Well, it's hard to imagine how she would have responded to the concept of gluten-free food, but I suspect that if HRH Vicky was partial to regular high tea (how could she not have been?), then the Secret Garden Tea Company's tray of gluten-free high-tea goodies would have busted her corsets.
But before I get into the Devon-cream filling of this review, a few words about my own gluten-freedom. Unlike an unusual number of T1 diabetics, I don't have celiac disease. When I went off grains, a few years ago, I didn't have gluten sensitivity symptoms either.* I was acting instead on a desire to lower my carb intake (for blood sugar management purposes) and responding to the compelling grains-aren't-really-good-for-humans argument that this guy and others were making.
So ... on to the review! I've visited The SGTC a few times recently, but this review draws mainly on the celebration of my young friend Gabrielle's 11th birthday.
Food: π π π π π **
here). Imagine my delight, then, when our server produced a generous three-tier tray of gluten-free savories and sweets that not only matched their wheaty counterparts in flavour, texture, and variety but were, in my view, better. Sure, the carb count was still high (as my glucose meter reminded me afterward), and the GF option was pricier than the "normal" one ($34 vs. $28 for a full high tea), but, as a special occasion indulgence, it was worth those costs.
Tea: π π π π
The Secret Garden's tea menu is, fittingly, extensive, covering everything from "canonical" black teas to fruity infusions. Teas are steeped in individual, cozy-covered ceramic pots and served in china cups from the establishment's charming and quirky collection of cups and saucers. The tea isn't loose — and I know from my days of researching the tea-estate elements of Adam's Peak that this would be a big faux pas in certain circles — but it's fresh and hot and flavourful nevertheless. I've tried three of their offerings, all of them canonical: "Secret Garden Assam," "Queen Helen," and "Toffee Pu-Erh" (no idea how to pronounce that last one, but it was tasty!). Gabrielle had a mango infusion, which smelled divine.
Ambience: π π π +
A little too bright? A little too SoCal? Too much like the breakfast room of a B&B that's just starting out and hasn't quite got its aesthetic act together? Not quite in keeping with the cozy drawing-room mood that the place seems to be otherwise striving for? I suspect my judgments reveal a certain brand of class snobbery of which HRH Vicky would heartily approve! On the positive side, the space is clean and tidy, the music tends to the Baroque, and the displays of wares in the shop area are attractive. I should also say that when the place is packed, the ambience is much more pleasing (it was close to empty when Gabrielle and I were there).
Service: π π π π
The Secret Garden offers both takeaway/counter service and table service. The latter, provided by easygoing twenty-somethings on my visits, was friendly, informative, and efficient. So what kept them out of the five-pie category? Well, I'm a fan of formal politeness in certain contexts, and English high tea seems to be one of those contexts. Maybe this is just class snobbery talking again, and maybe Gabrielle wouldn't have had all the fun she had with a more formal serving staff ... but I was busy fantasizing about dinner later that evening with the Duke and Duchess of Westborough and their corgis.
Freddie-friendliness: π π π +
No serious problems, no hassles. I'm mixing occasions here, but on a different visit, when the place was packed and my friend Brenda and I took the last empty table, Freddie ended up in the narrow corridor where the washrooms were located (and was sort of in the way of the people coming and going). Not a big deal, but it occurred to me, as people left and tables opened up, that an invitation to move to a more Freddie-friendly spot would have been nice. (Yes, I could have requested the move myself, but it wasn't all that important at the time.)
*My dietary landscape has become a little more rocky recently, with a heightened gut sensitivity to compounds known by the weird, military-sounding acronym FODMAPs — compounds found in wheat, as well as a whole truckload of other foods — but that topic strays just a little too far from lace doilies and tea cozies!
** This rating is based on high tea only. The Secret Garden also serves up other fare (soups, sandwiches, salads, quiches). I tried the "Secret Garden salad" recently, and it was a solid 3-pie affair.