As Alice in Wonderland wipes the box-office floor with its competitors' heads, it's also carving a trendy niche for the quaint customs of afternoon tea. To wit: The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver has just climbed aboard Tim Burton's fantastical bandwagon by unveiling an Underland-inspired Mad Hatter's Tea for the month of March, which includes Red and White Queen sandwiches and Eat Me chocolate-chip cupcakes, all for $36 a person.
But honestly, you'd have to be as dumb as a Tweedle to pay $48 a person for the Urban Tea Merchant's ridiculously overpriced Signature Afternoon Tea, given that there are similar spreads to be found all over Vancouver with just as much "muchness" for less.
The nearby Shangri-La Hotel Lobby Lounge, for example, charges $30 a person for its three-tiered tray of finger sandwiches, scones and pastries. The lavish afternoon tea at Kerrisdale's Secret Garden Tea Company, in which I had the pleasure of partaking last summer, costs $25.95. Even the stately afternoon tea service at the majestic Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria is less expensive, at $44 a person.
As the Caterpillar might have said: Who are you, Urban Tea Merchant, to be demanding such a queenly sum?
Owned by Karinna and Tom James, the new Urban Tea Merchant flagship is a downtown offshoot of the original West Vancouver locale in The Village at Park Royal.
Opened in early December, the sprawling 3,000-square-foot retail store and tea salon is housed in the base of the Grosvenor Building at West Georgia and Alberni streets.
The retail section is a sumptuously decorated shrine. Here you will find an exotic collection of Swarovski crystal-studded teapots, bamboo measuring spoons, fine Egyptian-cotton tablecloths, Linari room fragrances, African wood sculptures, French bonbons, music, books, a granite-topped tasting bar and a floor-to-ceiling library stacked with colourful tin canisters of aromatic Thé Ô Dor teas.
Alas, what you may not find is anyone's prompt attention. After wandering around the store for a few minutes, I find an unmarked entrance to the adjoining Salon de Thé behind the counter up a gently sloping ramp. I wait at the hostess stand for a few more minutes without seeing anyone, then return to the counter and wait another minute or so until I am finally greeted by a sales clerk.
As soon as I announce our reservation, service improves dramatically. The charming maître d' has held a corner window table for our party of three, which overlooks a beautiful courtyard blooming with what must be the most voluptuous cluster of cherry trees in the entire city. Beside the table, a soothing waterfall tinkles down a suspended string of cast-iron Japanese teapots. It's all very tranquil and spare.
The third person in our party arrives quite late. There's no rush, our waitress assures. Indeed, there's only one other table in the restaurant at the moment.
In addition to the Signature Afternoon Tea, the salon offers a West Coast ($29) and Petite ($25) tea option, each of which come with a smaller selection of savouries and sweets (about a third the size, or so we are told). There are also several à la carte quiches, cassoulets, cheese plates and sandwiches available for $12 to $18.
We decide to share a Signature Tea, for a supplemental $10 charge for the extra person, and add a side dish of tea-smoked chicken salad ($12). Our third friend, who is on a gluten-free cleanse, takes the Morning Service Tea with fresh fruit ($10).
The Thé Ô Dor teas are quite lovely. We sample a woodsy Carpe Diem rooibos, steeped with sweet notes of almond and wild strawberry; a delicate cherry-perfumed Kundalini de Hanami that delivers a deceptively strong kick; and the more traditional Mélange O, a black and green-tea blend lush with citrus fruits, figs and bergamot.
Service is very attentive with stylish flourishes. Our tea is poured in elegant swirls and accompanied with warm, frothed milk.
The sweets - a Thomas Haas sparkle cookie, an orange macaroon imported from France, a dark-chocolate dipped strawberry, a Charbonnel et Walker dusted-strawberry truffle and an exceptionally flaky walnut and almond pastry from a local bakery - are all top notch.
And there are several nice touches: an aperitif of chilled jasmine pearl tea in a champagne flute, strawberries drizzled with tea-infused sugar syrup, a thimble of silky-smooth tea gelée in place of jam.
But the single scone is ordinary and slightly dry. The finger sandwiches - smoked salmon, cucumber and curried egg - are all layered in the same white bread that must have been prepared well in advance and poorly wrapped, since they're hard around the edges.
When ordering the supplemental Chicken Tian, we specifically requested something that wouldn't be part of the regular service.
Lo and behold, the Signature Tea includes the exact same chicken salad in miniature pastry cups. The side salad is poorly matched with Lesley Stowe fruit crisps, so we order a mini baguette. It arrives warm, but tastes chewy and stale.
Two and half hours later, we have whiled away a dreamy, whimsical afternoon. But there are other places where this can be done just as pleasantly for far less.
The Urban Tea Merchant: 1070 West Georgia St., 604-692-0071