Well, not quite, as French decadence takes on London’s traditional tea ritual at the quirky Sketch. Ramona Depares steps into what looks like a Wes Anderson set to savour a decidedly unBritish experience.
Nothing quite prepares you for the first time you walk into Sketch, top hangout for London’s glitterati pretty much since it opened back in 2002.
Sketch, for those not in the know, is an 18th century Mayfair palazzo dedicated to all that is decadent. Art, music, food. Fine teas, champagne, cake, caviar... you name it, and it is served on eclectic, not-quite-hipster finery.
Despite stopping in London for only a couple of days, this time I had vowed to myself that there was no way I was leaving the city without checking out the hype.
The concept is the brainchild of French master chef Pierre Gagnaire and restaurateur Mourad Mazouz. Dinner is served within the two Michelin star Lecture Room & Library restaurant, while high tea is served within the quirky Gallery.
This being London, and pretty much home of high tea, I was here for the latter.
Even having already seen photos of the place on magazine paparazzi shots, I was totally unprepared for just how ‘different’ – and by ‘different’, I mean ‘crazy awesome’ – Sketch is.
Walk in, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that you have stumbled upon some olde-worlde, sophisticated bordello. My first impressions are of muted lighting, neon signs and pretty ladies in pink gowns who greet me discreetly.
I’m led past the reception area on to a second waiting area – yes, Sketch is exclusive enough that I need to be screened twice – where I’m relieved of my coat and bag and finally allowed into the inner sanctum of The Gallery.
And where I immediately do a double-take, much to the amusement of the waitress who is taking care of our group, who looks like she just stepped out of the rabbit hole.
The Gallery is designed by the celebrated India Mahdavi.
There’s pink, a lot of it, but somehow it works, possibly because it is broken up by David Shrigley’s bold art. Shrigley’s works are everywhere you look, and they are drily ironic, satirical, taking the form of oblique news headlines.
‘News: Hole found in sock’, one poster tells me. ‘Red Boot’, proclaims another, appropriately showing a sketching of a red boot.
Yet, there is also a childlike innocence that captivates. His art is as contradictory as the space it is dressing up, a definite conversation starter.
The exhibition is not a nod to the current fad of restaurants hosting artists, either, and was part and parcel of the concept from the start. The collaboration with Shrigley is long term.
Classical music wafts pleasantly in the background, and I suddenly realise that it’s not coming from any speakers. There’s a string trio performing live, right next to the gold-plated, imposing bar. Sketch takes the ‘music’ part of its tagline seriously. There’s a music director and resident DJs. Music is tailored according to the mood and time of day. Would that other restaurants ditch the ubiquitous female chanteuse setlist or the intrusive House music and take a leaf out of this.
Around me, waiters waltz in between tables in a choreography of cake and champagne. Tea leaves are sniffed and swirled. I feel as though I have walked onto a Wes Anderson set, with lashings of Tim Burton thrown in for good measure.
Despite all the fancy frills, the vibe is neither stuck up nor stuffy. Sketch doesn’t make the mistake of taking itself too seriously. The waiters laugh with you. People are taking selfies everywhere (Sketch is touted as the most Instagrammed restaurant in the UK). The music is interspersed by giggles as someone moves on to her umpteenth glass of champagne.
Our waitress, Eleni, confirms this impression immediately. She is helpful and charming to the right degree. Most importantly, she shows up armed with the house champagne, Pommery, incidentally one of my favourites. She recounts a charming anecdote about the history of the House that I can’t remember, mainly because I was mesmerised by how she manages to make a show out of pouring the pink bubbly into the goblet.
It’s time to choose our tea, a process which is indeed taken seriously. I’m more of a coffee fiend, but I’ve promised myself to keep an open mind. The teas, Eleni tells me, are procured directly from the neighbouring East India Company outlet, a guarantee within itself.
Touted as the most Instagrammed restaurant in the UK
We’ve chosen the menu where we get to match a tea to every course. I’m lost, no idea what anyone is talking about everytime someone mentions ‘body’ or ‘character’.
Eleni notices this and guides me through the leaf sniffing process. I choose a Sichuan variety that, she promises me, will go beautifully with the caviar and egg soldier that will kick off our feast.
“It’s all about decadent, opulent food,” she tells us. “I hope you are ready for a lot of wonderful tastes, you are not going to want to eat for a long time after this.”
We snigger. We’re Maltese. We were born ready. The scepticism level at the unsuspecting Eleni’s last sentence is off the charts.
Our caviar and egg soldier arrive. The caviar is Oscietra Royal, extracted from Russian Sturgeon. Delicate. Moreish. The egg is wonderfully creamed with cheese. Two mouthfuls and we all sigh, in unison. I’m almost loath to remove the aftertaste with tea, but turns out Eleni is right. The Sichuan, uncorrupted by milk or sugar, is wonderfully smooth.
After a discreet interval, it is time for the three-tiered wonder in the direction of which I have already been caught throwing indiscreetly longing looks. The idea, Eleni told us, was to eat our way from the bottom up, finishing off with itsy-bitsy sweet morsels.
At leisure, of course because high tea at Sketch is not something to get out of the way fast, but an experience to be savoured. I decide to ignore the conversation around me and to read my way through the entire Shrigley collection.
I start with the Coronation sandwich, thinking I’d get the boring one out of the way. Only, I’m surprised by the explosion of flavour – four layers of malt, arctic, pumpernickel and white bread, separated by pickled red onion, coronation mayo, baby coriander and free range chicken.
Each mouthful makes me wonder where my contempt for this all-time favourite had stemmed from. Ah yes. None of the Coronation Chicken sandwiches I tasted had been prepared here.
More tea, more sandwiches. The Scottish Smoked Salmon and Jacob’s Cream – a concoction of dill, salmon roe, Jacob’s Cream, arctic bread and (of course) smoked salmon that is easily my favourite.
The Igor, thus named in honour of masterchef Pierre Gagnaire’s dog, with its pumpernickel, tomato mayo, chive and heaven knows what other sumptuous concoctions. Suffice it to say, Igor got taste.
And finally I get to the last sandwich, duck egg, watercress and homemade mayo nestling in between slices of bread, topped with quail egg. The second part of our high tea had proven to be a lesson in turning a simple sandwich into a masterpiece.
A short break and it is definitely time to move on to the middle and top tiers. Few things look as pretty as the ‘petits gateaux’ at Sketch. I dig into caramel and blackcurrant macaron (so fluffy); vanilla and hibiscus opera cake (so soft); almond and lemon cake (reminiscent of a more flavourful version of our biskuttini); rhubarb and raspberry cheesecake... topped off with a bubblegum marshmallow.
This is when I know that the hype is real. The success, or otherwise, of any high tea is largely dependent on its cakes. I have just found cake nirvana.
This is also when I realise that Eleni had not been overstating her case when she told us that by the time we finished, we’d be stuffed – to put it rather inelegantly.
But let it not be said that any Maltese shies away from a foodie challenge, so I don’t. Fresh scones, served with jams and clotted cream, follow. They are freshly baked and they taste like two round mounds of heaven.
Would we like more, Eleni asks innocently. We would, but we’re scared our bodies will fail us, so we don’t. More Pommery and the crowning glory of the afternoon shows up, the cakes of the day. A delicate chocolate concoction, and a marble cake that is very high on the comfort factor. Our tastebuds are now in overdrive. It is time to call it an afternoon.
But not before I put in a visit to the bathrooms. I am expecting a luxurious affair, of course, possibly another study in decadent pink.
But no, I am lead to airy, bright, white steps up to... an army of people taking bathroom selfies. And, for once, I can totally see why and I too join them.
The bathrooms are unlike anything I’ve seen before, each cubicle a giant space pod. Click, filter, Insta, and I walk out of the bathroom area with a huge smile on my face, straight to reception where I am reunited with coat and bags.
High tea at Sketch does not come cheap. However, it is worth every single pound. The first impression may scream ‘moody millennial’, but first impressions are often wrong. Sketch is what the love child of a union between Wes Anderson’s and Tim Burton’s imaginations would look like, with added cake and champagne.
Sketch is traditional British high tea turned on its head, bereft of all stuffiness and injected with a good dose of OTT decadence, Marie-Antoinette style.
Thank you, France.
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