You know you’re a tea geek when you spend your weekend (that is, time not at work) hanging out with your boss and your boss’ cousin for afternoon tea. A few weekends ago, actually the weekend after I got back from Turkey, I went to afternoon tea with my boss (my manager at work) and his visiting cousin from New York. My manager, like me, is a huge foodie. And his cousin is a huge tea lover. And by huge, I mean massive. Ah, a kindred spirit. She puts me to shame. I love the whole experience of “Afternoon Tea” – the food, the tea and the ambience. She, however, was a tea expert and Anglophile (lover of all things British). It did not escape my observant spectacled eyes that she was even wearing tea earrings – on one ear was a teacup and the other ear was a teapot! She was visiting Tokyo and during her two-week stay had partaken in at least four afternoon teas. Impressive. So we tried out a different non-hotel tea venue. They call it a Tea Emporium (Tea salon and restaurant). We went to the Mariage Freres in Ginza on Saturday at around lunchtime-ish. Mariage Freres, if it wasn’t obvious, is a French tea brand, founded by brothers Henri and Edouard Mariage – hence Mariage Freres (The Mariage Brothers). They boast a tea menu of about 500 blends. Impressive. Or so their menu would have you believe. It seemed that each tea we tried to order, they were out of stock. Hmmm, perhaps they list 500 teas but maybe they only have about a dozen in stock. I have mixed feelings about this place. Their tea store is impressive, as is their tea selection (all 500 of them). Food was a little hit and miss. But their service was, how shall I say, perhaps very French (and excuse the stereotype) – they lived up to their rude, arrogant service. Or maybe we were just unlucky. We weren’t able to make reservations here. Apparently, bookings are only available for lunch and not if you’re just having afternoon tea. There are four 4 different dining levels here. And the place was pretty full with ladies who lunch. We were seated on the second level dining area. Tea menu was impressive. 500 teas to choose from. Dilemma. Thankfully, the tea menu was nicely categorized according to tea varieties, and also number coded. They also had a tea book (almost like a tea manual which gave an explanation of all the teas). I will go back at some point to buy that book. Yes, it was for sale. It detailed tea history, tea brewing method, plus a blurb about all the 500 teas on offer at Mariage Freres. For afternoon tea, there are a few options available. It’s not the traditional afternoon tea either. It’s more like a little lunch plate. I recommend actually eating lunch before you come here, and then have the afternoon tea here a little later, because you may not leave here feeling full. I opted for the croque monsieur set – which came obviously with the croque monsieur and a salad. It of course included your choice of tea (except the more expensive specialty blends) and your choice of dessert. So no three-tiered platters here. The all-white tuxedo uniforms that the staff wore did nothing for me, except feel as though I was on the Titanic. I like a man in uniform, but these were just tacky, especially for a tea store. I also noticed that ALL the staff that worked there were male. Not that I have a problem with that. They were obviously aiming to please all it’s predominantly female customers. I didn’t spot a single female employee throughout the Tea Emporium. As usual, I got out the SLR to capture and document the afternoon tea. However, no photos are allowed here! Was told off by the staff! I did manage to get a couple of photos in before they saw me and told me off.
I then had to put my camera away for the remainder of the meal. With over 500 teas to choose from, I asked what their ‘ninki’ (most popular, number 1) tea was. Here, it’s the Marco Polo – described as Mariage Freres most famous secret mysterious blend with the aroma of Chinese and Tibetan flowers. The aroma of the tea was very vanilla-esque. It was ok. Not my favourite tea. An impressive selection of tea though, so there’s bound to be one to suit your tastebuds – teas from all regions over the world. The staff are a bit picky when it comes to tea service here. And again, maybe it boils down to a bit of arrogance and the French art of tea, but here the teas are especially timed and brewed by their own tea masters, and all you receive is the pot with the brewed tea – free of the leaves. They are very pedantic about their tea brewing methods. Personally, I like receiving pots with the tea leaves in it. This allows the paying customer (us) to enjoy tea brewed at the strength that we desire. Here, you don’t have a choice. Their strength-brewed tea only. It does dispense with the need for a tea strainer…but I quite like tea strainers. Receiving teapots without the tea leaves in it, means no hot water refill either. You’ll need to order yourself another pot of tea which will set you back about 1000yen. I also think Mariage Freres are tea purists – they don’t give you milk….unless you specifically request it. I can understand that to enjoy and savour the subtle flavours of tea, you shouldn’t add milk, but milk in my tea is a huge comfort thing for me, except obviously herbal blends, green teas, jasmine and Chinese and Japanese teas and the like. What amused me here were the tea warmers for the teapots. The teapots were covered in little armour outfits – a metal tea cozy!
I enjoyed the croque monsiuer – can’t go wrong there. The tiny salad was rather lame and not so tasty. The other lunch plate options were the mixed sandwiches, and something else…I can’t remember. If the afternoon tea plates are too light, there are lunch courses on offer. For dessert we got to choose a selection from the menu or the cake display. On offer are scones, creme brulee, macaroons, and a small assortment of cakes and tarts etc. Normally, I go scones, but on this occasion I opted for the earl grey creme brulee. I hadn’t been too impressed by afternoon tea at Mariage Freres, but it was redeemed somewhat by the creme brulee. I managed to sneak in a couple of pics on my iPhone:
I thought the food was somewhat overpriced for what it was. It’s about 3000yen. I guess, it’s not so bad, considering the tea itself is worth 1000yen for a pot. But for 3000yen I expect to be somewhat full. And sadly, I wasn’t. And the service was really lacking. We then went down to the tea store on ground level. They have beautiful displays of teapots and teacups. (Apologies for poor photo quality. I was trying to discreetly take them on my iPhone).
Being as it were, in Japan, there was a woman in a kimono:
What I also loved about the tea store are the wall-to-wall shelves lined with oversized tea canisters! I love tea stores that do that.
Mari had wanted to buy some tea here, but alas, service was non-existent despite us waiting for about 20 minutes. The staff here are really hoighty-toighty which makes for a really unpleasant experience. Quite the turn-off. They instead bought tea at one of the department stores at another Mariage Frere store outlet. As I mentioned earlier, there are about 4 dining levels here. The venue is narrow but it’s built over four floors: In the basement is the:
(Which I should add, is not a museum at all). On the ground level is the tea store. On the next level:
And then there’s the following two rooms:
Some of their cuisine is made with tea as an ingredient (eg, the earl grey creme brulee). In addition to being a tea venue, they offer French dining.
You might want to take a French cuisine glossary just to read the menu. I took a lot of photos of outside the store where they couldn’t tell me off for taking photos!
Mariage Freres (Ginza) gets a decent rating on Tabelog. As for the no photo rule – no photos my arse. There’s a whole stack of photos on Tabelog. 255 photos from Tabelog reviewers alone have been posted on that site. And I reckon there’d be a handful of Japanese bloggers who have all taken photos on their keitai. We were unlucky to have been seated right in front of all the staff. Had we been seated away from them, I reckon I could have gotten away with a lot more photos. There’s another Mariage Freres tea salon in Shinjuku. I’m game enough to go and try that one despite the rather disappointing experience in Ginza. I’m prepared to give them a second chance. But it might have to wait until next year. Mariage Freres website in Japan.