UpStairs on the Square
Harvard Square
Cambridge, MA 

Zebra Tea with a Kick (x2)
Our traditional three-tiered afternoon tea: Savory Treat, Assortment of Tea Sandwiches, UpStairs Sweets & Pot of Tea…with a Glass of Bubbly.

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photo by Meghan

 

Champagne plus tea? Does anyone have a problem with this?

I certainly don’t.

For years now I have been wanting to have Saturday afternoon tea at UpStairs on the Square. First of all, they have an adorable, tea-sipping zebra as their mascot. Second, they support the Boston Baroque through advertisements in the playbill, and companies who support the arts are okay by me. Third, the website has lured me in with promises of bright, jewel-like colors and exotic-print fabrics. The problem has been finding a willing victim to accompany me: my husband would if I demanded it, but (pardon the pun) it really isn’t his cup of tea. So about a month ago it occurred to me that my best friend, who shares a lot of my tastes, would be the perfect victim, and her birthday would be the perfect excuse. So a few weeks ago I found a clear Saturday afternoon on her calendar and made reservations for two. I didn’t tell her where we were going, just to dress nice.

The Winthrop Street entrance to UpStairs is hidden, but even once you find it it is hard to tell you have come in the right door; the signposting is a little week and it feels like you are entering through the staff’s back entrance. But eventually we stumbled through the right door and were seated for tea. The room was dark and warm, but we decided that we loved the bold color palette — pink and green and purple and gold dominated, with accents of ruby red.

The three-tiered Zebra Tea is three layers of excellent, luxurious treats. We choose Earl Grey as our tea of choice — something solid and traditional — and our wee little flutes of champagne came out right away.

Tier 1: Savory Treats
A cheese and chive mini quiche, a date bread tea sandwich with a schmear of creamy butter, and a cheese  biscuit. You know what I love? When food actually tastes like something and you can tell that skill definitely went in to the creation of the food. I am sure they make hundreds of these items for their teas, but that doesn’t mean that someone hadn’t been paying attention to the quality of what was leaving the kitchen. Buttery flaky quiche crusts. Moist, sweet date bread. Cheesy, slightly salty biscuit. NOM. I don’t like quiches, and I loved that quiche.

Tier 2: Tea Sandwiches
Mozzarella and tomato on olive oil-soaked focaccia with a bit of Parmesany basil spread, chicken salad (with a cranberry!) on white toast, open-face salmon and cucumber with a dill creme fraiche spread, egg salad on buttery mini brioche, and ham salad and chive on a dense cheese and herb biscuit. The chicken salad was moist without being wet and the white toast was thin enough to still retain softness, but toasted enough to keep any liquid from the chicken salad from getting all over your hands — at afternoon tea, daintiness is a virtue. I was a little let down by the egg salad on brioche: the bread was so heavy and buttery that it overwhelmed the egg salad, and if the egg salad hadn’t had a little crisp green onion, the filling may have been lost entirely. Either a thinner bread or a dab more filling was necessary. Mozzarella and tomato on focaccia was so heavy on the olive oil that it left salty cheesy herby goodness on the fingers (minus daintiness points) but it was so soft and delicious that I forgave it. Salmon and cucumber — a great flavor and texture combo of thinly sliced smoked salmon and thinly sliced cucumber with herbed creme fraiche, not butter. A twist on the traditional cucumber tea sandwich, but not the most impressive of the selection on this tier in my opinion. I saved the ham salad for last because it looked fantastic. We discussed how it reminded us of my Welsh Leek Pie, and in fact I’d like to try my own version of it with not chives but a bit of sauteed leek, actually a generous slice of it as a base for ham salad. I just need to source a good ham salad or find an easy recipe.

We decided to pause after this layer, continuing to sip our tea and champagne, before we moved on to the sweets.

Tier 3: UpStairs Sweets
UpStairs’s signature homemade turtle, a mini eclair filled with creamy vanilla bean custard, a chocolate-almond profiterole,  a mini chocolate petit four cupcake with airy frosting and shaved cocoa nibs, and a mini lemon tartlet with a fresh blueberry. I started with the eclair, since I was under the mistaken impression it was filled with ice cream, which it wasn’t, just a rich vanilla bean custard; and the chocolate atop the eclair wasn’t just a thin smear as one usually finds, but a thick layer of chocolate joy. The chocolate profiterole was dense and rich, and chocolate-almondy. I was suspecting the mini cupcake itself might be similar, but it was not as dense nor did it have the rich almond undertones. The frosting, which I suppose one would say was chocolate, was actually more like sweetened air than anything else — it was literally like eating air, it was so smoothly made. You know how some frostings can be ridiculously granular? Heavens forbid such a calamity befall this cupcake’s frosting. I am not normally a fan of turtles, but the UpStairs signature turtle was actually quite enjoyable. The only downside was that the chocolate melted slightly at room temperature, and totally at body temperature, so it couldn’t be enjoyed slowly between sips of tea or champagne, but had to be eaten without being put down. It was completely unladylike, but oh well. I saved the lemon tartlet for last because I love lemons insanely, especially anything filled or covered in lemon curd. I removed the blueberry first and enjoyed that, because usually I am not a fan of blueberries, but this one had lemon curd on it. I took a dainty bite of the tartlet and reveled in the shortbready tartlet crust and taste of lemon, then unceremoniously popped the whole rest of the thing in my mouth and sat there in a state of near-bliss. I am inspired to make my own version at home, even though I know it won’t be anywhere near as delicious as the one at UpStairs.

OKAY, EDIT: Meghan reminds me that I forgot the most hilarious part of the afternoon, when she bit in to the lemon tartlet without checking to see whether it had a paper wrapper. Well, it did. FIBER!!! Hahahaha. The white paper blended perfectly with the ivory paleness of the tartlet shell. So if you visit UpStairs for their tea, just remember to peel the paper off your tartlet before scarfing it down.

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