A reader's request for a tea house recommendation reminded me of those often charming, sweet little places which used to dot the countryside, and which, at their best, served good sandwiches and homestyle baking, with a selection of loose-leaf teas. There used to be more than I could review in the course of a single summer, but these days tea houses are no longer a growth industry. The trend is in the other direction, with fewer and fewer to choose from.
And in the city itself? Forget it. The only surviving example of the genre was recently replaced (inevitably) by a sushi-cum-Korean restaurant. Fortunately there are still a few within a short drive of the city, although neither of the following two serve a classic afternoon tea -- i.e. dainty little tea sandwiches, small sweets and scones. You can have most of what they do serve at tea-time but the sandwiches will be full size, and the small sweets will have given way to big ones. In both the service is attentive and friendly, and for both reservations are recommended.
The McLeod House was built by Dr. Alexander McLeod in 1898. The tea room occupies two cozy little rooms on the main floor, with burgundy walls surrounded by white wood trim, mismatched chairs and tables and a selection of giftware for sale in the foyer. The setting is a little dark -- fresh flowers might brighten it up considerably.
The menu may be short, but everything on it was flawless. There are just five sandwiches, all $8.50 including a cup of soup or choice of salad, and those I tried were generously filled and delicious. Chicken salad was sparked by bits of apricots and cranberries, the tuna salad with mango chutney and green apple, both on marvellous multi-grain bread. Egg salad was more delicately tucked into crustless slices of equally good white bread. I didn't get to the corned beef sandwich, but it reads as though it's done right, i.e. with swiss cheese on dark Russian rye. The soup of our jour was a full-flavoured leek soup with chunks of potatoes, enlivened by crunchy bits of bacon. Our salad, a lovely concoction of greens with blue cheese, walnuts and pears.
Don't leave without having a dessert, or three ($2.75 to $4.75). The cranberry scone was crumbly perfection, and the cinnamon bun bread pudding in caramel sauce heart-warmingly good. But the saskatoon crumble, oh my! -- warm, crunchy, and nothing short of perfection. Worth the trip on its own. To go with them, a lengthy selection of loose leaf teas, served in delicate bone china cups.
Hours are Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The drive is approximately 24 kilometres from the perimeter, and the food is worth every single kilometre.
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In the past I've visited Maple Grove early in the season, but the rainy misery of spring and early summer made a drive in the country seem pretty grim. And a good thing too that I waited, since these end-of-summer days are much better for enjoying the views along the River Road, and the glorious riot of colour in the Kennedy House gardens. You can sit in the charming multi-windowed sunroom attached to the historic stone house -- built in 1866 -- or on the patio with its spectacular views.
Some of the food doesn't live up to the charm of the surroundings, but the sandwich fillings are generous and good ($6.60 to $7.25). In fact, one of them is downright great -- the moist and flavourful house-roasted turkey breast, packed thick and augmented by tomato and lettuce. The ham -- with cheese as well as tomato and lettuce -- is another mouth-stretcher, and both the salmon and egg salad fillings were satisfying.
But they deserved better breads than these blah, slightly dry and far too thick slices. The multi-grain bread had no flavour, but the worst example was the rye for the corned beef sandwich, a version one would never find in the city. The meat was thickly sliced, which I could live with, but those square slices of dryish, tasteless rye would have done nothing for any kind of corned beef.
There are two soups of the day, one an acceptable broccoli-potato puree. The other was a travesty called vegetable-bean, which tasted like nothing more than a few veggies cooked with canned tomatoes and their juice, and beans that tasted as though they'd been added as an afterthought.
On the other hand the warm bread pudding was a winner, redolent of cinnamon, dotted with raisins and bathed in caramel sauce ($5.50). The crust on our pie was also excellent, but the rhubarb-strawberry filling was skimpy, tasteless and starchy ($5.75). Of course you can have a scone, and it's a pretty good one, if a tad pricey at $3.99, which makes that extra 75 cents for a wee container of cream (dubbed Devonshire, but just cream) seem excessive.
Tea pots come covered in tea cosies but most of the teas come in bags -- the only loose-leaf choice is a variation of Earl Grey. Nor do the clunky-thick tea cups convey an air of elegance. The captain's chairs are attractive but hard and too low -- padded cushions would not only make them more comfortable, but might also help raise one's chin above table level.
Open Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday to 6 p.m. In September 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday to 5 p.m. I couldn't get the precise distance, but it's approximately 20 kilometres.