Welcoming back the tea set
The Shelbourne’s Lord Mayor’s Lounge is reopening after a four- month refurbishment. Expect the punters to pour in for its new, revamped afternoon tea, writes Marie- Claire Digby
‘ If we could open at nine o’clock in the morning, I reckon we could do five sittings a day.” Afternoon tea at 9am, surely not? Garry Hughes, executive chef at the Shelbourne Hotel, is talking about the incessant demand for reservations for afternoon tea i n the hotel’s Lord Mayor’s Lounge.
Between 900 and 1,000 lavish afternoon teas are served there each week, and the dainty sandwiches, buttermilk scones and artful pastries contribute almost ¤ 2 million in revenue to the hotel’s coffers each year.
“A quiet day in the Lord Mayor’s Lounge is 100 teas, an ordinary day is 150,” says Hughes. “When I came here first, the room was doing only about 10 or 12 people a day for afternoon tea. I am amazed by the interest.”
To cope with demand, the first afternoon tea tables at weekends and on bank holiday Mondays are seated at 11.30am and service continues, with four two- hour slots, until 7.30pm.
The landmark lounge overlooking St Stephen’s Green reopens on Saturday after a four- month refurbishment project led by London- based interior designer Guy Oliver, who has also worked on Claridge’s, The Connaught and Number 10 Downing Street.
Gone are the squishy armchairs and sofas, replaced by a more streamlined arrangement dominated by a centrepiece leather banquette. The colour palette is golden yellow, pale green, cream and ivory, and an extra 10 seats have been fitted in, reducing those weekend wait lists a little.
The grand piano is still there and has been joined by a pair of Chinoiserie cabi- nets that will serve as pantries. A 19th- century Waterford Crystal chandelier, original to the hotel townhouses, has been reinstated.
To coincide with the unveiling of the revamped space, a new afternoon tea that has been nine months in the planning is also being launched. “When I saw the drawings come in for the room, I knew we had to take it back to a classic tea,” Hughes says, after a series of themed teas celebrating such things as the hotel’s Princess Grace connection, and Michael Flatley’s paintings.
For research purposes, executive pastry chef Caoimhe Hanafin, who designed the new tea in conjunction with Hughes, was dispatched to London in December, tasked with eating six afternoon teas in two days, taking in the Berkeley, the Savoy, the Connaught, the Ritz, the Langham and Rosewood London.
“She came back with so much confidence in what we are doing,” Hughes says. Apparently not all of the London offerings tasted as good as they looked. “It’s about visual impact first, it’s got to look amazing, but then I want you to be able to close your eyes, and taste. . .”
In a new departure, the entire food offering is being presented at once, on a specially commissioned four- tier stand, rather than a rectangular platter of sandwiches being served first, followed by a three- tier cake stand of scones and pastries. The move will streamline the service and cut down the number of times service staff will visit the table.
“I came in for tea with my wife, she thought she was being treated, but I was actually doing a time and motion study of how often somebody visited the table. On average it was 13- 15 times,” Hughes says. “Some people could find that intrusive.”
On the bottom tier, the hotel’s buttermilk scones ( up to 1,000 of these are made every day) are joined by mini- gingerbread loaves, moist and squidgy and fragrant with spice.
On top of these is the savoury plate, with two each of four types of sandwich. The hotel’s house- smoked salmon is served on a dainty round of Guinness and treacle bread, with pickled cucumber and lemon gel.
“We smoke 10,000 sides of salmon a year,” Hughes says. He cures the fillets for between 16 and 24 hours in his specific mixture of sugar and salt. “It is generally 2: 1 salt to sugar. I do the opposite, sugar to salt.” Dots of lemon gel, made by blanching and refreshing lemons 10 times, then blitzing them and passing them through a sieve, before turning them into a gel, add colour and acidity.
Pumpkin seed bread is topped with Irish goat’s cheese, feather- light slivers of cherry tomato, and chives.
Avocado and chicken in a light mayonnaise is the stuffing for petite poppy seed rolls. Only the last savoury on the plate, egg mayonnaise and cress, comes in a traditional finger sandwich.
“I wanted to avoid a big plate of finger sandwiches,” Hughes says.
Topping the savouries are two identical plates, one per person, of edible artworks. This reimagining of the classics sees pannacotta, cheesecake, lemon drizzle and chocolate éclair put on their finest finery and join the party.
Hughes suggests guests should start with the pannacotta, which is topped with rhubarb jelly, aerated rhubarb foam, and a tiny Swiss meringue. The cheesecake has a sablé biscuit base, and the strawberry and vanilla filling has a surprise lime jelly cen-