Friday, December 7, 2018

My Trip to Victoria | Tea at The Empress: Review

Disclaimer: This was a complimentary media tasting.
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress Review
As some of you may know, I finally finished school back in May and started working non-stop right after graduation. Therefore, I was long overdue for a vacation. Due to budgetary and time constraints, however, I couldn't really afford a big trip this year. Therefore, my boyfriend and I decided to take a mini vacation to Victoria, British Columbia. Due to its close proximity to Vancouver, Victoria is a city I've visited many times in the past. Therefore, we really wanted to make this trip special by staying at the world-renowned Fairmont Empress. Opened in 1908 and named after Queen Victoria, the iconic hotel overlooks the Victoria harbor and is minutes away from the parliament building. Aside from its rich history and stunning architecture, Fairmont Empress is well known for its afternoon tea service, which is considered a bucket list experience for many. Therefore, we knew we needed to try it out for ourselves. To read about my Tea at The Empress experience, click......
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress Review | Lobby Lounge
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress | Lobby Lounge
The Setting:
Located on the second floor of Fairmont Empress in Victoria, Lobby Lounge is a large, open space where Tea at The Empress is hosted daily. Although renovated many times in the past, the lounge still retains many of its original elements, such as the ceiling moldings and brass chandeliers. Since it is Christmastime, Lobby Lounge is decked out with colorful Christmas trees and festive mantle decorations. As we visited in the early afternoon, the lounge was filled with warm sunlight coming from the large, west-facing windows. Pair that with the soft melodies from the live pianist, the ambiance was classy yet comfortable.
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress Review | Lobby Lounge
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress | Lobby Lounge
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress Review | Lobby Lounge Pianist
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress | Live Pianist
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress Review | Tea Menu
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress | The Tea Menu
The Tea:
Because this is Tea at the Empress, these guys take their tea very seriously. With a wide selection of hand-picked, ethically-sourced, and 100% traceable offerings, the tea menu was presented in a slotted wooden case that actually allowed you to see the different blends up-close before ordering. Six of them were included with the $78 CAD per person afternoon tea menu and the rest were available at an additional cost. I'm not a big tea fanatic but I do love a good rooibos so I was very glad that there was a rooibos tea called "Winter Palace Marzipan", available exclusively for the holiday time. With a brew time of approximately seven minutes (perfectly-timed with a trio of hourglass brought by the server), this was rich and lightly sweet rooibos complimented by the subtle nuttiness of marzipan. I personally couldn't detect much almond flavor but the tea was still pleasing to my palate.
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress Review | Winter Palace Marzipan
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress | Winter Palace Marzipan
Aside from the tea itself, the teaware used at the Empress is equally significant. A recreation of the china King George VI and Queen Elizabeth used during their 1939 Canadian visit, the teaware used for afternoon tea is made using 14 overlapping lithographic patterns and features hand-painted details in 22kt. gold. The original 1939 teaware, only used when the royal family visits, can be seen at the Fairmont Empress gift shop display. Lastly, before moving onto the food,  it's worth noting four different types of sugar are available to sweeten your tea. From common white sugar crystals to maple-infused sugar crystals, each adds something a little different to your tea.
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress Review | Sugar Tray
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress | The Sugar Tray
The Food:
As my visit landed at the beginning of the holiday season, I actually got to try the Festive Afternoon Tea menu. Because Fairmont Empress sources locally and uses fresh ingredients, their menu changes seasonally. Tea at The Empress also accommodates different diet restrictions and preferences so whether you are vegan or gluten-free, the afternoon tea menu can be enjoyed just the same. I dined with two other guests so the portion you see below is that of three people. Everything came on a tiered tray and the items were separated by categories.
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress Review | Festive Afternoon Tea Menu
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress | Festive Afternoon Tea Menu
In a category of its own, the Signature Empress Raisin Scone kicked off the afternoon tea culinary menu. Served alongside house-made clotted cream and strawberry preserve jazzed up with lavender sourced directly from the Fairmont Empress rooftop garden, the scones were hefty in size and buttery in texture. The lightly sweetened clotted cream felt surprisingly thick when first scooped from its serving dish but once slathered onto the warm scone, it melted to a creamier texture. The strawberry preserve, on the other hand, was fairly thin and runny. I like that it was overly sweet but the lavender flavor was lost on me.
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress Review | Signature Empress Raisin Scone
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress | Signature Empress Raisin Scone
Next up is the savory tier. Starting with the smaller bites, we have the Chevre Tartlet made with whipped goat cheese topped with quince jelly. The goat cheese had a fresh tangy flavor but the tart pastry itself was quite soggy. As we were advised to start with the scone, the once-warm Honey Ham & Gruyere Quiche was pretty much room-temperature when we got to it. Therefore, it was also a bit underwhelming. Next up was the Turkey Salad on Brioche, which was essentially a slider served cold with free-run confit turkey and dried cranberries. Although fairly moist, the brioche bun tasted just a touch too dense, especially since there wasn't enough filling to go around. I really enjoyed the moist and flavorful turkey salad but only wished that there were more.
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress Review | Turkey Salad on Brioche, Heirloom Cucumber on Rye, Cold Smoked Salmon on Blini
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress | Festive Afternoon Tea Menu
An essential component of afternoon tea, the Heirloom Cucumber on Rye was delicately assembled with layers of thinly sliced cucumber and whipped dill cream cheese sprinkled with fennel pollen and pink peppercorn. Despite being a rather traditional and often boring item on the menu, the cucumber sandwich was very well done. I love how the extra dark rye contrasted the fresh green cucumbers and the sandwich tasted moist and flavorful. Last but certainly not least is the Cold Smoked Salmon on Blini. Essentially a mini pancake generously topped with a tower of smoked salmon slices and drizzled with creme fraiche and dill, this was hands down the best part of the menu. The salmon was the star as it was unbelievably luscious and tender. I can seriously forgo all the other items if I can just get a platter of these.
Considered by some as the best part of afternoon tea, dessert featured five holiday-themed items. Shaped like a cup of hot wintery drink, the Mandarin Cremeux is made of a milk chocolate cup filled with mandarin orange mousse. This one looked the cutest but the mandarin flavor felt lost among the sweetness of the chocolate. Partly dipped in milk chocolate, the Cranberry & White Chocolate Macarons were my favorite. Perfectly rounded and with just the right height of feet, these were actually one of the best macarons I've tasted. The meringue shell was softly crunchy on the outside and smooth and melty on the inside. Additionally, the filling perfectly balanced the tang of the cranberry with the sweetness of the chocolate.
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress Review | Desserts
Fairmont Empress | Tea at The Empress | Festive Afternoon Tea Menu
Next up are two mini cakes. Topped with marzipan butter, the Empress Christmas Fruit Cake is lightly soaked in rum and brandy. Unlike most people I know, I actually really enjoy fruitcakes so this one definitely tickled my fancy. It was nice and firm (as all good fruit cakes should be) but I could have used more rum flavor. The Maple Spice Delice, on the other hand, featured a much softer gingerbread sponge cake topped with a thick maple mousse. The flavors were right on for this one but I think my enjoyment of it would have been significantly higher had I not just had four other sugary treats. Lastly, we have the Crunchy Almond Florentine. A crispy bite made with toasted almonds coated in a caramel and dipped in chocolate, it makes for a perfect snack when drinking tea. With that said, I honestly could not finish it because I was that full!

The Bottom Line:
Tea at The Empress was a very special experience. With the wide selection of teas and caringly prepared menu, I was left feeling full of joy and happiness. A lot of people would argue that $78 is a lot to pay for tea and sweets but it's the setting at The Empress that really makes the difference. I mean, where else can you dine in a 110-year-old lounge where generations of British Royalties have done the same? If the history alone doesn't wow you, the live piano music, the charming decor, and the friendly service certainly will. It's not an experience I would re-visit each time I'm in Victoria but it's definitely something I would recommend trying at least once.

About Tea at The Empress:
Located at Lobby Lounge inside Fairmont Empress on 721 Government St, Victoria, British Columbia, Tea at The Empress occurs from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. To learn more or to make a reservation, visit the Tea at The Empress website.

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Special thanks to my boyfriend Hanson, who captured all the photos in this post while I sipped away at my tea. He writes his own blog over at Nosh & Nibble. If you are interested in reviews of Vancouver restaurant and other food-related content, check out his blog here.
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