Down the rabbit hole.
The time-honoured British tradition of tea gets a dose of modern quirk and becomes an art form in itself reports Natalie Brown.
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Afternoon tea at Sketch in London’s Mayfair makes you wonder if you’ve taken a wrong turn at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Sketch celebrates artists and David Shrigley’s 91 colourful drawings line the walls of The Gallery, one of Sketch’s four restaurants.
Enter this place with an open mind. Imagine, if you will, a painting that never dries.
So says the menu.
What you find upon entering the sprawling Georgian townhouse is slightly unnerving — a long, dark hallway where kooky circus music fills your ears and the heavy velvet curtains lining the walls rustle, alluding to the many goings-on behind the scenes. Filled with a mix of anticipation and intrigue at what’s to come – akin to seeing a show at the theatre — you are greeted by smiling staff who lead you around a corner and into The Gallery, where the curtain is lifted and the performance begins.
Designed by India Mahdavi, it’s pink: powdery, Turkish Delight pink. Scalloped pink velvet booths, metallic pink woodwork, a glittering copper bar-back. Works by artist David Shrigley line the — you guessed it — pink walls. Imbued with a dry humour that cuts to the point of human nature — making satirical comments on everyday situations and human interactions — the pieces are a thought-provoking distraction. Their tongue-in-cheek words are a side dish to the well-orchestrated main event: Head Chef Pierre Gagnaire’s interpretation of afternoon tea, where the “Why have less when you can have more?” attitude of the restaurant reaches its peak.
Presented to you before you have time to warm your seat is what appears to be a small picture book, but it is actually the extensive tea menu.
Your tea soon arrives with a quirky Shrigley-designed cup which is never allowed to run dry.
A three-tiered tower of sandwiches and various gateaux arrives. Each tier exceeds expectations, and no two morsels are the same. The visually-stunning assemblage of flavour and texture only becomes more extraordinary as you work your way up the tower. But afternoon tea doesn’t end when the waiters return to whisk your tiered stand away; instead they replace it with a plate of scones, warmly tucked in a cloth parcel, paired with assorted jams and clotted cream. By this point, curtain call is expected — even slightly hoped for — yet one scan of The Gallery and you know you’re not yet done; a rose-gold cart is making the rounds.
Atop it sit two final cakes, as if on a parade float; it really is a Sophie’s choice between them.
With your table cleared and only a cup of tea left for you to drain, you notice the words “Forget about it” scribbled at the bottom — five syllables impossible to apply to this memorable experience! You’re able to sit back and take in your surroundings once more, surprised that after such a drawn-out experience, you still haven’t seen it all. A tiny person dressed as a French maid, for instance, pops out occasionally, her sole role apparently to sweep the floors. The string quartet in The Gallery’s corner unexpectedly play Elton John, Keane, The Beach Boys.
There’s something about The Gallery’s atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re at some kind of party. A Tea Party! And no matter what you’re wearing, it’s guaranteed you’ll feel some of the glamour rubbing off before it’s time to go. Your standard, bumbag-toting tourist experience Sketch is not, and neither is the price tag attached to it. And while it might seem like you’re only paying for some fancy cakes and scones with jam, The Gallery’s thought-provoking interpretation of afternoon tea leaves you with more than just a full stomach.
A trip to the bathroom after the bottomless pots of tea makes sense, yet like everything else at Sketch, these toilet cubicles are unique; they resemble giant dinosaur eggs atop a flight of blinding white stairs.
It’s like entering a spaceship, albeit one where a soundtrack of crickets chirping and nature sounds play while you relieve yourself. The mirrors at the basins distort your appearance, and if you tilt your head upwards, there’s a multi-coloured neon ceiling, heavily resembling a Rubik’s cube!
It’s with a heavy heart that you wander back through The Gallery, peering over your shoulder for one final look before the curtain falls and the performance ends. As you collect your coat, you realise that such a spellbinding experience — of being taken by surprise, of not knowing what comes next, of joy — can only truly be encountered once.
Afternoon tea at Sketch can be booked via the restaurant’s website. The Gallery’s Classic Afternoonwill set you back £59 (a little over $100AUD) —so if you are after a special treat on your holiday, this could be it.