Afternoon tea is back at the newly reopened Plaza Hotel
NEW YORK (AP) -- Going to The Plaza Hotel for afternoon tea was never just about the food. It was about palm trees, harp music, what the ladies at the next table were wearing, and the spirit of Eloise -- that naughty little girl who lives at The Plaza in a famous fictional children's book.
But after a $400 million, three-year renovation to restore the hotel's grandeur, tea at The Plaza is now all about the food.
Sure, the harpist is back, alternating with a classical guitarist. And palm trees still decorate the Palm Court -- the lobby dining room where tea has been served since the hotel opened in 1907.
But the bland flavors of the original tea menu have been replaced with sophisticated, bold ingredients from the hotel's new French chef, Didier Virot. You'll still find cucumber on buttered white bread among the bite-size sandwiches -- but now with fresh mint. You'll also find prosciutto and tomato confit on olive bread, a tender pink morsel of lamb on a tiny grilled pita, and a piquant puree of eggplant, goat cheese and basil, with a sliver of olive, in a tart.
At $60 a person, it's one of the city's more expensive afternoon teas -- the St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton hotels charge $45. An alternate tea menu at The Plaza that includes lobster, black truffle, caviar and a chocolate pot de creme is even more, at $100.
But whether or not you can afford The Plaza's $1,000-a-night room rates, the $60 tea is "an attainable luxury," said The Plaza's tea consultant, Ellen Easton.
The Palm Court is also now home to one of the most talked-about features of the hotel restoration -- a stained-glass ceiling called a laylight.
The laylight was replaced in the 1940s by a plaster ceiling, so "it hasn't been seen in most people's lifetimes," said Sarah Carroll, director of preservation for the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, which worked on the restoration with the hotel's new owners, Elad Properties.
Glass shards and old photos were all researchers had to go on to recreate the laylight. Carroll called the result -- a backlit yellow-and-green geometric design trimmed with roses -- "a perfect crown" for the Palm Court.
Another change: The Palm Court's armless dining chairs were replaced with high-backed blue velvet upholstered chairs. The chairs are so tall that when you're seated, you feel like you're in a private room. The downside to the privacy: It's harder to gape at the other guests' shoes and handbags. The blue of the upholstery is echoed in the colors of the ornate Limoges china.
The old three-tiered tray with finger sandwiches, scones and sweets served simultaneously is gone; now the meal is presented in separate courses. This allows scones to be delivered warm -- with de rigeur pots of clotted cream and jam -- once you're finished with the sandwiches.
Sweets, designed by pastry chef Nicole Kaplan, come on their own three-tiered tray: Pink-frosted eclairs decorated with edible gold on top, along with linzer cookies; lemon poppy seed cake and a variable chef's surprise in the middle; opera cake and tangy passion fruit tartlets on the bottom, with fresh berries on the side.
The selection of teas has more than doubled to about two dozen, including herbal peppermint, chamomile and apple spice; white and green teas; and teas from Kenya, Japan, China, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka.
The loose-leaf tea is now decanted, meaning the water is steeped with tea leaves strained into a pot before being brought to the table. Lime slices are served alongside lemon in a nod to Caribbean tea traditions.
Elizabeth Knight, who leads Tea In the City guided tours -- http://www.teawithfriends.com -- to tea rooms and shops around Manhattan, said afternoon tea at a grand hotel remains an appealing ritual. "It allows people to reconnect to a time of romance and grandeur. Most of us don't live in places like that. It's almost like you get to be an aristocrat for a day -- you peek through the keyhole and enjoy yourself for two hours."
Hundreds of people stopped by the hotel March 1, the day it reopened, just to take a look. Among them were Lou Ann Graham of Pepper Pike, Ohio, and her daughter, Emily, 7.
"It's her favorite hotel," Graham said. "For her, it's about Eloise. We stayed here the last week of the month it closed. We even made a scrapbook about it." Then she turned to her daughter and said: "Maybe you and I can come back here for tea."
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