A visit to Corinthia Hotel London will give any operator a lesson in paying attention to detail.
While the bustling hubbub of Embankment and Charing Cross whizzes by outside, the hotel is a picture of calm, but with purpose. The first location to tempt Tom Kerridge from his beloved Marlow, you get the idea that Corinthia knows what it’s doing. And it is doing it very well.
The Northall restaurant and, more recently, Kerridge’s Bar & Grill grab the headlines, but on our visit it was the Crystal Moon Lounge and its afternoon tea service that was conjuring up an experience to rival any in the UK.
Illuminated by a spectacular Baccarat chandelier (the crystal moon) and accompanied by a Steinway piano, afternoon tea brings finesse and detail to the fore.
Specially commissioned, hand-painted bone china by Richard Brendon hosts finger sandwiches, scones, fine pastries and cakes – all of which are created in-house by head pastry chef Loic Carbonnet and his team.
An antique trolley is wheeled to each table to initiate the service with a glass of Laurent-Perrier Champagne poured in a decadent and matching Baccarat crystal flute.
To one side of the atrium is the bespoke tea station piled with loose tea tins, brass weighing scales, boiling jugs, gauzes and, of course, matching Richard Brendon tea pots. It’s a tea enthusiast’s fantasy and an Instagrammer’s dream.
Created in partnership with Camellia’s Tea House, trained tea sommelier Ondrej Herda can be seen making up the bespoke blends chosen by customers on the day.
“Afternoon tea in London is a very competitive market,” explains Benjamin Hofer, director of F&B at Corinthia Hotel London. “To stand out, you must do something rather special. There are all sorts of different food concepts, from traditional to modern, to quirky, healthy, themed; you name it. But as far as I know, no really innovative tea concepts.
“So, for us it was an important thing to get right in order to deliver a great product and experience. And we also realised that it sets us apart from our competitors, which is an added bonus.”
Camellia’s and the Corinthia have worked together for two years, but the tea service is still in its infancy, especially when you look at the antiquity of afternoon tea juggernauts such as The Ritz or The Savoy.
But the service is already paying dividends with an uplift in sales. An average of 15 afternoon teas served on weekdays has been raised to 40 and the usual 50 at the weekends is now closing on 100.
So, what is the special ingredient? Well, it’s a combination of customer choice and theatre.
The traditional afternoon tea service at Corinthia is £45 per person; £55 when including a glass of Laurent-Perrier La Curvee Brut champagne; and £65 including a glass of Laurent-Perrier Rose champagne.
Guests can enjoy a selection of fine finger sandwiches including London smoked salmon with gherkins, capers, crème fraîche and spring onion on brown bread; tandoori chicken with green apple and raisin on white bread; roast beef with caramelised onion, wholegrain mustard and rocket salad on granary bread and more.
Plain and sultana scones with rhubarb and tonka bean jam or Cornish clotted cream start the sweet section before a choice of sweet delicacies including yoghurt and blueberry sphere; raspberry and elderflower tartlet; 72% Araguani chocolate cassis and fig; and lemon yuzu and coconut eclair.
The style and delivery of the deserts is exceptional, yet it is still the tea that takes centre stage.
A passage in the menu reads: “The strength of tea is often obtained by the amount of leaves used, while its potency depends on the length of the brewing process.
“Precision timing is required in brewing, as if it is done longer than necessary it can result in desirable flavours.
“Here at the Crystal Moon Lounge, we differentiate the strength by adjusting the blends of our afternoon tea.”
They have created three different teas for guests’ varying tastes.
NO. 1 Aromatic: A light-strength blend of Earl Grey, Oolong and Assam with lovely aromatic and light flowery undertones.
NO. 2 Mellow: A medium-strength blend of Earl Grey, Oolong and Assam with rich malty notes and honey-like sweetness with a hint of spice.
NO. 3 Robust: A full-strength blend of Earl Grey, Oolong and Assam with complex aromatic bouquet of floral, fruity and honeyed notes with spicy undertones.
Once chosen, the style is made up at the tea station in view of the customer. Weighed, poured and left to brew before serving.
“I feel like we captured the imagination of the F&B manager,” says Ajit Madan, founder and ITEI master tea sommelier of Camellia’s Tea House. “They are a top-tier, five-star hotel and need something bespoke and interesting in terms of tea.
“Corinthia has embraced the ideas and the afternoon tea service has been more popular. The tea choice and ceremony has really helped with that.”
Camellia’s trains some 30 tea sommeliers each year, in collaboration with alcoholic beverage training experts WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) and having an on-site tea expert was essential to make the service work.
“At first I didn’t know if it was going to work,” says Madan. “Because each blend has to be consistent, and each time a customer comes back it has to be the same. So they needed a tea sommelier to do that.
“So Corinthia invested in Ondrej (Herda) coming on the course and, to our tea school. He is really passionate about the product and together with the F&B team, the whole afternoon tea service was relaunched.”
Hofer explains that the afternoon tea will change four times a year to coincide with the seasons but that there are also special occasions such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Wimbledon and the Chelsea Flower Show, where special themed teas are created.
“People love the experience of afternoon tea and it’s a wonderful way of spending quality time with friends,” says Hofer.
“We have a very mixed clientele, of all age groups, but I think we attract a slightly younger crowd, in general.
“The reactions have been very positive; I think people really appreciate an expertly prepared pot of tea. Strangely, you don’t get a well brewed tea very often, so our guests notice the difference.”
While green teas, white teas, herbal, no-caffeine teas and even cold brews are changing the landscape of the tea service, getting customers through the door remains the first challenge.
“The big hotels are all about their brand,” says Madan. “So I couldn’t understand why tea companies were forcing a standardised product across multiple hotels.
“They are all fighting for the afternoon tea buck, so how do they differentiate? Everybody needs to do something different, be it through the theatre of their afternoon tea or the bespoke nature and customising a service. It has to be a real experience.”
Camellia’s is also working at the renowned ESPA Life spa at Corinthia, providing a number of herbal infusion blends to those using the faciltities.
“We are very focused on providing a luxurious and, truly client-centric journey through the spa and given the heightened awareness of food, drink, nutrition and wellness among our guests, we wanted to provide teas that promote natural wellness and complement the therapies we offer,” says spa director Aysun Mut.
“We serve Beautiful Skin Tea and Aching Muscles Tea at the beginning of the client journey and this helps people relax and centre themselves before their treatments.
“Alongside Camellia’s Tea House, we have created bespoke herbal infusions designed specifically to complement to our signature treatment programmes.
“Our clients are looking for points of difference compared to other top luxurious spas in London and differentiating our offering through intelligent and innovative F&B offerings is a very cost-effective way of achieving this”