Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Confusing Tea Time at Truffles Fine Foods (VanDusen Botanical Garden)

Truffles Fine Foods Cafe on Urbanspoon
I've been to various afternoon tea services -- Shaktea, Urban Tea Merchant, Schokolade Artisan Chocolates -- and they've generally been pretty pricey because you get some pretty pricey labour-intensive goodies on your tiered tea tray. Truffles Fine Foods (at VanDusen Botanical Garden) has a very different take on tea service. Which led to quite a bit of confusion when the Food Bloggers Meetup tried it on Tuesday (hosted by food blogger Dumpling Girl).

I've had some time to reflect on it, and although initially it wasn't a good experience, I think it is fairer to say the whole fiasco came out of good intentions on the part of the restaurant. Certainly the staff were very calm and patient with us, and I give them points for that. (And check out the cute hottie at the till with the fantastic hairdo!).

Typically, afternoon tea service is a calm sit-down-restaurant service with a fixed menu for what items end up on your three-tiered tea tray. The only choice you need to make is what tea to have.
Truffles Fine Foods, however, is a cafeteria setup where you order what you want at the front, pay at the till, and take it back to your table. If it's a panini that needs to be prepped (for example), you get a number to put at your table. Afternoon tea lovers might find this a bit jarring to the whole experience. But if you can get past the initial ordering-and-paying part, you can then sit down and wait for the goodies to come to you. Different, but survivable.

The confusion arose today stemmed I think from the choices available, and the indecisiveness of polite people. There are three tea service orders available: Single for $20, tea for two for $28, and tea for four for $50. You choose one panini and one tea, or two paninis and two teas for the for-four service. The more people are involved in the decision (e.g., the for-four), the more crazy things get. It wouldn't be so bad if there were enough choices to go around, but two sandwiches and two pots of tea for four persons means sharing, and having to accommodate dietary requirements or preferences. Luckily we weren't stuck with, say, three firm sandwich preferences when we were allowed to choose only two.
So on the up side, the restaurant is trying to let us put together what we want. The downside is all the wrangling over it at the till, which holds up everyone else. And never mind four people separately paying the bill. Which also turned out to be a fiasco somehow because the tax wasn't included. (Huh? That was the story that came to me. To try to move things along, I just threw in $20 and told them to pay any outstanding amounts from the remainder of my portion of $12.50 plus tax).

I think what might have helped a lot would be for the restaurant to issue little cards where you tick off what you want and just submit the final order to the server. That would at least save some hold-up at the till. Look over what I wrote and you'll realize that all the problems were actually caused by us, the patrons. On the one hand, having more choices means the possibility of being more pleased with what comes to the table, but there's something to be said with a fixed menu and just trusting the restaurant to know what they are doing. For a more relaxed time (and not having any allergies, dietary restrictions, or dealbreaker ingredients), I think I much prefer to just choose a fixed-menu tea service and let my server recommend me a tea.

The other "feature" of afternoon tea at Truffles Fine Foods is the price. At $50 for 4 persons (or even $20 for one person), it comes in at the really low end of afternoon tea pricing, so you should be prepared for less than the most refined seeming fare. And it is. Here's the blurb (as of April 18th, 2012):

Our Afternoon Tea includes a three-tiered tray loaded with:
  • a choice of daily sandwich
  • a freshly made scone
  • a large croissant (divided into two portions)
  • coconut macaroons and shortbread cookies
  • French macarons and petit-fours
  • house-made strawberry jam
  • VanDusen’s own un-pasteurized, organic honey
Selections change on a daily basis and depend on what has been baked that day.

Tea selections include:

  • VanDusen’s own private label black tea (blended by Secret Garden Tea)
  • Different organic teas from MoTeas from Kelowna (Early Grey with Rose, Chocolate Mint Roiboos, Assam Breakfast, Masala Chai and classic Darjeeling…)
We had scheduled ourselves for tea at 1:30pm (although the cafeteria-style place meant reservations were not accepted). By then, the day's lamb panini was already sold out. There's the early lunch rush which ends around 2pm, and then a much quieter time for an unrushed afternoon tea, but it could mean being stuck with whatever sandwiches are left.

Other curious encounters that Tuesday afternoon:
  • They don't automatically bring you napkins. Go to the counter to grab a stack.
  • They don't automatically bring you small plates (! -- it would have definitely made for a much messier table afterwards), but you can ask for them.
  • One of our number tried to separately order a different tea. Somehow the result was that they couldn't give her a pot as she'd have to order a whole tea service for that. This was a bit odd, so in the end the lady at the till just relaxed their house rule and handed her a pot anyway.
Our tea service for 4 included:
  • two sandwiches: vegetarian and something else -- honestly, I can't remember since I let someone else in our team of four do the ordering
  • two large scones (one with bacon baked in, the other with pecans)
  • two croissants cut into halves
    • strawberry jam, honey, and whipped cream provided
  • two large coconut macaroons
  • two large shortbread cookies
  • your choice of a smallish macaron
  • an assortment of miniature cakes (petit fours)
Here's how things turned out:
  • Sandwiches
    • Start quickly with these as they come hot out of the panini press, and get cold quickly, meaning hardened cheese.
    • Although grilled nicely, presentation was, in my opinion, off as it appeared the grilling and cutting had caused some pieces to go askew, and on the inside, it appeared the ingredients weren't well distributed.
    • Flavour-wise I can't say I found them particularly good. Nothing wrong per se, just not more than a passing grade. Since the sandwich selection can change, you will probably have a different experience here.
    • This, plus the croissants, make the tea service quite filling as a light to medium lunch portion.
  • Scones
    • These are pretty big, each about the size of two decks of playing cards.
    • Cake-like (but heavier), rather than the really dense and crumbly style of scone.
    • Quite good, although the extra ingredients (bacon and cheddar in one, pecan in the other) didn't make a strong enough presence to make any real difference.
  • Croissants
    • These aren't the flaky style buttery croissants, but are more bread-like. Cold and a tad dry. Probably baked in the morning (if not outright shipped in) rather than fresh in the afternoon.
  • Coconut Macaroons
    • A tad crumbly when cut, despite being slightly sticky.
    • Good sweetness but not overdone. Overall really rather nice and one of the nicer items on the trays.
  • Shortbread
    • Nothing special here. Your basic tasty shortbread.
    • If you need to halve one to share, what helped was to score the top with a butterknife where you want the break, flip it over, and snap it. When I tried this, it broke cleanly where I had scored it.
  • Macarons
    • There were maybe four or five choices at the counter. Each was the diameter of a twonie and maybe 3/4" thick.
    • I opted for the green pistachio one, which had a clear pistachio flavour. No crumbling when I bit into it. Good for two slowly savoured bites as it is quite sweet and the flavours are strong.
  • Petit Four
    • Very interesting tiny cakes about a cubic inch each. I got a multi-layered one with green jelly on top and specks of what looked like green hotdog relish, but were actually pistachio bits.
      • Actually, I almost wished they were savory relish, as that would really be thinking outside the box for creative cake/dessert.
    • The multiple layers and strong flavours here made finishing with the petit four the best and most sense-awakening way to end afternoon tea.
  • Tea
    • For our pot we went with the house blend, a VanDusen garden tea.
    • I'm not a tea connoisseur, so only the strongest differences in flavour would have had any effect on me. For my unrefined palate therefore, there wasn't anything special here. Someone with a better nose for tea would probably be more insightful here.

1 comment:

  1. Nice work, I am really glad to be 1 of several visitants on this awful site : D