Darjeeling and dainty delicacies suit to a tea
Orla Timmins is greatly impressed by the opulence of the must-book Atrium lounge
THE older you get, the more attractive the concept of afternoon tea becomes. Eighteen-year-olds only drink tea in the morning, quaffing machiatos and cappuccinos during the day and, in the evening, knocking back pints of lager. No: afternoon tea is not for them, but one day it will be.
Easily one of the most imposing buildings in Westmoreland Street, the five-star Westin Hotel was formerly an Allied Irish Bank, and behind the historic 19th century facade lies the busy modern reception, while the Exchange Restaurant and The Mint Bar give a hint as to the hotel's former function.
Dating from 1863, the Banking Hall with its opulent marble pillars, tall mahogany doorways and magnificent detailing on the walls and ceiling used to be the main hall of the old bank. It's a signature feature of the Westin that serves as the main conference and banqueting room and is a popular wedding venue.
However, we're heading from the reception upstairs to the Atrium Lounge. And with its collection of artwork – a picture of a racehorse, Japanese scenes and, in the alcoves, prints of exotic birds – and pale pink walls it's a relaxing space. Situated in a purpose-built, glassed-over courtyard overlooked by some of the hotel's 163 bedrooms, two large palm trees (Egyptian and freeze-dried, apparently) give the Atrium a distinctly colonial feel.
Talk is muted, music is low and there is a mixture of people having business meetings and groups of ladies with shopping bags who clearly do this kind of thing quite often.
Having afternoon tea in a top hotel is all about the set-up and the detail. Therefore, each table is dressed with crisp, white cotton tablecloths and napkins. Cutlery is reassuringly weighty and placed just so. And the china is Wedgwood and dainty and includes sugar bowls (brown and white), a jar of strawberry jam, pats of butter and – my favourite – English clotted cream. There's not a paper serviette in sight – this is the antithesis of plastic sachets and paper packets of sugar.
But what about the main event? The Atrium Lounge is unusual in that it serves "A Most Peculiar Afternoon Tea" as well as "A Traditional Afternoon Tea". Because I'm heading back to work, I opt for the traditional package, but the peculiar sounds great. Along with your sandwiches and cakes, you are served a Victorian mojito in a teapot. Apparently, this is "a ripping good version of the Caribbean institution" and consists of Hendrick's gin, mint, lime and freshly pressed churned apple juice. Another time.
My traditional afternoon tea came on a three-tiered cake stand – sandwiches on the bottom, loaf and scone on the middle part and cakes at the top. I went for Darjeeling – "clean, crisp and clear with a rounded, satisfying and quenching finish" – which I chose from a huge variety of Jing teas. It was served in a glass cup and saucer, presumably so you savour the colours that swirl together when you pour in the milk from your dainty jug. The lovely loose tea is served in a modern glass teapot and a glass teacup and saucer.
First, the sandwiches. Think delicately cut (no crusts), the type of sandwich a lady would eat. They may not be big, but there's a good variety – oak-smoked Irish salmon and chive cream cheese on a homemade brown scone; cucumber with dill cream cheese on soft white bread; roast spiced Irish beef with tomato and horseradish on wholemeal bread; and free-range egg and rocket cress on soft white bread.
The next tier contained lemon and poppy seed sponge loaf and, my absolute fave, buttermilk fruit scone, which I liberally spread with the strawberry jam and clotted cream. Delicious.
Of course, what many people love about afternoon tea is the selection of cakes, and these are displayed on top.
There were five – a red velvet cupcake with vanilla frosting; an Irish whiskey cream, chocolate and praline cup (quite literally a chocolate cup complete with handle); a pistachio macaroon with hazelnut cream; a peach Melba mousse; and a white chocolate and strawberry tart (yummy).
If you're planning a visit, book in advance. I went early on a Thursday afternoon and was lucky to get a table. Nichola, the assistant manager of the Atrium, said this is not unusual.
"Afternoon tea has taken off in a huge way," she said. "We get hen parties and baby showers, they all love their afternoon tea."
Afternoon tea costs €26 per person and is served Monday to Friday and Sunday, 2pm to 6pm; Saturday, 1pm-6pm.