Ever since my first afternoon tea experience at Hotel Vancouver, I've been on a constant search for the best afternoon tea in the Lower Mainland. Though located all the way across the Georgia Strait in Victoria, Fairmont Empress is well known for its traditional tea service which has been enjoyed by the Queen herself in the famous Tea Lobby overlooking the harbour. I finally got the chance to try it over the long weekend, and was absolutely in awe upon entering the venue. I could tell the place was aged, but the general ambiance was just so grand and regal.
The price for afternoon tea is $58/person for the summer months and quite a bit cheaper at $47/person during the winter. But for December 23-26, the hotel offered a special Carol Afternoon Tea for $58/person. As we enjoyed our tea, 7 carolers moved around the lobby singing Christmas carols a cappella.
As we browsed through the list of teas, our server brought each of us 2 chocolate-covered strawberries to munch on. While I enjoyed the sweet fruit, I thought that this should have been a dessert and something a bit lighter than chocolate should have been served as an appetizer.
The tea list was not very extensive, but that didn't matter as I had my eyes set on the Empress blend, a unique combination of teas from Assam, Kenya, South India, Ceylon and China, crafted exclusively for Fairmont Empress.
The most impressive part of the tea service was the service (and not the tea unfortunately). Our server poured each of our teas for us — not just the first cup but every single cup throughout the meal. She came by to check on us regularly and promptly refilled our teas before we emptied our cups. The tea itself was not spectacular. I had expected the Empress blend to be really unique, but it was just like any other black tea. Yes it was deliciously smooth, yet the flavour was a lot milder than I had imagined. I tried the tea both with and without milk, and both versions tasted rather weak and diluted. At first I thought perhaps the tea had not been steeped long enough, but I realized that was the nature of the tea when cup after cup tasted the same.
I have to admit I was slightly disappointed when the tower came. It wasn't as extravagant as I had envisioned. In fact, the tower at Fleuri looked better than this.
Bottom Tier: smoked salmon pinwheel, free range egg salad croissant, mango and curried chicken sandwich, cucumber and horseradish sandwich, traditional pork pate on crostini
The sandwiches were similar to the ones at Hotel Vancouver, except they were not as good because everything was served cold. The croissant, in particular, was not very enjoyable as the buttery bread was not as soft and fluffy as it could have been. The rest of the sandwiches were alright, and as refills were complimentary, we asked for seconds of the smoked salmon pinwheel and the cucumber/horseradish sandwich. The second round was even worse. The sandwiches tasted as if they had just come out of the fridge; they were a little better than frozen. I had to let them thaw for 5-10 minutes before I could eat them.
Middle Tier: raisin scones with strawberry preserves and Empress cream
Just like the sandwiches, the scones were served completely cold (to the point that they were ever so slightly dry and hard). I was rather disappointed since signage throughout the hotel advertised warm and freshly baked scones, yet that was far from the truth. I later realized why this was the case as I walked through the Tea Lobby on my strolls through the hotel. In preparation for the Christmas crowd, towers of food were pre-made and left to sit (and dry out) in a small area in the middle of the lobby. No wonder the sandwiches and pastries were not as moist and fresh as they should have been.
Top Tier: mince tarts, ginger shortbread, brandy cherry cheesecake, Christmas cake, Valrhona chocolate chestnut truffle, candy canes
The desserts were not the best I've had, but a couple of them stood out from the rest. I had my first encounter with mince tart and I rather enjoyed it. I had always thought of mincemeat pie/tart as a savoury pastry with ground meat filling. Indeed meat was a common ingredient in traditional mincemeat, but modern recipes usually consist of a sweet filling of dried fruit and spices. This one was mostly apple with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. The only other dessert I liked was the chocolate chestnut truffle. It was extremely rich and satisfying as a sweet end to the meal. I left both the Christmas cake and the cherry cheesecake unfinished. The first was much too soggy, and the latter had the consistency of yogurt — too mousse-like for my liking. Both were very mushy and fell apart easily. The ginger shortbread had no hint of ginger flavour; the texture was doughy and seemed undercooked.
In terms of food quality, the Empress ranks pretty low on my list. Perhaps it was an off-day and the quality was compromised due to the busy holiday season, but that's hardly an excuse for a prestigious 5-star hotel (especially when they're charging a premium for the tea experience). However, the Empress is unrivaled in terms of service and setting. Sipping tea in the elegant surroundings with a server waiting on us and a chorus of carolers singing in the background was a fascinating experience by itself. With that sort of extravagance, the food seemed a lot less important. Despite my disappointment in the food, I thought the price I paid was worth it as it was a new experience for me and we each got a complimentary box (10 teabags) of the Empress blend to take home. They sell these in the gift shop for $8 a box. Afternoon tea at the Empress is worth a try if you haven't been there before, but I would not purposely go back for it. If I happen to go to Victoria in the future during low season, I might give it another try, but I would never again pay the higher price for it because there really is no difference. The food and service is exactly the same, and the food might even be better during low season when the hotel is less busy!