Tuesday, February 26, 2013

High Tea at the Pardee Home: A Hidden Gem

By Luke Tsai
Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 10:00 AM

A few months ago, the following Chowhound discussion header caught my eye: “Best Bay Area high tea? In a museum in Oakland!” The poster, “jaiko,” raved about crustless, open-face finger sandwiches and warm hospitality — as though s/he’d been invited over by “a group of good cooks [who] were in friendly competition to see who could produce the best ‘goodies’ that day.” By the time I’d read there were lemon curd tartlets to be had, I knew further investigation was in order.

The museum in question turned out to be the Pardee Home (672 11th Street), a historic Italianate villa estate in Oakland’s Preservation Park district, just a stone’s throw away from Interstate 980. Enoch Pardee, who had the house built in 1869, was a former Oakland mayor and California Assemblyman — his son, George Pardee, was also Oakland mayor and was California’s governor at the time of the big 1906 earthquake. The house opened as a public nonprofit museum in 1991, and about three and a half years ago it began offering tea service as a way to raise money to help pay for the building’s basic upkeep.

Molly Kenney, co-chair of the Tea Committee, explained that the five or six women who started the program were all accomplished home cooks who enjoyed taking and serving tea anyway. They figured, why not use this activity they enjoyed to help the museum raise some money?

Now, there are eighteen women (and it is all women, for now) on the committee who donate all of the food and volunteer their time, so the entire cost of the tea service — $25 a person for high tea; $15 a person for a less extensive “light tea” option — is pure profit for the Pardee Home.

It’s a lot of work. Kenney told me that — between setup, service, and cleanup — the volunteers are at the house for five hours for a single session of tea. Besides the two women on site to serve the tea, there usually three others who help prepare the baked goods ahead of time. All of the food is made from scratch, with offerings varying from week to week depending on who’s in the kitchen.

But all of these efforts are worth it, Kenney said: “I like the feeling that we’re bringing nice people to downtown Oakland. We’re offering a service to help keep our city nice.”

Four of us went for tea on a recent Saturday, and I’ll attest that the meal — and the entire experience — is well worth the $25. The dining room where you take tea is as stately and opulent as you might expect, but with enough quirkiness — a huge deer elk head mounted on the wall, a gaudy wooden sideboard with a gigantic lobster carved into it — to keep it from feeling stuffy. For an extra touch of elegance, every serving plate featured fresh flowers taken from the grounds of the estate and from the home gardens of the volunteers themselves.

As for the food, it was more than we could finish — at least eight different savory items and eight different sweets — and much of it was delicious. Highlights included cucumber sandwiches (the cucumbers cut and folded into thin, delicate blossoms) and smoked salmon sandwiches (shaped like little hearts); still-warm cranberry scones, served with fruit preserves and clotted cream; and miniature brie-and-bacon muffins. And, of course, there were the lemon curd tartlets, each topped daintily with a refreshing sprig of mint. (Check out the slideshow below for photos of some of the food.)

The default tea (as many pots as we could drink) is a black English breakfast blend — a versatile choice that pairs well with both sweets and savories. Persnickety tea drinkers (and caffeine abstainers) can put in a special request ahead of time or simply bring along their own favorite.

Sticklers might argue that what’s offered is really “afternoon tea” rather than a true high tea, but regardless: I don’t know of anywhere else in town that’s offering as lovely a tea service, and in such a grand setting, for $25 a person, or for any price, really.

Included in that $25 price tag is an optional hour-long tour of the home, which turned out to be as pleasant a surprise as the tea itself. Our docent, John, was a repository of obscure knowledge about the Pardee family and Oakland history in general. I loved seeing the crazy old light fixtures that were half electric, half gas; an upstairs room that was done up, floor to ceiling, in the most god-awful wallpaper imaginable; and, from the cupola at the very top of the house, one of the best panoramic views of Oakland I’ve seen.

Because the tea service is strictly a volunteer-run operation, the Pardee Home can’t handle more than a couple of parties a week — so it’s a good idea to try to reserve about a month in advance. (Right now they’re already booking dates in May, Kenney said.)

You can put in a reservation request via the museum website or call the office at 510-444-2187. The smallest party they’ll accept is four people; the maximum is twelve. Once you’ve secured a reservation, mail in your donation in advance via check.

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