An unusually warm December afternoon found me in Chicago at one of the city’s premier luxury hotels, The Four Seasons, just off the Magnificent Mile. The hotel is in a high rise building above an upscale retail mall called The 900 Shops.
The hotel’s entire lobby is richly decorated in fine-plush furnishings but, The Lounge – where tea is served – certainly stands out in its striking beauty and decor. Unlike several hotel venues that serve afternoon tea in a large airy room, this space is small and intimate. Ironically, the room was full but it was also very private and quiet. The acoustic engineers must have worked overtime on this space. The Lounge’s dark wood, plush carpeting, and fine tapestries all speak of the luxury you are about to experience taking afternoon tea at The Four Seasons Chicago.
As I was seated and began going through the menu, I noticed that there were three choices: a Full High Tea, a Conservatory Tea or a Rose Tea. I chose The Full High Tea, which is more akin to a traditional afternoon tea, but for purposes of this story, I’ll call it what the menu calls it.
It was December, and I was in the mood for a hearty black tea. The menu listed eight black teas, one premium oolong, two green teas, one white and 7 herbal infusions. I chose a Ceylon Yalta (rich body and malty flavor with a smooth and fine infusion) that my server told me would be strong but not quite as strong as the Assam Gold Leaf.
I’ve never seen this before, but the tea was brought out in a Fortuna white teapot that was tilted 90 degrees on its side for the recommended two minutes of steeping time. Once the time is up, the teapot should be positioned straight up. Righting the teapot stops the steeping as the tea leaves are loaded onto a “shelf” inside the pot that removes them from the water when upright. A strainer is still used for the straggling leaves that inevitably ride off of the shelf. The tea was complex and delicious and just what I what I was looking for – a bracing cup for the cold December days that lie ahead.
In a few moments, your server will stop by with a mirror-finish silver tray that is brimming with beautiful looking tea sandwiches arranged in perfectly ordered lines. After explaining each of the different varieties, you are asked to select. “One of each, sir?” “Why, yes, that will do.” The tea sandwiches included smoked salmon with chive cream cheese on pumpernickel pinwheel, roast beef with arugula and horseradish aioli on rosemary bread, turkey with cranberry chutney on stuffing bread, mulled wine poached pear with creamy blue cheese on cranberry walnut bread, and cucumber, radish and nutmeg on pain de mie. There wasn’t a weak link in the bunch, although the smoked salmon was so good and moist, it demanded seconds. Should I admit that?
Narumi Bone China was used along with the interesting Fortuna Teapot.
After the tea sandwiches, the server will bring you a three tier tray with scones on top ( plain and cranberry orange). The mid level has a slice of ginger tea bread, a sugar snowflake cookie and an almond cookie. On the lowest level are an eggnog cheesecake, a chocolate tart with mint center, and a small pumpkin cake with cream cheese frosting. The cool eggnog cheesecake was the runaway winner in the sweets category for me.
The scones are served with whipped (not clotted) double Devonshire cream (see What is Clotted Cream). It was smooth, rich, firm, and went very well with the orange-cranberry scones. The strawberry preserve was very fresh-tasting. A rare and welcome treat was lemon curd that was not overly sweetened. Occasionally, these can be so sweet that it’s hard to taste anything other than the sugar. This was more evenly balanced. Honey was also served should you desire a little “thunder and lightning” on your scones.
A waiter will come by to add hot water to your teapot and then lay it on its side at a 45 degree angle, as opposed to the full 90 degree tilt at the beginning of the service.
The service, as you might expect in a luxury Four Seasons Hotel, is first class – from the staff that first greet you as you enter, to the servers at your table – all engage you with polite conversation and are available to assist with whatever needs may arise during the course of the afternoon tea.
Piano and guitar music play softly, almost unintelligibly, in the background and the atmosphere was so relaxing that I lost track of time, spent a lot longer than I anticipated and ended up leaving right at the peak of Chicago rush hour traffic. I had a table that faced the fireplace, and with the soft music and plush surroundings, it was easy to let time slip away.
Near the end of the afternoon, when I was all but finished, the servers again asked me if there was anything else they could bring me. So I said how about one last cranberry orange scone. A very warm scone soon met a dollop of Devonshire Cream and strawberry jam as I rode off into the sunset of Michigan Avenue, Chicago.