Afternoon tea at The Langham is, in a word, exquisite. From the moment I step through the hotel's revolving doors, I'm greeted by a gorgeous woman in The Langham's signature Chanel-esque pink tweed, and I instantly feel a little more ladylike. I'm glad I decided to wear heeled leather boots instead of my more comfortable snow boots.
Tea is served in the Pavilion Lounge on the second floor of the hotel, across from the restaurant, Travelle. The crisp whites and soft grey tones of the lounge are punctuated with bursts of colorful artwork and a brown and bronze pebble-like art installation hanging from the ceiling. I settle into my roomy plush seat and enjoy the view across the Chicago River while basking in the glow of the tableside lantern.
The tea selection features 14 teas, with several house blends, and four more reserve teas which are an additional $10. Several of these teas are available in the gift shop next to the lounge. Once I decide upon a house blend rooibos with lavender, rosehip and dried currants and elderberries, menus are whisked away and an amuse bouche is brought to the table. Amuse bouche with afternoon tea? It's a first for me, but I happily sip the spiced apple ginger juice which has hints of mint and lavender and is spotted with passion fruit pearls. These pearls are pretty much passion fruit caviar—tart bubbles to be popped one by one on my tongue.
I'm used to savories and sweets arriving simultaneously on a decadent tower, so I'm a little surprised when the first course of finger sandwiches arrives on its own. I suppose that's one way to ensure I eat some real food before falling into a sugar rush. The tasty coronation chicken salad is tossed with Marcona almonds and black figs. A cucumber sandwich is updated with red pepper butter and cucumber and balsamic pearls (similar to the passion fruit ones in the amuse bouche) and roasted beef tenderloin is topped with truffle remoulade. However, my favorite is the smoked salmon on rye. The bread is soft and fresh and the bits of roasted fennel sprinkled on top add an interesting note of sweet earthiness.
Now, the pastries and warm scones arrive and are placed on a three-tiered tower tableside. I serve myself one each of the tea soaked raisin and cranberry chocolate scones, both quite large, and spread a bit of cream and berry jam on each. These are perhaps the best scones in Chicago—a buttery exterior with just a slight crunch that gives way to a soft interior filled with plump raisins. There are so many raisins I don't even need jam. Just a bit of cream does the trick.
A trio of pastries includes a spiced gingerbread molasses cake, peppermint eggnog verrine, and chestnut dark chocolate tart. The standout is the gingerbread cake, layered with vanilla mousse and currant cranberry jam, then topped with the lightest cognac mousse.
There's live piano music Friday through Sunday, and during my visit I hear everything from Phantom of the Opera ballads to a classical riff on Avicii's "Wake Me Up." The musical style is reminiscent of The Lobby at the Peninsula's live string duet.
Wonderland tea at The Langham will only continue through the end of the year. Come January, a "Downton Abbey" tea menu ($40) will feature Edwardian bites from lobster and tarragon pudding tartlets to raspberry charlotte russe. Thankfully, the scones, my favorite part of tea, remain constant. I'd definitely come back for a leisurely afternoon catching up with an old friend. It's an ideal spot to duck away from dreary or hostile weather and relax.
Before I leave, one last treat awaits. Almond thumbprint cookies with apricot jam and gingersnaps are delivered as a take home gift along with spiced apricot and lemon macarons. If you can't read the tag on the macaron box, it reads "hospitalitea comes in small packages," and this is where The Langham truly impresses me. While the food and ambiance are wonderful, it's the service that's most memorable. Even if I had been wearing my drab snow boots I bet they would have treated me just as warmly.