Swap the tropical humidity for a lavish colonial hotel overlooking the moody Malaccan Straits.
Have you been to Malaysia before, dear readers? As a shopping destination, it is one of the best in Asia, with market bargains comfortably sitting alongside designer chic. As a cultural destination, rickshaws, lorries and motorcycles weave their way among tall skyscrapers, colonial-era buildings and traditional kampungs (Malay stilt houses). As a food destination, it has far less of the imported expatriate mesh of Hong Kong and Singapore, and is arguably, unparalleled for the diversity of ethnic cuisines available — a veritable melting pot of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine, and perhaps the first “fusion” cuisine, Peranankan.
In the 21st century, the name Relais & Chateaux is synonymous to grandeur and luxury. In the late 19th century, that cross was carried in the East by four enterprising Armenian brothers, the Sarkies. Established in 1885 under the same group that holds Singapore’s Raffles, the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang is the pearl of all the hotels on this increasingly cramped island off the western coast of the Malaya Peninsula. Its imposing white-washed colonial frontage contrasts with an interior of subdued muddy grey and mushroom brown. The E&O has had an illustrious guestbook. The heels of the likes of Mary Pickford have clicked on its cool marble floors, and in other areas, the cigar smoke of Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham have wafted through its teak roofs while they contemplate their next adventures in the Orient.
Afternoon tea at the E&O is taken in the air-conditioned comfort of 1885, a space that is plushly upholstered with squishy suede chairs, panelled walls and dimly glistening chandeliers. Its soft brown tones have a calming effect, even when every table is occupied with a gaggle of locals and tourists partaking in the afternoon tea. Unusual for a hotel of this standard, there is no dress code and certainly, for these Dessert Correspondents who take every opportunity to dress up for afternoon teas, we felt a little over-dressed.
Service at the E&O was typical of Asia — the wait staff ratio to diner was very high, and there was no designated waiter per se. Yet, each appeared to have an allocated role. The tea menu was is long, but disposed towards traditionalism. We ordered the Verbena to accompany the savoury bites, and the Darjeeling to counter the later sweets. The table setting was plain, though each plate was stamped with the E&O insignia. The accoutrement of the sugar pot was however, a beautiful blue-on-white porcelain piece.
Beginning with the plate of delicate sandwiches, there were seven in total. This assortment included classical ribbon sandwiches with fillings of roasted beef and grain mustard, chicken and horseradish cream, cucumber and cream cheese, cheddar cheese and tomato, smoke salmon and lemon butter and two little round puff pastries of egg mayonnaise and alfalfa and another of chicken salad and celery.
The scones followed, partnered with strawberry jam that lacked a smooth consistency and a cold cream with a texture that our grandmother would plaster on her face, rather than on a scone. Pity.
The plate of sweets was the saviour, and the highlight of our afternoon tea experience at the E&O. A spectacular garland of petit fours were presented on a beautiful blue-on-white platter. A soft rectangular tower of ricotta cake was embellished with a twirl of white chocolate; a chocolate brownie cylinder studded with nuts wore a fan-shaped chocolate piece reminiscent of a Native American chieftain’s war headdress; a strawberry lychee macaron was exquisite in taste but a tragedy of crunchy confection; a white chocolate bite enclosed a sensually smooth centre of chocolate fudge; and a little chocolate-covered strawberry nested in a meringue bowl rounded up the quintet of sweet irresistibles. A fabulous ending.
For those who have had the opportunity of taking tea at the Ritz in London, the Plaza in New York, the Peace Hotel in Shanghai, the Raffles in Singapore, Peninsula in Hong Kong, the Hotel Windsor in Melbourne, afternoon tea at the E&O in Penang is — in MoMo & Coco’s respectful opinion — analogous. Afternoon tea at these institutions, as at the E&O, is less about the food as it is about generally excellent service and teas, and the unrivalled opportunity to rediscover the history, tradition and architecture of a bygone era. It’s for that reason that the E&O remains a must-do for the tourist, for the first-time afternoon tea participant, for the traditionalists, and also, for those who have become disillusioned with the increasingly carelessly-executed interpretations masquerading and cheapening the experience. For what afternoon tea could be, one would do better to visit other equally lovely, albeit not as historical, venues (see here for a selection). But, for what it should be, the E&O is the reminder of a fine classical afternoon tea… and how exquisite petit fours can be.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: 1885, The Eastern & Oriental Hotel, 10 Lebuh Farquar, 10200 Penang, Malaysia.
- ☑ Budget: $$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: High tea.
- ☑ Must-eat: Available daily.
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Bite into exquisite sweets when you swap the tropical humidity for a lavish colonial hotel overlooking the moody seas of the Malaccan Straits.