Tea at the Hermitage Hotel could become a favorite thing, with some fine-tuning 

Making a cup of tea is not rocket science. It generally involves pouring hot water over some leaves, then steeping and adding some permutation of sugar, cream and lemon. And yet, in the right hands, the ritual rises to such heights of elegance as to befit a queen. Conversely, without proper attention to detail, the rite can somehow miss the relatively simple mark, resulting in a lukewarm disappointment in a teapot.

Somewhere between those two extremes lies the extravagant afternoon tea service at the Hermitage Hotel.

Long a hidden and unsung local indulgence, tea at the Hermitage recalls the traditions of civilized landmarks such as the Savoy Hotel and The Ritz. At those hallowed hotels, a man (or woman) who is tired of London—though, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, not tired of life—can retreat from the early nightfall of the winter months into a sanctuary of gracious rooms, overstuffed furniture and dulcet music, and therein find strength in a cuppa with a spread of tiny sandwiches.

After its $17 million renovation in 2003, which has merited Mobil's five-star designation for five years running, the Hermitage rivals any hotel in the nation—arguably the world—for architectural elegance. In 2008, Travel & Leisure magazine named the century-old Hermitage one of the top 100 hotels in North America. Its grand Beaux Arts lobby, crowned by an Italian stained-glass skylight and trimmed in European and Tennessee marbles, is one of this city's most august spaces. And while the lobby is always open to the public, the tea service available Thursday through Sunday affords a chance to enjoy the glorious chamber without shelling out the big bucks to stay the night or trying to saunter nonchalantly across the floor without feeling like a freeloading, rubbernecking tourist.

That said, tea doesn't always take place in the lobby. When there are events in the wood-paneled ballroom, the afternoon affair migrates downstairs to the Capitol Grille, which is no slouch, either.

I have taken tea in the lobby in the past, but on my two most recent visits, the ritual was relocated downstairs. To my surprise, on both occasions, my group was the only tea party in the place, and several awkward aspects of the outings made me think that maybe we were among the only parties ever to avail ourselves of the refined event.

First off, there was the matter of the tea. The Hermitage recently began serving Forte brand teas in lyrically named varieties such as white ginger pear, tai mu silver needles and Quing Liu Silk Oolong. Forte also supplies an attractive suite of white plates, cups, saucers and pots that add a sleek modernity to the timeless ritual in the historic building.

The two-page menu lists tea-over-ice, hot tea, winter selections and loose tea, with different flavors in each category. This decision matrix can prove paralyzing for, say, your mother, if she happens to be with you.

"What is the difference between the loose and hot teas?" your mother might ask, to which our server explained that loose tea floats freely in the pot, while hot tea comes in a sassy little pyramidal sachet adorned with a twee paper leaf at the end of a wiry vine.

Your mother might persevere, "But what's significant about a tea bag vs. no tea bag?" to which our cheerfully accommodating server ventured that it had to do with the strength of the tea.

You might then nudge your mother under the table as if to say, "Please stop asking questions, because no one knows the answers and we're all getting a little uncomfortable." You can then look on the Forte website when you get home to see this explanation: "Tea Forte offers the same high-quality blends from our silken infusers in loose tea form. We recommend loose tea for brewing pots intended for more than one or two servings."

In short, there seems to be a lot of pomp and circumstance about the ritual with very little information to back it up. (By the way, that little square plate with an "F" inscribed in it is to rest your saturated silken sachet when you've finished steeping it—not to set your cup on. What? Were you raised in a barn? But extracting said sachet from the teapot can be a challenge, thanks to the twee little paper leaf at the end of the wiry vine. Furthermore, we found little reason to remove said sachet from said pot, because neither our English breakfast tea nor our Earl Grey tea ever achieved adequate flavor to warrant removing the tea bag.)

Then there was the matter of hot chocolate. For all we know, it is heinously gauche to order hot chocolate at tea—yes, we know it's not called "chocolate time"—but we did it on two occasions, and both times it was thin and watery.

While the beverage half of the equation would never be confused with teatime on The Strand, the three-tiered tray of snacks was admirable by any standard. Pastry chef Andy Manchester, who returned to the Capitol Grille after a stint making desserts at Provence Breads & Café this year, builds a presentation of sweets ranging from pastries with toasted pineapple and cream to chocolate-raspberry tarts, espresso-laced opera cakes and gingersnaps. A changing selection of sandwiches included smoked salmon, tomato with cucumber, pimento cheese and chicken salad, which were delicious if sometimes heavy on the bread.

Anyone nostalgic for proper tea in Blighty will appreciate the presentation of light, biscuity scones encrusted with coarse sugar crystals and served with clotted cream. The combination of sweet, crumbly bread and sinfully rich spread was everything we could have hoped for this side of Buckingham Palace, though we would have liked an offering of strawberry preserves more robust than the tiny jar of pale pink and nearly seedless jelly that bore the Hermitage Hotel's private label. In such a stunning environment—and at such formidable prices—why scrimp on this simple detail? Why not offer a bowl of homemade jam textured with luscious fruit, or even a jar of the best brand available?

After all, a recent price increase brings the standard tea service—including assorted finger-sandwiches, scones, pastries and a pot of tea—to $21 a head before tax and an automatic 20 percent gratuity. That's a pricey snack before dinner, and in our case we never really understood the pricing. On one visit, when we had a small child in tow, our server charged us for a single tiered tray with pot of tea (at the time $19) plus two extra drinks for $5 each. She then proceeded to check in on us periodically and bring us refills of anything we particularly enjoyed. In the end, our tiny tea guest ate seven giant chocolate-covered strawberries and made what, no doubt, will be one of his happiest early memories with his mother and grandmother—all for about $42 with tax and tip.

On a second visit a few weeks later, we added a 10-year-old to our multigenerational party and asked the server (albeit a different one) to replicate our wonderful earlier experience but with one more youngster in the mix. She delivered a tea tray for three people (now $21 a head), two pots of tea, two pots of cocoa and seven anemic chocolate-covered strawberries for our little guy, for which she charged an additional $18. With tax and automatic gratuity, the bill was $106. Even as she handed us the check, the delightful server apologized for the steep pricing.

At $42 for three people, tea at the Hermitage quickly would have become our favorite family-friendly tradition. At $106 for four people, it will not be.

On the other hand, the sticker shock would not be so great for a party of ladies splitting the tab and each getting out for about $26. The experience is, after all, lovely and unusual.

But it could be so much better—from the tea itself to the servers' familiarity with the products to the details of strawberry preserves and insipid cocoa. With the unparalleled setting of the Hermitage Hotel and Capitol Grille, fortified by Manchester's exquisite confections, tea at the Hermitage Hotel should be—and could easily become—nothing short of splendid.

The Hermitage Hotel serves tea 3 to 4:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Reservations are recommended.

The Capitol Grille will serve brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. on Christmas Day. For reservations, call 345-7116.

Brunch Buffet
($45.50 adult, $25.50 child)
Smoked and chilled seafood display, artisanal cheese display, assorted autumn salads, fruit display, American Bronze heritage breed turkey with cranberry-kumquat relish and giblet gravy, Fudge Farms pork with apple butter and cider jus, slow-roasted beef ribeye with horseradish crème fraîche and red wine jus. Side items include macaroni and cheese; brioche stuffing with foraged mushrooms, leeks and bacon; smoked sweet potato hash with black-eyed peas and apples; smashed new potatoes with caramelized onions; roasted cauliflower with brie and roasted tomatoes; braised Savoy cabbage with black walnuts and quince; green beans with house-cured pancetta; grand dessert display

($49.50 adult, $25.50 child)
First course: Choice of heirloom pumpkin bisque, Asian greens with blood orange and candied hazelnuts, or Fudge Farms pork belly with sweet potato juice and sorghum
Entrée: Choice of Colorado rack of lamb with spaghetti squash, pumpkin seed pesto, tomato confit and bay laurel jus; pork osso bucco with sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, Brussels sprouts and local apples; prime cap of beef with foraged mushroom agnolotti, broccoli and Grafton cheddar; or Arctic char with creamed spinach, olive oil-poached tomatoes and onion glass
Dessert: Choice of croissant bread pudding with toffee, pecans, golden raisins, vanilla Anglaise and caramel ice cream or white chocolate mousse with a peppermint crème brûlée center and buttermilk chocolate cake


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