I obviously didn't post last week, and that's because I was a bit busy - I found myself in Sydney for the weekend, and, determined to pack as much into my weekend as possible, my schedule looked a little like this:
9am - Breakfast with the entire St Kilda Football Club (hmm, I should think harder about how I word that one, given their track record... what I meant was that they happened to be in the Virgin lounge where I happened to be eating my breakfast!)
11:45am - get off plane in Sydney and high-tail it to my hotel to drop off luggage, then walk down George Street towards the Queen Victoria Building, foolishly wearing unpadded sandals
1:10pm - arrive at the QVB and spend some time wandering about. Decide that I like it well enough because it resembles Melbourne and its arcardes (sorry, Sydney, I like you on weekends but I can't imagine living there!), what with the mosaic floors
and old-style architecture
and general all-round arcade-y-ness.
1:30pm - finally find my way to the Tea Rooms on the third floor. It honestly took me quite a while to figure out how to get there, because I knew it was on the third floor but most of the building only goes to the second floor. Here's the tip: if you walk to the north end of the building, you will be faced with the Fat Budha restaurant, and most likely be confused. But if you look a little more closely you'll see a small sign and a staircase to the right, and you climb that to reach the tea rooms.
More on my jam-packed weekend later, because given the title of this post I should probably actually write about the tea room!
I chose the QVB tea rooms after contacting the lovely Lorraine at Not Quite Nigella and asking for her high tea recommendation. She said she hadn't been to QVB in a while and had heard that it had slipped a little, but that it was quite a traditional service. I think the Royal Albert flatware alone probably sold me!
I was meeting Cesar and Pete, two guys I met on my recent trip to Africa (I'll write about that one day, too, I promise!). I figured seeing as I'm rarely in Sydney I should try and see some Sydney-siders, and also should probably take the opportunity to cross off one of my New Year's resolutions, in addition to climbing the Harbour Bridge (that one's on my 101 Things list, and I did it the following day). Done, done and done.
We met at the table, which I had booked the day before. I was under the impression when I booked that we had nabbed literally the last table in the house, so you should definitely book ahead by more than 24 hours. And because they start to close at 3pm on a Saturday they wanted me to make a 1:30pm booking, not a 2pm one like I had originally planned (I've been stuffed around by flight delays so many times that I nowadays try to build in a half-hour contingency to everything). Anyway, it all worked out okay and Virgin ran on time despite a late take-off in Melbourne. You never used to be able to trust them but these days they're definitely improving.
They took our order quickly - probably a little too quickly, given Pete had literally just sat down and had not even picked up his menu when the waitress came scurrying over - but because we were having the traditional afternoon tea ($43 on weekends, including tea or coffee) it wasn't a big deal. We were given glasses of water almost straight away, and little silver teapots came with matching tea strainers about 5 or so minutes later - one individual one for Pete, and a two-person one for Cesar and I. From there it was probably another 10 minutes or so before the food came out, and I was starting to wonder where it was but I suppose they were heating the things that needed heating.
As it turns out, three tiers plus one plate of food all spaced out might not look like much, but it's actually quite a challenge to get through!
I started with the spinach and feta pastry, which was moist on the inside, flaky on the outside and very tasty.
Next, assuming them to be warm and that they should be eaten that way, I attacked a mammoth scone with clotted cream and jam. The scone wasn't as warm as I had expected, wasn't really warm at all, in fact, and I have to say the scone itself didn't impress me greatly... but that's because - yes, I'm going to say it - I make the world's best scones. I'm sorry, but I do. Or, I did, this one time. They were utterly perfect, and every scone that has passed my lips since has paled in comparison. But this was a good, robust scone; not too dry; and didn't fall apart when I spread my jam and cream on it, which is important. Not a scone to be ashamed of, and certainly generous in size.
Next I moved onto the fingers of sandwiches. There were two for each diner, and there were two each of three different types of sandwich, so you had to hope that the other diners wouldn't want the same sandwiches that you did! Our plate included two tuna, two curried egg, and what we thought was two chicken salad but turned out to be one chicken and one ham. I had an egg sandwich and a chicken one, and both had lovely, fresh bread and the fillings were just right. The chicken salad had a little celery and a little walnut in it, which was a nice touch.
On the same tier as the sandwiches there were these tiny, odd little pastry cases filled with what seemed to be a warm cheese sauce or maybe even aioli?? I think we had all assumed that it was a mini quiche and one of us actually tried biting into it and ended up with it on their chin. If it was a quiche it certainly had not set properly. I, unusually for me, put it all in my mouth in one hit and didn't make any mess at all! The filling was too runny for it to stay long on my tongue so I didn't have much of an opportunity for the flavour to register, so I can't say a lot about it. Perhaps we were supposed to put it on the sandwiches or on the spinach pastry - I really have no idea. Maybe someone more cultured than me can tell me what it was supposed to be?!?!
Coming in for a slightly closer view now, the next thing I attacked was a passionfruit yo-yo (melting moment). It's the round one between the two macarons at the front of the bottom tier. The two biscuits were quite thin and melt-in-your-mouth shortbready, and the passionfruit buttercream was tasty and full of flavour, but I knew the very second I picked it up that it had been sitting out a little too long and that the filling was soft and warm. So I sort of slid the two halves of the biscuit off so that both had some filling on them, and ate them separately. I once again, surprisingly, made the right choice, because when Pete bit into his the cream squirted out the sides. But the filling hadn't separated out or gone greasy; it was just a bit tricky to eat.
Next came those little oblongs of cake on the top tier. From what I can tell, one layer was a hazelnut (or possibly almond)-based cake, one was plain sponge and the top was a chocolate gel. The cake reminded me a little of tiramisu, although not as strong, with its moistness and chocolate and hazelnut flavours. Definitely a winner, and certainly only for consumption in inch-long pieces!
Back down to the bottom tier for those little lemon meringue boats. Barely a mouthful, airy and light, and the lemon filling was beautiful. I could probably rack up half a dozen of these and eat them with a cup of tea and good book in hand, no problem at all.
I then ventured into macaron territory. Now, I have to say I'm a little embarrassed to admit, but my macaron experience is quite limited. My first-ever macaron was at Doncaster shoppingtown at Laurant Patisserie and I expected big things, given that we were in the midst of the Great Macaron Craze of 2011. I found it to be a bit meh, but then, when I thought about it, I realised that a biscuit made of almond meal and egg white is likely to be quite plain and that the star performer should be the filling. I don't think Laurant should take what I say personally as I have only tried one in their range so far so can't really judge.
My next macaron (okay, it wasn't one - I ate three) was at La Maison du Chocolat in New York City in October last year (why yes, I do have a knack for sniffing out patisseries, chocolatiers et al in foreign cities, why do you ask?), and I also tripped over Magnolia bakery, just around the corner, which is why I didn't get around to eating the macarons until late the following day. I wasn't terribly concerned as I was aware that they are at their best on Day Two or Day Three. So they were stuck in my hostel locker with a stinky backpack that has done a lot of work over the years in my travels with no wash (you'll be pleased to know that the first thing I did when I got home was throw it in the washing machine!), but they still fared reasonably well. It confirmed for me that the ganache in the centre was the star performer of a macaron.
So when I encountered a pistachio macaron I wasn't really sure what to expect. I mean, it was certainly the exact shade of pistachio, but I like in-your-face flavours like lemon and raspberry and dark chocolate, and pistachio is obviously a much more subtle flavour. I am pleased to announce that the flavour of the macaron did not disappoint me - it did taste like pistachio, and the light but creamy filling carrying that flavour did not overwhelm it. But the structure of the biscuit went much the same way as the passionfruit yo-yo - the filling oozed out the sides, and this time I hadn't thought to separate the two halves. Sigh. Now I feel like I have to go on a macaron-tasting adventure to determine what makes the perfect filling, both in flavour and in texture. If there's somewhere you know (preferably in Melbourne but not necessarily) that will offer me a spectacular macaron experience, pease let me know!
At around this time, the tea rooms were starting to be packed up around us, table cloths and all, and bills being brought to tables, which was a little bit offputting. I suppose that was the intention! The room, surprisingly, became even echoey-er than before with fewer people and furnishings in it. It had previously been quite difficult to hear Cesar and Pete speak, I suppose because of the shape of the room, but then, I am a bit hard of hearing with background noise. It's probably not the best choice of location if you want a quiet, intimate chat, though.
My last-but-one petit four was one of those fruit tarts on top. I saved it until amost-last because I love fruit tarts in all their forms, and they're pretty hard to get wrong. I also wasn't certain I'd be able to fit it in if I ate that orange miniature cupcake on the bottom of the stand first, and the waistband of my skirt was already a little snug, so I didn't want to risk not eating it. The pastry was sweet and crumbled perfectly; the creme patisserie was light but rich; and the fruit was, well, fruit. As I said, pretty hard to get wrong (unless the creme patisserie tastes like uncooked cornflour, in which case you know you have a problem!).
And finally, as the bill was paid, I made a final lunge at the orange mini cup cake. It was rich and buttery, with a strong orange flavour which balanced the butteriness. I'm glad I squeezed it in :)
All in all, I would recommend the Tea Room at QVB, if only for the setting - it is a mixture of tables and of old-fashioned, studded leather and brocade lounge chairs - and the experience of having high tea on nice china. There was a good selection of food, and most of it was well-prepared, but I was a little disappointed by how soft the filling in the biscuits was. I would suggest perhaps going in the morning instead of the afternoon to counter that. Luckily I don't judge a tea room by its macarons ;)
As for the rest of my weekend, well it involved two dinners with friends down at Darling Harbour, two lots of fireworks, a drink down at the King Street wharf with Pete and Ceasar, a Harbour Bridge climb, a couple of cocktails at Bar 100 in the Rocks, and hot chocolate and cake at the Lindt cafe. Not a bad weekend at all, thank you Sydney!