Tea at the St. Regis

Forget the Plaza: all you need to feel like Eloise is tea at the St. Regis. First, there is the old world beauty of the high-ceilinged, gilded dining room itself - Astor Court, so named after John Jacob Astor IV, who built the hotel in 1904. Then the impeccably presented and delicious teas, cakes and tea sandwiches all conspire to make you feel like a very special visitor.

Tea at the St. Regis also presents a solution to a prevalent New York problem. It's so easy for visiting relatives to get here, but so seemingly difficult for them to stay the night. Is it the lingering visions of '70s muggers, or is the high price of hotels even scarier? Whatever the case, if you ever have a visiting aunt in town for just the day, take her here.

On the day my own aunt arrives, we get to the St. Regis at about 3:30. As soon as we are seated, the tea sommelier appears. She asks what sort of teas we usually drink - black, green, or white? English breakfast or Earl Grey? - then makes some thoughtful recommendations from the 25-plus teas available. We choose the Hao Ya "A" tea (Chinese black), and the St. Regis blend, which she compares to Earl Grey. "Lots of bergamot," she says, and I think of a favorite perfume. This turns out to be not such a good thing, because the St. Regis blend is so perfumy that I might have just taken a swig of Shalimar. But the tea balances out with more steeping time, and it is beautifully served: poured from individual pots, through an ornate silver strainer set over your teacup, with lemon and a tiny individual jar of honey on a plate alongside.

A parade of nibbles arrives. First, a mushroom and artichoke quiche, which is good though a little dry. Fortunately we have taken the sommelier's advice to ask for water immediately, while the tea brews. The menu has recently been divided into sweets and savories. The savories appear first, not mixed up on the tea tray as used to be the case, but presented almost like sushi, with a Japanese eye for design and color. Little sophisticated and modern twists make the sandwiches interesting. Mint is flecked throughout the cucumber sandwich, and chicken curry salad is spiked with mango. Smoked salmon comes wrapped up into a pinwheel with pumpernickel. The kitchen veers a little too far towards modernity, though, when they include a mini grilled vegetable wrap. I can only wonder which beloved tea sandwich was sacrificed to make room for that one. The new sushi-esque presentation looks pretty but leaves me wanting about five more of the low-guilt cucumber sandwiches. When the tea sandwiches used to be presented en masse, I got to eat much more of them, though admittedly, this might have been because I was eating everyone else's.

Then come the sweets. I could subsist forever on good scones and clotted cream, and the St. Regis' are no exception. Instead of clotted cream, they use Devonshire cream, which is slightly sweeter and more buttery than regular clotted cream. In any case, it's authentic, and the authenticity of scones and cream is the area where most tea services fall short. Also served with the scones are two kinds of jam and lemon curd, sweet and thick.

The tiered tea tray is also laden with lemon cakes, chocolate covered strawberries, and little chocolates filled with raspberry jam. I have to come clean here and admit that I don't really like sweets, thus the dearth of dessert reviews on this site. But I liked these cakes and candies, and the strawberries were delicious.

By the time we leave, a good hour and a half after we arrived, Astor Court is packed with tea takers. Some of them are drinking champagne with their cakes and pastries. Marie Antoinette would approve.

The St. Regis Hotel
2 East 55th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues