Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Travel Dish: L’Orangerie at the Alvear Palace Hotel (Buenos Aires)

This is part of a series of reports recapping my recent trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Check back every Monday and Tuesday when I’ll be giving you a taste of my food adventures in this South American metropolitan city.

Escape with a Royal Touch of Tea
Av. Alvear 1891 (at Ayacucho), Buenos Aires
Recoleta district
PH: 11/4808.2949
Tea service Mon.–Sat., 4:30–7 p.m.; Sun., 5–7 p.m.
Major credit cards, reservations accepted
Web site

For the ultimate afternoon meal, there’s nothing that can surpass afternoon tea at L’Orangerie, inside the ornate Alvear Palace Hotel.

The Alvear is considered one of the most luxurious and exclusive hotels in Buenos Aires, and it is home to one of the best known French restaurant in South America (La Bourgogne). But because I’m such a big fan of the whole ritual of tea (which is why I love London), I made it a point to visit L’Orangerie instead.

Just walking through the hotel lobby and seeing the breathtaking view of the formal dining rooms, you really do feel a bit out of place. The history of Argentina’s elite just drips from the gilded wall hangings and crystal chandeliers. L’Orangerie’s tea service is a tradition for portenos (or locals), many coming for special family gatherings on holidays.

The Alvear Tea at L’Orangerie is a fixed menu and price (AR$85 or $30). You can pay extra and get the special Alvear Tea with Kir Royale. I went with the standard Alvear Tea, which is still a lot for one person.

The setting has all the formality of a royal tea party, with suited servers in white gloves and polished silverware. Despite the formal atmosphere, my server was very friendly and accommodating, making me feel at home but pampered at the same time.
The main spot to be is the garden courtyard, where the servers wear a special red coat and you’re surrounded by elegant floral displays. I did not sit there because you need to make a reservation for that prime spot. So I was relegated to the indoor seating (which was still plush and special) and the hostess gave me a table with a view of the garden so I can be even more jealous.

I started off by ordering the special “Blend Alvear” tea, made with black tea accented with the fragrances of almonds, Mediterranean citrus and rose petals. My server came and prepared my tea at the table, letting it seep and then returning to pour me my first cup.

Taking that first sip made me forget about all the days of walking the gritty city and the exhaustion of lugging my camera bag everywhere. I felt like I was in the middle of a spa, just breathing in the smells of spring.

Then the server brought the tower of food—four levels of scones, finger sandwiches, puff pastries and dessert. I was going to be there for awhile.

I started with the scones, which were served with three types of marmalade. I have to say, the scones were a disappointing start. They felt dense and heavy, and not very flavorful. I only ate one and left the other two behind.

But then I started eating the sandwiches, and each one was a delightful surprise. While some were simple standard tea fare, such as the cucumber sandwich, they each tasted fresh and distinctive. I felt like I was eating that flavor for the first time. Along with the cucumber, there were a turkey with tomatoes (and what tasted like pesto mayonnaise), tuna salad on wheat bread, and iberico jamon (Spanish ham) with arugula.

Next I tackled the mini patisserie plate, which included three savory puffs. One was filled with mascarpone cheese and bits of ham and another was a mini smoked salmon burger. I forgot what the other one was, but this plate was my favorite of all the courses because of the rich savory flavors encased in the fluffy puff pastry.

Here’s a closer look of the salmon burger. At this point I was nearly full, so I took a break and mostly sipped my tea and people-watched. A piano player started playing and the room filled up with mostly businessmen and tourists.

OK, on to the desserts. One of my favorite was this chocolate toffee bar with a coco cream topping. It was an amazing mix of coco flavors with a light-as-air feel.

This is the rest of the dessert plate, which included two fresh fruit tartlets, a chocolate mousse-like cake and a custard-like square. The fruit tartlets were fine, although I thought the crust was a bit average and I didn’t like the slice of chocolate cake, which was a bit dry. The custard square was very enjoyable.

At this point, I was totally filled of pastries and two pots of tea. But then my server came to tempt me again, this time bringing in the reserve arsenals and showing me this dessert cart. She said I could choose one dish that came with my tea service. I told her I was so full, but she insisted so I decided to go for a pear tartlet because I thought it’d be light and it looked so pretty.

Here’s the pear tartlet. It turned out to be just OK, nothing like the savory puff pastries or finger sandwiches. The pear was a bit firm, so it made it kind of difficult to eat.

Even though I’d paid my bill already, my server just wouldn’t stop tempting me with food. She offered me a selection of one of these truffles beautifully displayed at one end of the room. I had to be firm and told her I just couldn’t eat any more.

The tea service at L’Orangerie is the kind of place where you can treat yourself when traveling because that’s the whole idea of a vacation, isn’t it? To just feel like you’re special and you’re living a whole new different life half way around the world.

Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (Elegance in Small Bites)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Bueno … life in BA
If you find yourself having tea at L’Orangerie, or even if you don’t want to take in its formality, you should definite make a trip to the Alvear Palace Hotel and check out one particular store in its promenade: Tealosophy by Inés Berton.

Berton is an Argentine painter who started this tiny boutique tea store inside the hotel. (She’s since opened another location in the city and a store in Barcelona, Spain.) I discovered Tealosophy as I was window shopping in the hotel, waiting for L’Orangerie to start its afternoon tea service. Since I’m a tea lover, I had to check out the store, but there was a long line of shoppers coming out of the tiny store (I mean really tiny, it’s almost the size of large bathroom).

So I had my tea at L’Orangerie (where I discovered that Berton helped to create some of the blends, which she has done for hotels around the world) and returned to the shop to buy some tea. Yes, it was a tea kind of day.

Berton was actually at the shop and she’s a very personable and unassuming tea connoisseur. What I like about her shop is that she’s willing to create her own special blends (tea purists hate blended tea, but I’m a big fan of them and wish I could get more of them in San Francisco). Blends like Cornelia Mood (grapefruit, sunflower, mango, hibiscus) or Plum Rose (Assam with plums and rose petals) is just an example of what you’ll find. It can be overwhelming to pick what to buy, which is why many shoppers study Berton’s list of tea varieties before getting in line to order.

I ended up getting the Royal Fruit blend (like I mentioned, I discovered this around the city but never outside of Argentina) and a Peach Apricot blend, both of which I’ve tried since returning home and love. (I just wished I bought more.) Some say Berton’s tea is uber expensive, which is probably true on an Argentine income. But the conversion to U.S. dollars makes her tea quite affordable compared to what I’ve paid in New York or London. I hear her tea might be sold in the United States soon, so remember her name. It’s worth checking out.

Tealosophy, Ave. Alvear 1883 (inside the Alvear Palace Hotel), Buenos Aires. PH: 11/4808.0483. http://www.tealosophy.com/


Anonymous said...

That's what's so great about high tea _ it forces you to slow down and savor the moment. In our stressed, 24/7 life, we definitely deserve to make time for more of that.

Anonymous said...

Wow what a beautiful and elegant tea party! Those pastries did look delicious, much better than what I remember being served at the Atrium in the Palace Hotel... anyways, what a nice civilized treat!