No scone unturned
In Hong Kong's colonial past, afternoon tea was a formal affair popular among the wealthy elite, but now it has a more democratic and widespread appeal that is no longer so snooty.
Introduced in England by Anna Russell, the seventh duchess of Bedford, in the early 1800s, afternoon tea has since become an English tradition and a symbol of leisurely enjoyment.
In England a distinction between afternoon tea and high tea - a heavier meal likely to be eaten at the end of the day's manual labour - is still maintained. In Hong Kong, however, the terms are usually interchangeable and apply to the three-tiered tray service.
Nowhere does it better than The Peninsula, where long lines form for the tea service at The Lobby. While its famous traditional three-tier tea set featuring delicate bite-sized morsels and the graceful ambience created by The Lobby Strings and the 'neo-classical arches' are still tempting, the long queues have put off many potential customers.
Katherine Jay of Antique Patisserie is one of them. An avid fan of confectionaries, she has sampled afternoon teas extensively around the territory and has become quite the connoisseur.
'I love high tea but I cannot find a comfy place in Hong Kong. If I want to have afternoon tea with a friend, be it in a hotel or not, we have to queue. I prefer to book and avoid the queues,' Jay says.
'Another thing I don't like is that after all the queuing, when you are finally seated, there's still a queue next to you staring at you eat.'
It was this that prompted Jay and her sister Joyce Jay, who makes cakes and macarons, to create a private tea room designed with a classic, cosy English interior in mind and where customers could not just walk in off the street.
They launched their first tea room on Lyndhurst Terrace in 2005, but moved to Mee Lun Street in 2010 to escape a steep rent increase.
Patrons must buy a 'tea card' beforehand (paying online or directly from the shop) and decide what they want from light lunch sets, tea sets or the traditional high tea set. They can call the shop, cite the individual number on each tea card and book the date and time they would like to pay a visit.
'Many Hong Kong people are not used to booking or may not turn up after booking, so we came up with the idea of using a tea card as a commitment. Plus they don't need to worry about payment after enjoying the high tea. We also send the tea card as a gift to your friends,' says Jay.
'We have two sessions on weekdays and three on weekends.In our old shop, we had no limit and it could be quite disturbing for the other customers as many people came and went. Now they finish roughly at the same time, giving them more peace.'
Freshly made food is sent daily from a Chai Wan production kitchen to the tea room. The three-tier traditional tea set features savoury treats and seasonal items such as the Earl Grey scone and orange-flavoured macaron, and a range of tea by French company Theodor Tea that Jay discovered in Toronto.
Jay started off with 15 infusions, including black, green, red and fruit-based tea, and has since expanded the range to 60.
She says one of the most popular teas, Une Autre Idee, featuring soursop fruit, red passion fruit, coconut rasp (shards of dried coconut) and calendula petals, cuts through the richness of the food, eases headaches and is a good match for the pastries.
Je t'aime - a chocolatey infusion of bitter almond, strawberry and peony petals - pairs well with macarons.
'We'll ask our guests for their preference, and give them the tea leaves to smell before we make suggestions. For me, it depends on my mood: if today is a bit damp, I'll go for something sweet. It's interesting how tea can change one's mood,' Jay says.
The Kowloon Shangri-La is giving the meal a local spin with a Chinese option. The set is served on a three-tier stand and features abalone dumplings and foie gras, a chicken bun served in mini bamboo baskets and a deep-fried cheese and lobster spring roll. The savouries are traditional dim sum with a lavish twist while the sweets - including egg tarts with bird's nest, almond biscuits, mango and pomelo soup and assorted tea pastries - are long-standing favourites that pair well with tea.
'In Asia, in general, high tea is becoming more popular. Hong Kong people have made it a part of their lifestyle,' says executive chef Paul McLoughlin of Langham Place in Mong Kok.
Having worked in Asia since 1999, McLoughlin saw demand for high tea growing, so he revamped the offerings at Langham Place to include four themed sets: Forever, Tomorrow, East and Sinful.
To cater to the diverse clientele, says McLoughlin, they decided to make fun and hip alternatives as well as the traditional tea set. Forever is so named because 'it'll be on the menu forever', says the Canadian chef. There might be minor variations to the set but it will always include smoked salmon sandwiches, truffled egg, tomato and brie, and scones.
Tomorrow is an edgier set. 'We actually designed our own tea stand. It looks quite modern and is based on the look of the hotel, with glass and polished steel. And there are items you wouldn't see anywhere else, such as beetroot cannelloni with goat cheese inside and tuna. They're all original and visually stimulating as well,' says McLoughlin.
East is a mixture of savoury and sweet Asian food, and Sinful is for people with a decidedly sweet tooth. It's a mixture of Western and Asian desserts such as mini chocolate cornets filled with white and dark chocolate mousse, mini creme br?lee, sticky banana pudding and mango coconut rice.
For the chocoholic, La Maison Du Chocolat's Boutique & Cafe at Lee Gardens offers a tasting set featuring chocolates, macarons, mini eclairs and mini tarts by the French chocolatier.
Chocoholics are also well-served in West Kowloon.
While many will recall the old Ritz-Carlton's tea room with pleasure, with its classic British setting and piano, the newer incarnation (soon to celebrate its first anniversary) offers two venues for afternoon tea. The Lounge & Bar has a large range of Western, Chinese and Japanese tea offerings, but the concept is taken to new heights on the building's 103rd floor with Cafe 103's Chocolate Library Afternoon Tea.
The set may start with some savoury items but it's really all about the chocolate. Eight chocolate-inspired items including chocolate dried fruits sphere, chocolate framboise (raspberry) tart, financier (little pastries in the shape of gold bars) and salted caramel made with ivory white chocolate, Nyangbo chocolate and Araguani chocolate, are the centre of attraction.
Indian restaurant Jashan, on the other hand, has something 'spicy and tangy' to offer. The restaurant says it is the first in Hong Kong to produce a high tea with an Indian twist. Executive chef Asif Iqbal is also bringing to the table items rarely seen in a fine dining setting.
'We thought of the high tea concept because no such thing existed,' says Iqbal, explaining that he also saw that many other restaurants were filling up in the afternoon by offering some kind of tea set.
'There is a lot of Indian food which is only sold on the street. So we try to plate it, present it and make a high tea set menu that will rotate every day,' he says.
Jashan's set features four savouries and a sweet Indian snack such as gulab jamun (a fried pistachio-stuffed dumpling immersed in sugar syrup). Savoury dishes include samosas made with potato and green peas tempered with asafetida and cumin, bhel puri (a concoction of Indian fried food including puffed rice, onion, tomato, fried vermicelli noodles and coriander) and sev puri (fried balls of semolina filled with potato, yogurt and tamarind sauce).
It can be quite filling with all those carbohydrates, but Iqbal says the Indian spiced tea masala chai gives a refreshing touch to the meal. Other twists on the theme include an Italian option at Armani/Aqua and the Nordic approach taken at FINDS.
However, culinary conservatives can take comfort that the Grand Hyatt's Tiffin and the Landmark Mandarin Oriental's MO Bar are still treading the path of tradition.
'It's becoming a Hong Kong tradition, especially on the weekend. People get together and chat,' McLoughlin says.
'They don't want something too filling, they just want to enjoy tea or coffee, mostly the tea, and have something to munch on while they talk. It's also an excuse to pamper yourself to a certain degree.'
The tea parties
Shop 204-205, 2/F Chater House, 8 Connaught Rd, Central
Tel: 3583 2828
Shop C, G/F, 2 Mee Lun St, Central
Tel: 2542 2816
103/F The Ritz-Carlton HK, International Commerce Centre, 1 Austin Rd, West Kowloon
Tel: 2263 2270
1/F The Luxe Manor, 39 Kimberley Rd, TST
Tel: 2522 9318
1/F Amber Lodge, 23 Hollywood Rd, SoHo, Central
Tel: 3105 5300
G/F The Peninsula, 19-21 Salisbury Rd, TST
Tel: 2920 2888
The Lobby Lounge
G/F Kowloon Shangri-La, 64 Mody Rd, TST
Tel: 2733 8740
La Maison du Chocolat
The Lee Gardens Boutique & Cafe, Shop B03A, The Lee Gardens, 33 Hysan Avenue, Causeway Bay
Tel: 2907 2002
G/F Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 15 Queen's Rd Central
Tel: 2132 0077
Portal - Work & Play
5/F Langham Place, 555 Shanghai St, Mong Kok
Tel: 3552 3232
Mezzanine, Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, 1 Harbour Rd, Wan Chai
Tel: 2584 7722