High Tea vs Afternoon Tea:
Interestingly enough, “high tea” in Vancouver is a misnomer. What we call “high tea” is actually called “afternoon tea” or “low tea” in England and the United Kingdom. Afternoon tea is, as the name suggests, a cup of tea meant to be taken in the early afternoon, accompanied by scones, sandwiches, and pastries. This is to be distinguished from British high tea (also known as “meat tea”), which is a fuller meal consisting of meat, pies, and bread, meant to be taken in the early evening before a light dinner. The names “high tea” and “low tea” actually refer to the height of the table where the meal takes place: high tea would be at a typical dinner table and low tea would be around a low coffee table. It has nothing to do with high or low society, as many (such as myself) would think. To further confuse matters, there is also “elevenses,” which is similar to afternoon tea except it takes place in the late morning before lunch. If haven’t realized it by now, the British really love their tea!
All sorts of tea to meet your fancy!
Urban Tea Merchant is mainly a high-class tea shop with a dining room hidden in the back for afternoon tea. The way it’s set up, I don’t know if I can quite call it a restaurant. I wish I took more pictures of the tea shop, but I was late and in a rush.
It should be noted that they serve the French style of afternoon tea rather than the more commonly-found English style. Honestly, I’m not sure what the difference is. The hallmark of The Urban Tea Merchant, as one might guess from the name, is their comprehensive tea selection (+2). It has it’s own fold-out menu like a wine list, with each tea having it’s own description and price, which ranges from $6 to $18 per pot. The tea is included with each meal, though you pay an additional charge for the pricier teas. There must have been at least a hundred different teas, with ten types of Earl Grey alone. Needless to say, you’ll find something to match your taste! Bonus: +2
Food: With such a selection, we took a good fifteen minutes to decide on our orders.
In keeping with the French theme, I settled on the French Earl Grey tea. I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between it and regular Earl Grey. It was flavorful without being too tangy or bitter, and I topped it off with some rock sugar and freshly-warmed milk. I should mention that they steep the tea for you, in order to draw out the optimum flavour (+1). This is a huge benefit for someone like myself that is guilty of being an oversteeper! However, that means they discard the leaves from the teapot, meaning no refills. Not a huge deal, seeing as one full pot is about one-and-a-half bladder’s worth of tea for me.
I convinced my friend Bo to get the Westcoast Afternoon Tea with me, on the condition that I trade all my chicken salad toast bites for his goat cheese toast bites. Going clockwise from the bottom right of the pic, there’s the smoked salmon on rye, goat cheese and red stuff on baguette, chicken salad on baguette, a macaroon, truffle chocolate, and chocolate-dipped strawberry. On the far end of the plate are the same items for Bo. I really enjoyed the savory pieces, especially the smoked salmon on rye (+1). The goat cheese was a bit overpowering, but hey, that’s goat cheese for ya! I’m not a huge dessert person, but the berry macaroon was exquisitely made: crispy on the outside and moist in the inside (+1). Even Wynnie was a fan, and she’s had the real thing in France. However, I should mention that I had a bite of the chocolate and mint macaroon flavors, and they weren’t as good. The truffle and chocolate-dipped strawberry were standard, though by the time I worked my way to them, I was quite full.
Wynnie got the Petite Afternoon Tea, served on the iconic three-tiered tray. The food items differed in that there were more sandwiches and a scone instead of the bite-size savory pieces from my plate. The fresh-from-the-oven scone looked especially appetizing, and I’m giving it points based solely on Bo’s testimonial (+1). Score: +4
Service: The serving staff seemed a bit over-stretched, and we had trouble flagging down a server at times (-1). Mind you, we weren’t the easiest table to deal with, taking forever to order and being indecisive in general. However, when they did swing by, they were very patient and knowledgeable on a whole (+1). They helped with recommending teas and food items and accommodated any nutritional concerns we had (+1). Also, despite the fact we were hogging nearly a quarter of the dining room for three hours, they didn’t pressure us to leave at all, which I always appreciate (+1). Score: +2
Ambiance: Urban Tea Merchant has a clean-cut, modern look and manages to stay classy (+1) without being too snobby or gaudy (+1). The decor, tableware, and utensils were simple without feeling cheap. I particularly liked the metal teapot insulator, but that’s just the tea nerd in me. The dining room itself was fairly small, seating perhaps 25 people at full capacity, so reservations are highly recommended. However, one thing I appreciate as a photographer was that the room was well-lit with plenty of windows and lighting. Score: +2
Value: I would place it at the high end of the scale for price. You definitely pay for quality rather than quantity. $6+ is the most I’ve ever had to pay for tea at a restaurant (-1), although as a tea junkie I’ll gladly pay it. Regarding food, there are plenty of options, from the full $48 Signature Afternoon Tea to the more affordable $29 Westcoast Afternoon Tea (minimum 2 orders) and $25 Petite Afternoon Tea. There is also a range of savory food and dessert plate options for those less hungry or less inclined to shell out full-meal prices for what is essentially a midday snack. Expect to shell out $30+ if you get a standard order (-2). There are cheaper options too, but you’d be missing out on the whole afternoon tea experience. Score: -3
Nutrition: Oh boy, health nuts won’t be happy at all. A single macaroon is a pocket of sugar and fat, running at about 150 calories (-1). That’s not even the worst of it. A single truffle packs in a whopping 200 calories (-1)! Add the chocolate-dipped strawberry (100 kcal) and the three-item dessert portion of the Westcoast Afternoon Tea counts out at an unbelievable 450 calories (-2). As for the savoury items, the worst offender is the goat cream cheese at 30 calories per dollop (-1), which isn’t too bad until you consider that I had six of those baguette slices (I took Bo’s share). Fortunately it’s balanced off by a small selection of typical fruit (+1). Another bonus is that they offer milk instead of cream for the tea (+1). Score: -3