Monday 26 August 2013

Gluten Free Afternoon Tea at The Rubens At The Palace, London

I was recently the lucky recipient of an afternoon tea for two gift experience at the prestigious Ruben’s Hotel in London. Apart from the occasional scone and pot of tea on coastal holidays, I have never had a proper traditional afternoon tea. One of my best friends from ‘back home’ and I have been saying for years that we must treat ourselves to a fancy afternoon tea in London but never got round to organising it. When I was given the Tea for Two experience organised by Experience Days I knew exactly who was coming with me.

The Ruben’s Hotel is situated in Victoria, very close to Buckingham Palace and just across the road from the Royal Mews, so you couldn’t get a more perfect location for an English afternoon tea. I was particularly excited as they said they were able to offer a gluten free menu, which seemed just as delicious as the regular menu, which other places I’ve looked at do not. At the time of booking I informed them I was coeliac and so would need a gluten free menu and was assured this wouldn’t be a problem.

Upon arrival my friend and I were greeted by the concierge, who smartly dressed in a full back suit, opened the door for us and led us to the dining room. From here we were shown to our table by our waitress. The dining room was plush and elegant yet quite understated.  The furniture was dark wood and the fabric in tranquil shades of gold, bronze and brown giving a very relaxed feel to the place. Grand chairs or long comfy benches were set either side of the table which was positioned quite low down, level with your knees rather than waist height. This proved to be a brilliant arrangement as it meant you could still see your dining partner over the top of the tiered afternoon tea stand when it arrived and it made for easy viewing and reaching of the pastries on the top layer of the stand.
The tables were all pre-set with linen napkins, china plates and traditional pink and white floral tea cups with matching sugar bowl and tongs. Settling into our comfy chairs and browsing the tea menu we both felt we were in for a treat. We both chose the Rubens Afternoon Tea which consisted of a selection of finger sandwiches, scones and then a selection of cakes and pastries. I again confirmed my need for gluten free.
We both ordered lavender and blackcurrant tea to drink and when the waitress bought it over she poured it for us, holding our tea cups on a tray and pouring the tea through an ornate tea strainer into our cups in turn. We then both got a full teapot full of tea for us to top up our cups as we wished. The lavender and blackcurrant tea was a fabulous glossy ruby maroon colour and only lightly floral. It made with loose leaf tea and little pips of lavender were poured out and caught by the tea strainer as we topped up our cups. Feeling very elegant we sipped our tea and waited for the food to arrive. We sat talking to each other in whispered voices, feeling almost as though we were in a library amongst the hushed quiet elegance.
After 20 minutes we noticed several other tables being presented with their food and yet we still hadn’t received ours. I assured my friend it was probably my gluten free food that was holding things up and it would arrive soon. After 25 minutes we were getting quite hungry as it was nearly 2:30pm at this point and we had obviously skipped lunch to ensure we were hungry for the tea. After 30 minutes I purposely looked at my watch and glanced at a waitress who was serving another couple hoping to pass on a hint. A few minutes later the concierge appeared and apologized for the delay but explained there had been a problem in the kitchen. I asked if it was because I needed the gluten free menu and he said yes. He offered us both a free glass on Champagne but as neither my friend nor I really drink and we both had empty stomachs we thanked him but declined. He offered us instead a strawberry and basil sorbet which we greatfully accepted.
When he returned with our sorbet it was a lovely looking scoop of a deep red sorbet, flecked with green and sitting in…a wafer biscuit. As he set it own in front of me I looked at it incredulously and said “You’ve just told me the delay is because I need gluten free food and now you’ve given me a wheaty wafer, I can’t eat it” He looked a little flustered, apologized and then said he would bring us our food straight away and dashed off. I rolled my eyes at my friend who was happily demolishing her own sorbet with moans of delight. She proclaimed it the best sorbet she had ever eaten, which it lovely except it only made me hungrier.

Shortly the waitress appeared bearing two three-tiered cake stands of our food. We had been waiting for 40 minutes by now, so we were delighted to see it. She explained what was on each of the tiers. A base layer of cucumber & cream cheese, smoked salmon and egg & watercress finger sandwiches on gluten free bread for me, crusts off obviously. My friend had the same only on wheat based bread. She had fewer sandwiches than me and was assured a chicken and another ham roll was also due her, which they would bring when they were ready. She cleared the sorbet plates and left.
On the middle layer we both had two warm scones which had been wrapped in a napkin to keep them warm. Two gluten free sultana scones for me and a plain and sultana scone for my friend. This was accompanied by a dish containing two scoops of clotted cream and a dish of strawberry jam to share.

Both our top tiers of assorted mini cakes and pastries looked fantastic. My friend had strawberry cheesecake, lemon and lavender cupcake, honey and walnut financier, rose macaroon and a violet dark chocolate ganache!
I had the rose macaroon, violet ganache, orange & almond cake, strawberry jelly, berry meringue and some slices of mocha syrup cake! Wow! As I had more treats than my friend I gave her my strawberry jelly as she adores strawberries.
We both started to eat and I was impressed with my egg & watercress sandwiches. The bread was soft and light and held together well. We noticed we hadn’t been given any plates, our first ones having been removed with the sorbet plates. I managed to ask our waitress for some who apologised and promptly bought us some replacements. My friend finished her sandwiches and as there was no waitress in sight we decided not to wait for her extra sandwiches and to start on the scones.
It was then I realised that they expected us to share the jam and cream. This was not an issue for the cream as we could both take one of the scoops onto our own plates but the jam was in one single dish. This would be fine if you were both eating normal scones, but as mine were gluten free I didn’t want to risk cross contamination of eating one scone and then having my friend dip her knife back into the dish to eat her second and transfer wheaty crumbs into the jam. Not good planning by the food staff. Thankfully as I’d had a fruit tea I hadn’t used my tea spoon so we used the spoon to drop blobs of jam onto our scones without letting it touch the scone.
I was really impressed with my scones. I’ve had a gluten free scones once before and it was dry, crumbled and was so dense you could have knocked someone out with it. Thankfully not the case here. These were flakey, buttery and studded with juicy sultanas. They were still a little heavy, being more like a cross between a croissant and a pantone, but so soft, moist and buttery they were delicious! The clotted cream was incredibly smooth and creamy and the jam nicely fruited. So good.
We both then turned out attention to the pastries. My orange and almond cake was fantastic. Really moist and soft with a delicious fresh orange flavour and nice damp texture from the almonds. I was impressed.
The dinky rose macaroon was packed full of floral rose flavour and nicely chewy in the centre. Again, the best macaroon I’ve tasted, although I wasn’t so sure about the thick white chocolate flower on top which seemed a bit clunky after the delicate mini macaroon.
My meringue nest was ok. I’m not really a meringue fan, but I found the meringue to be completely crisp and very sweet. It almost tasted shop bought, but the fresh berries, cream and fruit coulis hiding in the base were good.

The slices of mocha cake were also delicious. They had a sticky moist syrupy top layer, soaked into a strongly flavoured chocolate coffee cake. Look how fudgy and yummy it looks.
I’d given the strawberry jelly to my friend who is a strawberry fanatic and had saved the violet ganache for last. This proved to be a good idea as it was rich, not too sweet with a sophisticated delicate violet flavour. This gave a nice contrast to the other sweet treats I’d enjoyed. The texture of the ganche was amazing. There was no hard chocolate shell, it was just pure truffly ganache. Smooth, creamy and so perfectly soft it started to melt the minute you took a bite. The violet flavour is not one I’ve had often but it was so delicate that it worked brilliantly with the chocolate.
We both had a fabulous time and it felt such a treat to sit in beautiful surroundings enjoy tea and cake, but overall a mixed experience. Definitely mostly good and I would certainly recommend it and go back myself, but there were a few things I felt they could certainly improve on. However, I suspect most of these are because I needed gluten free food, which although doesn’t excuse things, does mean most people shouldn’t have a problem.

Areas that let it down
  • Took 40 minutes for our food to arrive when we had pre-booked
  • The complimentary sorbet by way of apology arrived on a wheat wafer despite having moments before talked about my needing gluten free food – more staff training/awareness
  • My friends extra ham and chicken sandwiches never arrived
  • We had to ask for serving plates
  • Having a single dish of cream and jam to share is not a good idea if one of the guests is coeliac due to cross contamination – more training/awareness
  • Lack of waitress around, no one checked it we were ok until right near the end when we decided not to ask about the missing sandwiches as my friend was full.
Things that would make me go back
  • All staff were very polite and courteous
  • The surroundings were elegant and very comfortable
  • We felt like we were getting a treat and that we were sophisticated ladies enjoying our afternoon tea
  • The china and traditional elegance
  • The choice and quality of the gluten free food
  • The food overall was of a very high standard and consisted of some different innovative cakes and pastries, not just your bog standard menu.
  • Those gluten free scones!


meg-made said...

Well it kind of sounds like you were their first ever coeliac! But now that you have been, it's paved the way for the rest of us, so thanks for that!! xx

The Caked Crusader said...

Looks lovely - I wish I could do perfect scoops of sorbet like that!

Gluten Free Alchemist said...

Sounds like quite an experience even if they were in need of some GF training! At least the tea was delicious when it finally arrived.... Looks yum! Can I come next time?

Elle said...

I love having afternoon tea with all the sandwiches, scones and small cakes. It seems that the requirements for truly gluten free are still a bit of a mystery for some food places. At a local coffee place I had to explain that you can't fix a gluten free sandwich where you have been working on a regular one because of stray crumbs from the regular getting onto the gluten free sandwich. They had no idea! I don't need gluten free, but food blogging has made me aware. I hope your review of this elegant tea will help spread the word. The offerings certainly sound delicious!

Laura Albini said...

Coffee cake is my favourite here.

Carin Robert said...

Are pies available there, especially an apple pie.

Leanne said...

thanks so much for posting this - i've just started the Dolce diet, which is all about gluten-free food, and i love my afternoon tea adventures but obviously they're out of the question - but then i saw this!! sooo awesome, thanks so much for posting this! ♥