There’s something deliciously decadent about a meal that consists of miniature morsels of macaroons, cream-filled concoctions of chocolate cake and sumptuous slivers of syrupy sponge.
Sure, there’s a savoury element tucked between the layers of pastries, but wafer-thin cucumber finger sandwiches and tiny tartlets are more of an interlude between the sweets than designed as any form of nutrition.
Besides, afternoon tea isn’t meant for nourishment of the body. It’s nourishment for the soul. It’s an excuse to spend two or more hours stepping outside the world of tuktuks, NGOs and deadlines and being immersed in clouds of confectionary and comfort.
Rather like a massage without the oil.
While the concept of afternoon tea in Phnom Penh is often lost in translation (“Oh yes, madam, we have afternoon tea… Earl Grey, English Breakfast or you can have coffee”), there is a handful of destinations which get it. And while upscale hotels are usually the places to indulge, there are others which provide a delightful (and sometimes not so delightful) surprise.
Along with Debi, my partner-in-cream, I set out to explore them.
We started at Naga World where tea is served every afternoon between 2pm and 5pm in a comfortable upstairs lounge overlooking the casino for $9 per person.
This Mecca for high-rollers was number one in my hit parade as everything about it was spectacular. They have the best selection of interesting teas (including jungpara, lapsang souchong and sencha), the atmosphere is subdued and elegant and the padded couches and velvet chairs are comfortable enough for a long afternoon repast. But it was the gorgeous feast which impressed me most.
Both Debi and I were each presented with triangular triple-tiered glass stands containing no less than 14 beautiful morsels of food. The top layer contained two scones (a little strong on baking powder flavour but accompanied by really nice jam, honey and thick cream), followed by six decent-sized toasted finger sandwiches on the layer below, followed by six small slices of cake on the bottom layer (our favourite was the chocolate mousse topped with passion fruit).
We didn’t manage to eat it all. In fact we barely managed to get through two thirds of it, so we packaged up the rest and gave it to a group of homeless children on the street.
Verdict: Best overall for atmosphere, price and comfort. My choice for the best place to take mum when she’s in town or treat a girlfriend for a special occasion.
Our next stop was The Haven, a tearoom run by the NGO Open Arms Cambodia that trains underprivileged young people in practical skills. One of those skills is creating afternoon tea, and we loved the end result. Reflecting the atmosphere of a quaint English teashop, The Haven is quaint to the nth degree. Pink tablecloths are covered with lace overlays, tea is poured from a bone china teapot into delicate teacups and bunches of silk roses decorate the room.
There’s a wide selection of teas including blackberry or peach green tea, chamomile, jasmine, English breakfast and rosehip, and all the food is homemade so some of the pastries are a little irregular, making the place feel homier than places where everything is flawless.
You select four of the seven cake or tart choices from the menu which may include passion fruit curd tart, apple and custard tart and hummingbird cake and there are mini quiches, finger sandwiches and savoury muffins, all presented on a two-tier platter decorated with silk roses. There are 17 bites of food – all for a mere $5 per person (or $10 per person if you have a minimum group of 10 and want an even more extravagant feast).
There’s no aircon but the café is well ventilated with floor fans and an outside patio if you want to watch the street traffic while you sip your tea.
We managed to eat every crumb of this one. All 17 pieces.
Verdict: Debi’s choice for the best place she’d take her mum. Best tea for a cause. Best overall value.
Since we wanted to include a local neighbourhood café in our selection, we opted for “high tea” at Fresco and were sadly disappointed.
While the menu advertises: “Mixed finger sandwiches. Freshly baked scones with banana jam & fresh cream. Mixed fruit kebab with minted yoghurt. Mini fruit tartlets. Including one cup of coffee or tea”, they don’t quite get the idea of cream. Or jam.
Cream was served runny instead of whipped, which meant we couldn’t spread it on anything except the back of a spoon, and banana jam sounds like a pleasant Cambodian idea but we found it cloyingly sweet and yearned for a dollop of strawberry preserve for the not-so-soft scone.
The fruit kebab is a nice SE Asian touch and the fruit tart was delicious but we didn’t find anything in this $5.50 spread that was particularly memorable. We visited the riverfront location so, in fairness, the others may be better.
Verdict: Not worth a second visit. The only place which included coffee drinks. Nice selection of cakes in the pastry case.
As a grand finale we decided to indulge in the grand-daddy of afternoon teas: Raffles.
We didn’t pick the best day to visit as it was the day King Father’s body was returned to Cambodia. So both Debi and I disembarked from our respective tuktuks and squeezed through the heaving masses on Kampuchea Krom on foot to emerge, sweaty and hungry, at the luxury hotel.
We all know that Raffles is elegant, lovely and lavish. However, the afternoon tea didn’t stand out in any way for me, other than the fact it cost more than twice the amount of the other three (at $17 “plus plus”, meaning tax and tip).
There are two locations where afternoon tea is served – the Writer’s Bar and the Elephant Bar. Ours had been set up in the former which felt like an extension of the lobby with no personality whatsoever so we moved to the Elephant, which is comfortably plush and beautifully decorated.
The atmosphere of the Elephant Bar is subdued, with gentle background music and waiters decked out in suits and ties (and black ribbons for mourning on this occasion) and the triple-tiered feast looked nice but didn’t set our hearts aflutter. In fact, there wasn’t much choice of teas and some of the pastries, as Debi put it, looked as though they’d come out of her own kitchen where Cambodian humidity creates havoc with culinary skills.
There’s no lack of quantity as we were presented with 18 morsels of food on each platter which included some unusual tidbits. Smoked salmon on a blini was nice and the mini cheesecake was creamy and delicious but one of the items looked like a large grape covered in shaving foam on top of a macaroon (not sure who came up with that idea) and another was mini trifle-in-a-glass which delivered an unexpected mouthful of sugar.
We really wanted to find something special about afternoon tea here but were hard pressed to find anything outstanding.
Verdict: Nice if you want a place that’s elegant and upscale. Good scones and cheesecake. Otherwise, not good value for money. I’d rather spend it on a dozen cupcakes from Bloom.
Gabi can also be found on twitter.