Dining at Old Pasadena’s Scarlet Tea Room is a treat for all ages
By Erica Wayne 08/15/2013
It was Miss Scarlet with the scone in the tea room. The “victims” were a friend an me who dropped in to sample afternoon tea, the scone was only one of multiple weapons (finger sandwiches found their mark as well, along with brews, sorbet and strawberries Romanoff). Actually, I have to confess, there is no actual Miss Scarlet. It’s a pseudonym I gave to the real perp, one Karen Mikaelian, owner of Scarlet Tea Room in Old Pasadena. Indeed, by the time we’d finished our tea, we’d been fatally smitten by Ms. Mikaelian’s three-course repast.
The Scarlet Tea Room (rooms, actually, on either side of the entry) isn’t the only local venue serving tea. But it’s one of the most charming. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the brocaded wall coverings, red velvet curtains, white marble flooring, gilt-framed mirrors, huge crystal chandelier, crisp cloth-clad tables, upholstered chairs and soft background music, not to mention the white lacquered grand piano seemingly awaiting a player.
A row of composite scarlet crystal balls hanging from the ceiling caught our eye. Are they lights or merely decorations? We couldn’t tell. But, along with the rest of the gleaming and richly textured surfaces, they help create an over-the-top environment in which floral china cups and fancy teapots, petal-bedecked platters, intricately decorated pastries and sandwiches arranged on triple-tiered trays seem completely at home.
Ms. Mikaelian, who I presume is the attractive hostess who welcomed us warmly and presented us with menus, is nothing like J. K. Rowling’s stout, plain Madam Puddifoot, the most recent tea-mistress I’ve encountered in my readings. Nor is her establishment anything like the “cramped, steamy little place where everything seemed to have been decorated with frills or bows” (“Harry Potter,” book No. 5). Frills perhaps. And if not bows, definitely red ribbons. But there the similarities cease. The Scarlet Tea Room is restful, with lots of space between tables for quiet conversation.
In the Rowling description, Madam Puddifoot’s is filled with couples (it’s Valentine’s Day). Our visit to Ms. Mikaelian’s took place on an early August afternoon and all we saw for most of our visit was lots of female groupings and one male couple. Eventually, a lone middle-aged husband accompanied his wife to a nearby table. He seemed a bit uncomfortable as he waited to be seated, but by the time we got up to leave, he was cozily ensconced in a corner cheerily sampling the finger food.
Once we’d absorbed the bedazzling ambiance, we got started on ordering our “3 Course Tea Ceremony” ($27). We each chose a tea from a reasonably varied list and also ordered (for an extra $8) a flute of almond-infused champagne with a vibrant slice of strawberry floating on top. The scones required no thought — there were two: cinnamon and blueberry, served with lemon curd, preserves and “Scarlet” cream (a misnomer, it’s as white as driven snow).
Ah, but the sandwiches. There are 15, and we were each allowed only four. After much debate, forgoing chicken tahini, cucumber and watercress, French ham with Provolone, mozzarella with sun-dried tomato spread, prosciutto with roasted red pepper, roast beef with white cheddar and walnut pesto chicken with parmesan, we picked turkey with cranberries, salmon with chive spread, olive tapenade with roasted red pepper, gorgonzola with fresh pear, egg salad with fresh tarragon, brie with walnut and watercress, fig with goat cheese spread, and green apple with cheese.
As our teas steeped, we were presented with small leaf-shaped dishes containing diminutive scoops of scarlet-hued strawberry sorbet garnished with fresh mint. I recognized them as the first course in the “5 Course Tea Ceremony” ($32), which also includes “assorted petit desserts” and realized a mistake had been made. Our hostess, however, noticed our hesitation and urged us to enjoy them, even though they’d arrived at our table in error. (Lucky us. The sorbet was a wonderful bonus.)
When our tray arrived — warm scones on top, sandwiches below — it was hard to know what to try first. But we didn’t want our biscuits getting cold, so we split them and slathered on tart lemon curd, intense berry preserves and sinful cream. Then it was on to sandwiches, about which there was minor disappointment: My tea-mate opined that both egg salad and turkey were a bit bland. However, she gave thumbs-up to olive with pepper and blue cheese with pear.
I was entranced with the tiny individualized garnishes on each creation. For example, my smoked salmon was topped with two fat salmon eggs and a plump caper embedded in a small dollop of cream cheese. The brie was decorated with tiny sprigs of red and green watercress. And all my sandwiches were incredibly good.
By the time we’d polished off this course, we’d forgotten there was yet more to come and were surprised by the appearance of a finale of heavy cream-capped strawberries in syrup. Was there a subtle liqueur flavor? Was the cream laced with brown sugar? Romanoff preps often have sour cream mixed into the whipped cream. We couldn’t tell. But, whatever the recipe, we were delighted.
Despite its name, Scarlet Tea Room isn’t limited to “ceremonies” and serves full lunches Tuesday through Saturday plus dinners on Friday and Saturday nights. Assessing by the quality of both food and service, we’re quite interested in sampling its other menus. I’m guessing they’ll make just as big a hit as our afternoon tea.
Scarlet Tea Room
18 W. Green St., Old Pasadena
Beer and wine/