The breathtaking figure skating from the women’s short program last night put me in mind of the elegant Drake Hotel, a simply stunning edifice with a rarefied atmosphere. On my trip to Chicago last year, I was lucky enough to have tea at the Drake not once, but twice. On my first visit, I forgot to take photos until after tea had been consumed, which played a large role in urging me to return so that I could try my hand at documenting the scrumptious atmosphere.
The tea room at the Drake is enormous in size, with a high, airy, mirrored ceiling! A wooden crosshatch is affixed to the mirror, blocking some of the reflected scene from below, so you don’t get the full picture from the mirror’s reflection. It adds a bit of mystery to the room.
A fountain with a cherub was perched right next to the table on my first visit, and I was most entertained by the view I had of the cherub’s bottom. There’s nothing like cherub ass to make you feel like quality folks. I felt a bit odd documenting the cherub’s bottom for posterity. I’m sure that in choosing the fountain pieces, the hotel decorator was just being cheeky.
There was a live harpist playing during tea both times – she appears on scheduled days and times to play for tea drinkers – and lucky me, she was situated right next to the table on my first visit! A microphone attached to her harp magnified the sounds she played, and sadly, this proved painfully loud for me. I made sure to sit far away from her on my second visit. Happily, the tea I chose for both visits was good enough to fortify me against the harpist’s clanging. It was called pear caramel, and it was so good that I asked the kind and patient server if I could buy some from the hotel. He did me one better: He gave me the name of the supplier! As soon as I returned home, I made a beeline for the Interwebs and ordered some of that delicious tea for myself. Hats off to that guy! I hope he gets a huge raise, and goes and buys his own hotel.
Princess Diana famously had tea at the Drake during her 1996 visit to Chicago, and so I was expecting the dainties served during tea to be of surpassing excellence. Either the Drake has been in a slow decline since then, or they pulled out all the stops for Di and Di alone, because I found the finger foods to be inconsistent in their quality. The cucumber and tomato sandwich was fine, but it was no better than that which you’d make at home.
The macaroons were gorgeous, though they neglected to provide any chocolate ones and I was forced to flag down our server and demand my fair share of chocolate macaroons! (I was actually very polite, and he was very accommodating. I tipped him exceedingly well because he’d been so nice.)
The turkey roll was quite dry, and I found it difficult to choke down.
I was expecting the scones to blow my socks off – after all, scones are meant to be the stars of afternoon tea! – but they were less tender and flavourful than scones I’ve made myself. However, the lemon curd, which was made in-house (I asked!), was superb. It was more tart than I would have liked, but that is purely a matter of personal preference. The strawberry preserves were bought from an outside vendor, not made in-house (again, I asked!), which was disappointing.
The gingerbread madeleines were fantastic, very moist and bursting with spicy flavour, and I thoroughly enjoyed these. They went surprisingly well with lemon curd!
There was a swan made of cream puffs stuffed with almond pastry cream, but it was bland and doughy.
The almond pastry cream itself was well made, but I have to confess to a die-hard hatred of almond flavouring. I like almonds themselves, but anything almond-flavoured is absolutely not for me!
The best of the best was the opera cake.
Expertly made and consisting of layers of delicate sponge cake, coffee-flavoured Swiss meringue buttercream, and chocolate ganache, it was purely sublime. This is funny, because the sponge cake for opera cake is traditionally flavoured with almond, which I have just confessed to hating, yet the almond flavouring in the opera cake was very mild to start with and was quickly silenced by the chocolate ganache and coffee Swiss meringue buttercream. The opera cake and that fantastic pear caramel tea remain the highlight of both my visits to the Drake.
I am forced to conclude that the thrill of a visit to the Drake Hotel for tea rests largely on the exciting premises and not on the comestibles. The opera cake and the madeleines made a good showing here, and the tea selection really is varied and of high quality, but the rest of what I was offered fell below my admittedly high expectations. This is the Drake, after all; arriving with high expectations is only to be, well, expected. Nonetheless, I consider it one of my favourite parts of my visit to Chicago. It’s a majestic place, cloaked in the heavy air of exclusivity that comes from the constant traffic of people with lots and lots of money.
I say go to the Drake for tea, if you can, and make a beeline for that fabulous opera cake. 😉 Be sure to check out the chandeliers, too.
If you enjoyed reading this, click here to subscribe to my blog. That way, you’ll never miss a post!