Since many of Beijing's hotel lobbies are designed with the initial “wow” factor in mind, most would be horrible places to drink tea; in fact, most usually have you looking for the nearest possible exit.
Eschewing pompous marble edifices and echoing open spaces, the Ritz Carlton has broken up this large area using Chinese screens and tall bamboo trees, all bathed in the natural light that floods in from two-storey-high windows. This charming lobby is home to The Tea Apothecary, and is, therefore, a perfect setting to wile away an afternoon over tea, cakes and sandwiches.
Unlike dinner or lunch appointments, guests are given just a couple of options, each priced at 288 yuan for two: Capital High Tea – favoured by visiting foreigners looking for a “Chinese experience”, or the Traditional Afternoon Tea – a choice enjoyed by outward-looking Beijingers that have had enough of that same “Chinese experience”.
Traditional Afternoon Tea at the Ritz Carlton is somewhat of an institution. Apart from the fact that no mistakes were made, there is not much to say about the savory items; every effort was made to make them look special but at the end of the day a cucumber sandwich is a cucumber sandwich. The smoked salmon roll and the egg mayonnaise open sandwich were good, too. More notable were the cakes, which, I was impressed to hear, are like everything else served with afternoon tea - prepared on the day they are served. These included a rich chocolate mousse and a delectable sweet biscuit with a generous fluffy dollop of creaminess that forms the middle layer of cheese cake.
More explanation should probably be devoted to the other option, the Ritz Carlton’s innovative, “Chinese” answer to the English tradition of afternoon tea. Delivered in a modified birdcage, all of the nibbles served with Capital High Tea - three different steamed dumplings served alongside a selection of traditional Chinese sweet things - were fantastic. The thing that most stood out was the Shaqima, a sweetened mixture of rice and chopped nuts, slightly reminiscent of Greek baklava. The delicate nutty oils that bind it all together sweetened convinced me that oils can be a good thing.
The Tanghuoshao – a drab-looking brown lump made from sandy caramelized sugar – tasted equally good and dissolved instantly in my mouth. Capital High Tea is likely to prove anyone wrong that was under the impression that the only thing missing from the Chinese culinary repertoire was desserts – for the first time I was converted to Chinese sweet things.
According to management there will always be somebody willing to talk you through the eighty eight varieties of tea on offer -the is useful for those English people who, like me, are used to a teabag haphazardly dunked into a large mug with milk and sugar.
Firstly, I requested that they select their most “interesting” Chinese tea. Their recommendation, Pu’er tea, would cut through oils and help me lose weight. After a minute or so explaining the healing properties of Pu’er, they could find nothing to say about my second choice, English Breakfast. Both teas tasted fine, and sticklers for detail will not be disappointed by the tea service.
To be honest, I was almost expecting a laughable attempt at recreating antiquated “English culture”. I should not have been so naïve – Afternoon Tea at the Ritz Carlton is elegant without being haughty and is creative without being cringe worthy. For anyone who finds themselves in the rather characterless Financial Street, whether it be shopping in the malls with friends or doing business on “Beijing’s Wall Street”, the wonderful character of the Ritz Carlton’s Tea Apothecary is not to be missed out on.
Location: 1 Jin Cheng Fang Street EastFinancial Street, Xicheng District
Tel: (86 10) 6601 6666 ext 6232.