SEWICKLEY VICTORIAN TEA PARLOUR | Dining Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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SEWICKLEY VICTORIAN TEA PARLOUR

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We'd barely sunk into our seats at the Victorian Tea Parlour. My mother turned her plate over to see the manufacturer's mark, while I fingered a rose on the side of my teacup. "This would be a decal," I pronounced. My mother responded, "Allyn Nelson, English bone china."

No, our family doesn't indulge in cryptic cant. We were on the back-end, recuperative portion of a day out, a day I promised would end in an indulgent high tea. But earlier that day, we'd taken an unplanned detour deep into the Homer Laughlin plate factory in Newell, W. Va., where we'd been the giddy beneficiaries of a two-hour-plus, fact-crammed tour. We'd seen liquid clay turned into teacup handles, learned how color and patterns were applied, been prepped on the quirks of manufacturer's marks, and stared in amazement at literally hundreds of different plates.

Frankly, we'd left the factory with a new and profound understanding that a lot of time and dusty effort went into making something as prosaic as a plate. We had been hypersensitized to "ware" (which I learned is the collective noun for all manner of plates, bowls and cups made from pottery), and we'd pounced on the assortment of pretty china suddenly before us at the tea parlor like the newly educated plate experts we were.

Fortunately, the proprietress appeared with a box of tea selections that shifted our focus back to the matter at hand: We were there to indulge peacefully in food and drink, not to run amok turning over every plate in the place. We each opted for the traditional tea in the box -- Earl Grey. The other selections were blends that emphasized fruits or spices. I debated ordering the "blackberry sage: tea for wisdom," but then reckoned I'd already had too much to learn that day.

Just one more bit about plates -- really. The china at the tea parlor was very charming. Our table was laid with scalloped white bone china festooned with pink roses: proper teacups, saucers, dessert plates, teapots, and sugar and cream dispensers. Other tables had complementary settings featuring other flowers and fruits. One could go quite deliciously mad counting all the flowers in here: on the rug, the wallpaper, the assorted china and tchotchkes.

We leisurely sipped our tea as our food was prepared. (Reservations are recommended, if only to let this one-woman operation know you're coming.) Spending the morning looking at all those empty plates had made me hungry, and I was delighted with the arrival of a three-tiered serving tray laden with desserts, savories and even two cups of hot soup. There were exactly two of each item, so there'd be no squabbling over the tea treats.

We began with the soup -- a butternut squash boosted by a chicken stock -- then proceeded to the other savories. The little mushroom roll had sweet, slightly crunchy baked dough, and was warm and fragrant. A petite square of pumpernickel bread was topped with green onions, black olives and cheddar cheese. Diced fresh tomatoes sat atop a sliver of French baguette. There was a chicken salad sandwich made from a small croissant, and a precious teeny-tiny spinach-and-herb quiche that was barely three inches in diameter. Don't let all the "wee-ness" fool you: After polishing off the savories, I was feeling a little sated, yet there were still two more plates of food to tackle.

The second plate held two sizeable scone portions. The traditional English scone has been much abused in the States: Too often it's gimmicked up with chocolate or cranberries, and it's rare to find scones as dry and crumbly as they should be. Dry is good, because then one is simply forced to apply big dollops of "moisteners" such as butter or jam. So when my scone crumbled appealingly, I dug my spoon deep into the bowls of strawberry jam and thick whipped cream. With a steady hand, it's amazing how much cream can be balanced on a single bite of pastry.

Finally, we had noshed our way to the final plate -- fortified by a second pot of tea -- and we both were quite happily full. Of course, it's "tea," but it could just as easily be "lunch." Two treats remained: a lemon curd tartlet and slice of pumpkin cake dotted with chocolate chips. We agreed to split one portion here, and take the other set home to enjoy later. I particularly enjoyed the pumpkin cake, which was dense and moist, and surprisingly tasted just great with a little chocolate added. I ate the last two desserts later that evening -- grabbing them right out of their little Styrofoam take-home box. I may have learned how plates are made, but I could do with a refresher course in using them. * * *

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