I’m a big fan of afternoon tea but it could be said the traditional format is a little tired and could do with some waking up.
So I was intrigued by The Arch’s rather different take on tea-time – Earl Grey cocktails and filled eclairs – and on a recent visit I made sure that I booked some time with its pastry chef Thomas Fueher.
The eclairs come in both savoury and sweet flavours – and I was able to try the lot, freshly filled as I watched. As a Norfolk girl, I have high expectations of any dish involving crab, and I have to say I would marginally prefer a fresh Cromer crab to the crab and creme fraiche eclair (but then I’ve never gone a bundle on crab sandwiches either).
The sweet eclairs, though, are outstanding. Coconut cream, for instance, with kaffir lime; whereas coconut can be a too-sweet, too-creamy flavour, the lime adds just enough astringency to give it some edge.
The stand-out for me was the strawberry and Veuve Cliquot eclair. The presentation is lovely, with a strawberry crisp laid on top of the eclair and a square of champagne jelly on top of the crisp.
The textures of squishy, crunchy, and creamy make every mouthful a piece of theatre and the taste is fresh and clean – not too fatty, as dishes involving strawberries and cream often are. I wasn’t surprised when Thomas told me this was the customer favourite.
However, as pastry chef, Thomas has more to do than prepare the tea.
He makes chocolates, fruit pastes and marshmallow too (I don’t like marshmallow but his are actually not bad). The sweets are big on flavour, and not always obvious flavours – what looked like an orange fruit pastille on steroids turned out to be a pineapple paste which burst on the palate with zingy fruitiness, and there’s passion fruit in one of the truffles.
Thomas uses quite a few of his own confections as garnish on the eclairs – I was impressed with his attention to detail and creative flair.
He also makes the ice creams for the restaurant, and again you get full-on flavour, not ice cream with a grudging soupçon of taste.
There’s a rotating list of different flavours to rival London’s best ice creams; sour cherry, vanilla flecked with tiny seeds, and strawberry, were all on the list, but it was the coffee and cardamom ice cream that captured my taste buds. It has all the bitterness of a double espresso, and a huge handful of cardamom – a really complex and edgy flavour.
Thomas also makes the bread; there were sunflower-seed, cumin, and tomato rolls for dinner that evening. And at breakfast you can get sourdough toast: a huge slab toasted on the griddle, with homemade jam. All that, of course, makes for a long day – the pastry chef never rests!
Thomas is always introducing new recipes and ideas as the menu is not set in stone. I wondered where his ideas came from – did he visit Paris patisseries, or other restaurants? No, he said – but he makes sure to read French and German newspapers to get up-to-date food reviews.
It’s always interesting when you find a real star in the kitchen. In some London hotels, the pastry chef is just another cook – but instead of a rhythm guitarist, The Arch has got a Jimi Hendrix.
Those who apply for pastry chef jobs tend to have a passion for pastry but also an innate artistic flair, as will be immediately evident to anyone who has tasted some of the more intricate London hotel afternoon teas.
It’s not just about hiring the right chef though – to get this level of creativity a hotel has to create the right environment. The Arch has obviously got something right, since the innovation Thomas displays is matched by other staff. The cocktail list, for instance, features some interesting new recipes including the ‘MarTEAni’ cocktail which is unique to The Arch and to the New York bar that invented it (unfortunately I didn’t have time to investigate the full cocktail menu – that will have to wait until another time!); and the wine list is a wide-ranging and slightly off-beat selection, with tasting notes that aim to intrigue and stimulate.
I have to admit to being a little biased, as I noticed that throughout my evening meal, little sorbets and sweeties and other extras kept arriving at my table, an obvious attempt at bribery (a five km run round Hyde Park was needed the next morning to try to shift a few of those calories…). But I must admit that if I had to choose between the traditional afternoon tea and the strawberry eclairs, the eclairs win hands down!
The Arch is currently in the top 10 London hotels on TripAdvisor and was recently praised on this blog for its understated and chilled-out charm.
But if you do still hanker for a more traditional afternoon tea, the last two winners of the Tea Guild’s prestigious award for “best London hotel afternoon tea” are the swanky Langham Hotel and historic Brown’s Hotel.
Photo credits: The Arch Hotel.
The Arch is a member of Pride of Britain Hotels, a collection of some of the finest privately-owned hotels in the country.
Disclosure: Andrea was a guest of The Arch.