jennybeast requested good food during her whirlwind two-day visit, and so good food there was. We went to Arabesque and Clafouti and The Spice Trader, and we went to The Red Tea Box for afternoon tea, where I had previously had two of my best lunches ever in Toronto. The Oriental-influenced eclectically furnished air-conditioned space enveloped us in its relaxing atmosphere, complete with soothing wall paint and what I suspect was an air-cleaning device. As a light breeze toyed with bringing in the scent of greenery and blooms from the small courtyard which divides shopfront from eating area, we leaned back into plush chairs and off-beat elegance.
While my companion was busy being overwhelmed by the menu, I ordered the White Peony tea, a pleasant tea whose eventual overbrewing was entirely my fault - the waitress warned me I might want to keep track of it. My intended cup became a pot of tea once I placed the rest of my order. jennybeast settled on a White Peach ice tea, which she multiply enthused about over the course of the next two or so hours.
Many Toronto cream tea-eries provide a variety of choices in their afternoon tea menus. Pastries - and sandwiches - were all optional at La Tea Da. The King Edward provided a variety of different combinations of varying sizes for their customers, including a cheese-and-port plate for those eschewing sweets altogether. The Red Tea Box served dessert bento boxes: coordinated selections of nibbles. Constrained by my cream tea quest, I ordered the Mad Hatter's Bento Box, while my friend chose the Dessert Bento Box, currently themed around rhubarb.
The confections which arrived at our table at least half an hour later were things of beauty, arrayed in layers and compartments in laquered containers. Jenny's tower contained layers of surprises, surmounted by three shot glasses filled with rhubarb-tanged ices and topped with divine - if teeth-clogging - candied rhubarb. We started there, I with one of her glasses, she with the other two. And that's how we ate all the many little dishes, splitting each so we could both sample all of it.
We didn't necessarily eat everything in the following order, but there's what the boxes contained. The Mad Hatter's Tea Bento included small round sandwiches, skewered on toothpicks along with a melon ball, and stuffed with Indian spice-marinated chicken and lettuce. The sandwiches began the ongoing challenge of deciphering the rich - but never overpowering - layers of spices, the tea shop's greatest strength. The cucumber hollowed out and stuffed with soba noodle salad was good, but not great - and the least interesting dish between all of our options. This is no real insult, but shows how stiff the competition was. There was banana bread, soft and comfortable, and the ever-necessary scone, in this case, a beautifully Vanilla Peach one. The jam was freshly made, strawberries melting into jamminess, essence of fruit. The butter was whipped - although there was no clotted cream. Still, it was a minor loss in an otherwise stellar experience. Finally, my bento finished with a raspberry-covered green tea cheesecake, light and fluffy, the tea and fruit contrasting effectively.
As for Jenny's, after the frozen vanilla rhubarb soufflé with raspberry-rhubarb compote, we moved on to chocolate rosemary rhubarb tarts, topped with a sprig of thyme and a dollop of liquid caramel. The rhubarb meringue ginger tart was wonderful too; conveniently, there were two of each of the tarts. In the bottom layer of the box, like four gems, lay a set of chocolate-wrapped lemon-rhubarb cake. The cake was too dry for my taste, but the chocolate was nicely dark, dense and pliable like marzipane, although the kitchen swore it was all chocolate, its consistency tempered by the heat and swealter of the day. The flavors were delicate enough that I could taste the lemon, but not the rhubarb in it. I finished our suffusion of nibbles with a ripe Ontario strawberry from my own box, as a refreshing finish.
All of the other Toronto cream teas provided fairly literal variations on the theme's requirements: scones, jam, clotted cream, sandwiches, pastries, and tea. The Red Tea Box took the basics of the theme and transformed them into beautifully-spiced confections of beauty and deliciousness. It's not for everyone, but if you love interesting spicings, subtle and complex flavors, and innovative cooking, I highly recommend afternoon tea at The Red Tea Box.