The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

What's the latest trend sweeping through the dining masses in the old Imperial capital? I have no idea. But a little while ago, the chatterati were going on and on about underground dining; late as ever to the party, the wife and I and a couple of pals decided to check out one venue which appeared more alluring than the rest.

What is underground dining, you ask? Troglodytic, mayhaps, you say? Indeed, no. It entails dining at private residences with (like-minded) strangers for payment. We have heard that at many such dinners and luncheons, the quality of the offering is very high, so what better way to ascertain this claim than by trying out one such place?

The Hidden Tea Room is run by a genial couple whose noms-de-guerre are Lady Gray and the Earl of Gray. They live close to Old Street Underground (ha!) and their very successful - and so far unique - product is afternoon tea. The waiting list is immensely long, and they have already achieved enough word-of-mouth that they turn around as many sittings today as they expected (when they started in April) to be doing in a year's time. Good stuff.

We did our initial investigation like seasoned campaigners. We checked out the reviews in various places (TimeOut, for example), and were pleased to note that Ms Mok, a reviewer, had been suitably awed by the cakes and scones and pastries. In particular, she had noted that far more food than could be consumed by the guests had been placed before them, and that it was a shame that doggy-bags weren't provided. Also, Ms Mok said that there would be six guests, which we thought an eminently sensible number.

When we arrived at the front entrance to the Hidden Tea Room, we had to whisper a password into the intercom, and soon thereafter, the Earl of Gray himself appeared. A very affable man, he led us through a warren of corridors to his residence and we were each offered a flute of piping champagne and shown onto the roof terrace. It was a beautiful day, so the roof terrace was an excellent place to while away the time while Lady Gray busied herself with arranging the table in the dining room.

Presently the rest of the guests arrived and it turned out that there were 11 of us in all. It was a motley crowd, four independent groups (including ours), and quite chatty and friendly. We were offered some soft Cheddar biscuits to start, and were slightly disappointed to note that there was only one piece for each one of us. They were so good that I could have easily inhaled five more.

We were led into the dining room then, and we arranged ourselves around the table. The presentation on it was well done. We looked around at the black-and-white photographs on the wall, and a large bookshelf with cookery books to one side, and a little friendly dog named Oliver yapping happily at our feet. There were several rich cupcakes placed in the shelf as well, and Lady Gray told us that the endgame was to finish off all the cupcakes by the end of tea. (I rubbed my tummy surreptitiously. Cupcakes. Yum.)

Soon, though, Oliver was banished to a room on the upper level from where he occasionally moaned and growled his disapproval. We, meanwhile, inhaled the heady aromas emanating from Lady Gray's kitchen.

First Lady Gray took our orders for tea. Two of us asked for Lapsang Soochong, which it turned out was unavailable, and had to change orders to Oolong and an interesting chocolate-flavoured tea. The teas then appeared in little pots, which the Grays assured us were the best way to keep them warm and prevent them from getting too steeped. And then they brought in the finger sandwiches - four little ones for each of us.

The conversation was multifaceted, albeit hogged by one woman, who had an opinion on everything from fine art to animation and wine. We did have the opportunity to pipe up occasionally to speak to some of the quieter guests as well. The extra mounds of sandwiches that Ms Mok spoke of never did make their appearance.

A palate-cleanser was then brought in - a mighty fine brilliant yellow sorbet - which, while delicious, was also quite small. We'd seen an image of it in one of the reviews where it had appeared to be rather substantial. I tightened my belt one notch.

The scones that then materialised were excellent, fluffy and soft and accompanied by some delightful preserves. These were wolfed down rapidly by the guests; brownies and little slices of lemon-drizzle cake arrived, and one of us, not quick enough at the draw, was unable to get a piece of the cake. Turbulent thoughts bestirred the mind.

The shortbread was pretty good and then the cupcakes were ceremonially brought forth. Lady Gray quizzed us on the lovely red colour attained by the cupcakes - could we guess how the colour was achieved? None of us could. I will not reveal the secret here either - if you want to know, you should visit the Hidden Tea Room. (Well, actually, the reason is I've quite forgotten the trick.)

A clever jasmine tea rounded off the proceedings, with the flower blooming marvellously in the tea pots.

Ms Mok had said in her review that by the time the cupcakes arrived, the guests had all been defeated by the quantity of food. Far from it in our case. I guess the Grays have learnt from their earlier experience and substantially decreased the amount of yummies on offer. Simultaneously, they have also increased the number of guests at a sitting. This would obviously be much more profitable for them, but it makes for a less salubrious tea experience.

I'm not sure how many return customers they get. For most of us, visiting the Hidden Tea Room (as indeed any other underground diner) is mainly for the novelty of the experience, and while the quality of the offerings was indeed very high, I'm not convinced of its value at £25 a pop. As others have pointed out, one can get a far swisher dining experience with much larger quantities of supplies at the Ritz or the Dorchester, and the cakes there are not that bad either. Even at Chor Bizarre the tea used to be much more substantial; it might not have been a traditional English tea, sure, but the accompaniments were scrumptious, and it didn't cost half as much as the Hidden Tea Room.

So while I would give high marks for the quality of Lady Gray's tea, I would not say that it was full value for money. Still, it was an interesting experience and I wish the Grays all success.


lady gray said...


thank you for the review and positive comments about the food. It sounds like you enjoyed it, which is just what we want :)

I am surprised to hear your comments about value and the amount of food.... there has never been an event where all the food on the table has been eaten (not really even close), and I am sorry if someone ate a slice of your cake, shame on them as I do cater enough for everyone. I wouldnt have thought that anyone would have left without feeling satisfied...6 courses and 3 beverages is a large meal for anyone even if some courses are small... Its a shame to hear, but will take it on board.

Again very glad you seemed to enjoy it and hope you enjoy any further forays into the underground dining scene... would be curious to hear your views if you attend any others... (have you attended any others?)

all the very best wishes
Lady Gray

Rochelle's Roost said...

Why on earth did you not tell me about this place when I was in London??!! You KNOW what an afternoon tea-buff I am!!!

Fëanor said...

ah, but i didn't know about it when you were here. i only found out in september, you see.

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