Afternoon Tea in the Palm Court - A Perfect Holiday Treat

The Table is Set Credit: Bill Rockwell
Long an advocate of giving experiences instead of material presents for birthdays and Christmas, I thought one of the most enjoyable experiences for those with a penchant for the better things in life would be afternoon tea taken in the elegant Palm Court of the Omni William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh.

The Steel City's grande dame, four-star hotel has been around since 1916, enough time to have let multiple generations of  locals develop Afternoon Tea in the Palm Court into a Christmas tradition. It's not that the refreshing mid-day repast is served at the hotel just during the holidays, (it's served year-round at the William Penn,) it's that the experience feels even more festive during the month of December when spirits are ablaze in a holiday mood.

Feeling a bit left out because I'd never sipped tea while nibbling on finger sandwiches and sweets in the Palm Court, I decided to give it a try to see if it met my Christmas gift-giving standards.

Kir Royal Anyone? Credit: Bill Rockwell
Handed the menu at a cozy table for two, I saw that the hotel offers two tea options. The Victorian tea has all the traditional edibles - finger sandwiches, pastries and scones with clotted cream, but you can go even more upscale with the Royal Tea, which starts off with a choice of a champagne cocktail, Kir Royal, Mimosa or a simple glass of the bubbly unmuddled by anything else.

It had been a while since I had my last Kir Royal, a glass of champagne taken to greater heights with the addition of a delicate pour of Cassis and a twist of lemon, so I ordered one. The bartender got it just about right - not too much or too little of the black currant liqueur. Just enough to sweeten the champagne and give it body and fruity nuance.

Server Cathy Speaks Arrives with Tea Credit: Bill Rockwell
My waitress Cathy Speaks, nattily dressed in a black shirt and black and white striped apron, soon arrived with two tea pots in hand - one with my selection of Flowery Earl Grey, the other with my companion's Cherry Blossom Green. The tea menu lists nine tea choices, including several exotic ones labeled Organic Vanilla Rooibos, sweetened with Madagascar vanilla bean essential oil, and Chocolate, a tea blend designed for chocolate lovers.

The tea is served loose leaf, and each cup is topped with a silver strainer to keep the leaves, which have steeped for several minutes in hot water, from spilling into the cup and making drinking an abomination.

Yummy Goodness in  the Form of Finger Sandwiches Credit: Bill Rockwell
The quartet of nicely arranged finger sandwiches included Persian cucumber with herbed cream cheese and watermelon radish; deviled egg salad and watercress resting atop a mini Pullman loaf; an open face smoked salmon on a dill scone and duck pate encroute in a savory pastry shell.

The sandwiches made a tasty first course and had a variety of flavors and textures, which made eating them a culinary adventure. Pastries (macaroons, madeleines, chocolate opera cake, mini creme brulee cheesecake and lemon curd baskets) came next along with classic cream and lemon blueberry scones served with with clotted cream, orange marmalade and raspberry preserves. Oh yes, and a generous helping of freshly cut cantaloupe, honeydew and pineapple.

To Satisfy the Sweet Tooth Credit: Bill Rockwell

The sweets are served on a silver, three-tiered tower. Alternating textures started with the wafer-like macaroons and biscuit-like scones followed by moist and sweeter chocolate opera cake, creme brulee cheesecake and lemon curd baskets, small tasty delicacies too intricate and time consuming to make at home.

At the end, satisfied, refreshed, but not overly full, I felt the Afternoon Tea experience would make a suitable if not enviable Christmas gift for those with discerning palates and an appreciation for that sort of indulgence. For a bit of icing on the cake, I walked around the lobby soaking in the Christmas decorations, then spent some time gazing at the huge gingerbread house built to look like the outside of the hotel and displayed to notch up the wow factor when entering the hotel from the street.

The Gingerbread Hotel Credit: Bill Rockwell
Ah Christmas! It's still sparks that certain festive mood that percolates only around this time of year, especially when stimulated by the Afternoon Tea experience at the William Penn.

The Omni William Penn.Hotel in Pittsburgh offers Afternoon Tea starting at 2:30 p.m. seven days a week from Thanksgiving into January. The rest of the year, the experience is available four days a week, Wednesday through Saturday. Reservations are recommended, especially during the holiday season when demand is greatest. The cost of the Victorian Tea is $30 with the Royal Tea (accompanied by a champagne cocktail) coming in at $38.

A Mad Hatter Tea for Children ($17) is also available for youngsters 12 and younger. It includes a choice of hot chocolate, cold milk or organic vanilla Rooibos tea, finger sandwiches and house made chocolate chip cookies and a mini cupcake.

The hotel is located at 530 William Penn Place in Pittsburgh. For reservations, phone 412-281-7100.