccia bun dotted with herbs. I enjoyed the very colorful salad despite its overripe strawberries, but the homemade soup stole the show. It was a nice, hot milky broth, savory with sage, soft, simmered white beans and a dollop of sour cream to cool it off. Ike picked up his sandwich, eyed it suspiciously, took a bite, and then appeared visibly relieved to find something familiar—beef, finally.
The menu gave a teaser list of other offerings, all of which sounded delectable. Soups like tomato-basil, potato-leek with proscuitto, and rosemary-garlic black bean were coupled with sandwiches such as lavender and herb tuna salad, black forest ham and dilled egg salad. But where were the crustless cucumber sandwiches, the hallmark of tea lunches? Owner Teri said that they are occasionally on special and are available upon request. That’s a relief to everyone except Ike, who actually surprised the hell out of me during the course of our post-prandial conversation.
I pondered aloud whether scones and crumpets were the same thing, only to have Ike forcefully insist that they were not the same. Teri returned to our table right at that moment to take our dishes, and she agreed with Ike, explaining to me that crumpets were round, and more closely resembled a marriage between shortbread and English muffin, whereas scones were a biscuit-shortbread hybrid. I wasn’t surprised that she knew this, but what was up with Ike?
“I watch a lot of movies,” he mumbled, looking sheepish.
The Alibi Recommends:
Tea is a must: Try a pot of the Irish breakfast cream
Scones with Devonshire cream
Any combination of the half sandwich with salad or soup
Collectabili Tea, 1701 Menaul #C, 884-0505; Hours: Tues.-Sat 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (lunch served until 2 p.m.), closed Sundays and Mondays. Price Range: Inexpensive to Moderate. No smoking, credit cards accepted, antique shopping.
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