September 5, 2017
There is a new captain at the helm of this fine afternoon tea spot. I went to investigate.
It is the beginning of September. There is no getting away from the fact that the holidays are over, and we begin the inexorable slide into colder, darker days. I say embrace it! And the way to do so is enjoy the city, enjoy the season of parties, treats and feasts. In that spirit there is no better time to take afternoon tea. With dark afternoons we want to feast earlier, and we want the comfort of the sweetness it brings.
There is afternoon tea, and afternoon tea. Not all are created equal. But when you sit down to the very best it proves itself to be the decadent joy that only this entirely unnecessary additional meal can be. And at The Langham Hotel in London it is of the very best.
Firstly, the setting. When embarking on the luxury that is afternoon tea, a suitably louche setting is essential. The Langham London meets that challenge with a silvered salon, high-ceilinged, thirties elegance; complete with live piano, Wedgwood china, and white table clothes for days. Lots of comfortably padded corners prevent the feel of a dining hall, more a salon de thé. Secondly, of course, is service. You want to feel taken care of, and we were, impeccably. From the staff who guided us to the correct part of the hotel for our booking, to our attentive waiter, things went very smoothly. The enthusiasm and broad smile with which our waiter, Noli Beylen, served and described all he had for us, materially added to the sense of occasion.
The tea menu is extensive, with both familiar classics and plenty of more unusual and exclusive blends. We tried a few, and found the Jasmine scented lightness of the Silk Road Blend a refreshing balance to the procession of carbohydrates that makes up a fine afternoon tea.
But I cannot pretend I get excited about afternoon tea for the tea menu. It is the glories that arrive on those flowered china plates and silver cake stands that form my reason for being there. And boy did they deliver!
Andrew Gravett is the Executive Pastry Chef at The Langham London, having taken over the role this spring from the excellent and high profile Cherish Finden. Andrew has come to the role having held the senior patisserie development role at Valrhona for seven years. In terms of hotel work he was at The Capitol for eight years. He has everything and more that it takes to lead at The Langham London, but that doesn’t make it an easy task. Afternoon tea is only one small piece of the puzzle, with patisserie for everything from room service to the newly launched The Wigmore pub all under his remit. They are currently doing around one hundred and fifty for tea each weekday. There is no hint of these kind of numbers in the quality and freshness of all we are served. It is clear that each and every sandwich and pastry set before us has been made to order, there is not a drying edge or loss of crispness to be found. Nothing has sat for a millisecond. This is confirmed when we are fortunate to spend time with Andrew himself. They do indeed pipe and assemble every tart, every millefeuille, every sandwich to order. It shows, and it makes all the difference.
Andrew’s philosophy is all about skill and the creation of perfect classics. He is ensuring that every member of his team has mastery of a crème patissier, sablé, puff pastry, choux. He is excited by his craft. It is evident in the way he talks about his work and his ambitions for The Langham London, and it is evident on the plate. However none of this would make the patisserie sing as it does without taste to match the technique. And it is when I started to eat that my excitement joined Andrew’s. Because, put simply, everything was delicious!
The sandwiches include classics. A clean, fine cucumber on white. Prawn cocktail rethought a little, in a soft white roll with a touch of enlivening spice. As a vegetarian I was treated royally, not just given extras of those I could eat that were already on offer, but given an extra selection. A punchy tapenade was great, as was a crisp mini-cone filled with a well-flavoured smoked aubergine puree.
The scones, a bit of a specialist subject of mine, were fine examples. Perfectly baked, light and warm, the ideal vehicle for the smooth richness of clotted cream and strawberry jam.
And the patisserie! A baba-verrine combined blackcurrant and Valrhona’s Jivara chocolate as a whipped ganache. It was easy to eat, indulgent, but neither too rich nor too sweet. The correct balance of richness and sweetness was a fine characteristic of all we ate. It is rare, and was a joy, to find that nothing was too sweet, the flavours of the fruit, spice or nuts were what shone. Andrew has taken care also to lighten the recipes. There is no lack of indulgence, but nothing is heavy, there is a lightness of touch throughout that is a great pleasure. A fine example is a slice of caramelised puff pastry, topped with vanilla infused mascarpone and a precise shard of tempered white chocolate. The pastry is a masterclass in its type, with every fine layer separate and crisp as could be and barely sweet. This allows the super-sweetness of white chocolate to play it’s part well and complete the balance. In another fine dish, an incredibly tender sablé forms the base of a new model cherry tart, its delicate spice a perfect marriage with the fruit. And in the Rocher, a tempered chocolate sphere revealed a heart of raspberry to chime in with the fruitiness of its Manjari shell. Delicious fun!
Every mouthful was a joy. But my last word has to go to Andrew’s version of a Paris Brest. This classic has been recreated with pecans, and I was in heaven. The pastry is as light and crisp as could be. The nutty pastry cream smooth, light but full flavoured, the caramelised nuts that hide within simply scrumptious. I have never tasted a better Paris Brest, and that is saying something as I have had a few of the best. A triumph.
On which note I would say that if you aren’t drooling by now you should be!
Link: The Langham