I haven’t been to tea in ages – well, I haven’t been anywhere in ages, and neither have most other people. Tea & Plague have never gone very well together. But, special occasions don’t stop for pandemics, and when I saw that Marlene’s Tea & Cakes offered an afternoon tea take-out box, I leapt at it for my dear spouse’s birthday in May.
My expectations were low. My level of certainty that at least the sandwiches would be stale, was high. I was absolutely shocked by what I found.
An elegant little pink take-out box didn’t seem like it could hold a full afternoon tea, but it can, with no smushing of the lovely little pastries. The presentation was beautiful, not so much as a smear of whipped cream. And, they were kind enough to send a large bag of our preferred tea – Earl Grey.
HANG ON JUST A MINUTE – a bag of tea? Surely not a TEA BAG. No. Nooooo…
Tea Snob Moment (non tea-snobs may skip ahead)
This is important. There is an enormous difference between teabags and bagged, loose-leaf tea.
The teabags you buy that are stapled or glued together, on a string with a tag on the end — that is bad-to-middling tea at best. Yes, even Stash (though Stash is the best of them, so if you must…). The scientific reason for this (yes dears, Science!) is that bagged tea basically uses the ‘dust’ from the whole tea leaves that are used for loose-leaf tea.
It didn’t used to be this way. In the very first incarnation of tea-in-bag, it was used as a ‘free sample’ marketing gimmick from purveyors of fine tea. They would put their whole tea leaves in a cloth bag for easy steeping. Then someone got the fine idea to bag tea, and then, inevitably, someone got the even finer idea to do it on the cheap.
And now you get sawdust in a bag that you pray isn’t toxic.
No thank you.
Back to Marlene’s tea
Marlene’s uses excellent quality, loose-leaf tea. We chose the Earl Grey Supreme (black tea, oolong, white tea and bergamot oil) and it was superb — not overly heavy on the bergamot as some intense Earl Greys can be (losing all sense of balance if you ask me). I’ve since tried their Darjeeling (delightful, notes of jasmine and apricot) and their decaf Paris, and they’ve all had the depth of flavor I hope for but never expect this side of the Atlantic.
And they were not oversteeped!
Well, I can guarantee you that the Earl Grey was not oversteeped, because this was take-out and I did the steeping. But dine-in didn’t disappoint either.
The second acid-test: Sandwiches
Crustless white bread tea sandwiches are subject to a host of potential problems. They can be flat and soggy (picture your PB&J in 3rd grade that sat in your lunch bag for hours), or they can be stale. When prepared for take-out and placed in a box, suffering the indignity of a long drive home, I expected one or the other.
What I found was perfect, soft, cloud-like, melt-in-your-mouth sandwiches that were moist without being soggy, and so fresh you’d never guess they’d been out for at least an hour or two.
This is witchcraft, and I respect it.
Sandwich types change seasonally, but we enjoyed a crispy, flaky croissantwich of chicken salad, a shaved cucumber and carrot sandwich on wheat, a turkey-lettuce-tomato, a caramelized onion tart and a mini beef wellington for our savories.
The Scones… or “scones”
I am almost as picky about my scones and clotted cream as I am about my tea.
Marlene gets by on a technicality on this one, because what she serves are not scones, and not clotted cream. For our purposes, I’ll used “scones” in quotation marks to describe what these are.
These “scones” are like fluffy, sweet biscuit-cakes that are so buttery you can sometimes detect a tiny wedge of butter within the flakey layers that hasn’t quite melted yet. They are topped with icing, filled with berries, and are so sweet as to be at home on the dessert tier.
The “clotted cream” is not clotted. It’s more like whipped cream, delicately sweetened for the American palate.
And that, for me, is where Marlene’s Tea & Cakes veers off track.
Americans are notorious for many things (mostly deserved), one of them being that we like things to be overly sweet and overly salty. Fast food has blighted our palates in ways that Europeans have largely avoided.
A proper, true-to-form scone should not be sweet, should definitely not have icing, and shouldn’t be as light and fluffy as a biscuit fresh out of a Southern Grandma’s oven.
Proper, true-to-form clotted cream should also not be sweet (at all) and should have a consistency somewhere between butter and whipped cream (closer to butter).
The sweetness should only come from the jam.
Marlene’s “scones” don’t even come with jam, because it would be redundant. Gilding an already gilded lily.
But – whatever these are (or are not), they are delicious. These not-scones and not-clotted-cream are delightful confections.
I’m not too mad about it.
Marlene, or whoever is the pastry chef for Marlene’s Tea & Cakes, is a master of the arts of texture and flavor. But after the “scones”, it’s almost difficult to get excited about the desserts — and I say that as a woman with an extra dessert stomach. I always have room for dessert, even if my favorite part of the meal is actually the savories.
In our take-out box, we had perfect little creamy clouds of cupcakes.
When I dined-in with my friends and their 3-year-old, I saw what Marlene’s can really do.
Eclair bites with deep, dark chocolate ganache and a cream center that is the epitome of what custard should be. These were my favorite.
Pink butter cookies with buttercream centers and jam, dusted with sugar.
Tiramisu and a tiny trifle topped with a strawberry sprinkled with edible glitter.
Dear goodness, yes.
Oh right, there was also fruit. We gave it to the 3-year old.
What I love about Marlene’s Tea & Cakes: The Attention to Detail
High quality tea, perfect crusts, and little extras like the cream-of-mushroom soup starter (dine-in) that was positively frothy — Marlene’s Tea & Cakes really hits all marks. I’m so conflicted about the “scones” that I debated giving them my first (and only) 5-Teacup rating.
But then there was the service. When take-out was the only option, they were organized, friendly, and helpful (did I need help getting the box to my car?). When I dined-in, we were served by the owner herself, who was lovely, warm, unobtrusive, and welcoming to my friend’s 3-year old (who got special kid-friendly sandwiches, her own tea cup, and a dollop of the mushroom soup just in case she wanted to try it!).
And then the owner carefully scooped up a new fledgling monarch butterfly that hadn’t quite figured out how to use its wings, and helped it to some flowers out of harm’s way.
I’m completely smitten.
Great tea, great service, phenomenal pastries, AND a genuinely good human at the helm?
I highly recommend Marlene’s Tea & Cakes for take-out or dine-in. It’s located across from a lovely little park, perfect for a post-tea stroll (when it’s not 100 degrees out).
Overall Rating (dine-in)
- Ambiance – We dined outside, which even on a 100 degree day stayed cool enough to be comfortable. Plenty of shade. We also came on a quiet Thursday, which is the best time for a relaxing experience with friends (it can get busy Friday-Sunday).
- Service – Perfection. The tea stayed hot, the cold water stayed filled (thank goodness – it was hot), and each course arrived precisely when wanted.
- Quality of the tea served – The best you’ll find in San Diego. I’ve checked. Thoroughly.
- Tea sandwich quality & inventiveness – You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced perfect bread in your tea sandwiches. The fillings were delicious, if not avante-garde. I was pleasantly surprised by a double-decker egg curry sandwich that will live on in my memory for years.
- Scone quality – Not applicable (“scones” are still not scones, even if they are delicious)
- Tea cakes & sweets – “Scones” fall into this category and are not to be missed. You may need to take the rest of the desserts home for later, and if you do, you’ll enjoy them.
- China Cuteness Quotient – Matching, pink floral china, thick enough for heavy-duty wear. I appreciate form and function, and these had both.
Is the tea room suitable for:
- Children – The 3-year old was well looked after, and the owner genuinely seems to like cute kids (that said, this particular 3-year old is particularly adorable, so your results may vary).
- Large parties – Yes (once we can do that again)
- Bachelorette parties / Bridal Showers / Baby Showers – yes, yes and yes. Decaf and herbal options are available.
- Friend Get-Togethers – Ideal.
- Theme Days & Events – NA
- Hat Lovers – No reason why not. Dressy-casual is fine. Though I am always dressy.
- Anglophiles & Tea Aficionados – Marlene’s is not only approved by me, but also by my spouse and friend, who have a great deal of taste. You will not be disappointed (but if you are a die-hard anglophile, the scone issue may cause some consternation).
- Wheelchair accessible? Yes.
- High chairs / child seating available? Not sure, but the 3-year old got one fine.
- Gluten-free options – No
Marlene’s Tea & Cakes is located at 14677 Via Bettona, San Diego, CA 92127
Reservations can be made by phone at 858-756-4320