Note that this post was written before the 2 year renovations which were completed on August 2019.
I am a fan of afternoon tea. Although contradictory, I do not particularly like drinking tea, I find it too bitter, but there is something elegant and classy about spending an afternoon lounging and chatting, sipping tea from pretty china and eating finger sandwiches. And of course, at risk of outraging Her Majesty, there is always the option of drinking bubbly or coffee.
Afternoon Tea at the Raffles Hotel is one of those experiences one must have while in Singapore. And not just for tourists but also for residents.
The Raffles Hotel is an institution. During the same weekend I simultaneously enjoyed the hotel rooms and facilities as well as their Afternoon Tea. The rooms and the service at the hotel are as legendary as the property and justify the high price tag. However, the afternoon tea was a big disappointment. As with almost all travel disappointments I’ve had, expectations were too high and the price uncorrelated.
The setting is filled with history. The Tiffin Room is, after all, the place where afternoon tea has been served for decades, although under a different name. So it is only fitting to expect the décor to be as magically dated as with the rest of the hotel. The photos I had seen on their website surely portrayed such an idea. Sadly, I found the room lacking in privacy and grandeur, not at the same level as the rest of the facilities.
When I think of other memorable afternoon tea experiences both the Burj Al Arab and The Peninsula spring to mind and, in both cases, the setting truly lives up to expectations, complementing the stunning service and fabulous food.
At the Burj al Arab you are on the top floor, with views of the Dubai coast and The Palm and at The Peninsula, despite serving afternoon tea in the lobby and not taking reservations, towering golden ornate columns and lush plants give it an air of decadence that only silverware and fine china can provide. Disappointingly, the Raffles’ Tiffin Room simply failed to impress.
It is long and narrow, providing little in the way of coziness, and it is located by the main lobby, with only as much as a literal fence separating it from the main area and making it feel as if a temporary location. This was not aided by the fact that, perhaps because we arrived 20min after the opening time, we got possibly the worst table, at one end, by the service doors.
As is common in Singapore, the temperature was bordering unbearably cold because of the strong AC. The atmosphere was unnecessarily dimmed and felt as if the light bulbs were tired. The tables were placed too close together and, given the shape of the room, you had to literally zigzag around tables, chairs and other guests to get to the buffet selection, often having to step out to let someone else pass.
The buffet was placed at one end and was displayed in very plain trays and plates. There was little in the way of decoration on the marble surface, which did not help convey a warm pleasant atmosphere. Pieces of croque-monsieur rested limp under a hot light, soft and gummy and lacking a crunchy crust.
When we arrived, we were shown to our table, where the sandwiches and sweet selection had already been served on the typical three-tiered tray. Again, the sweet selection was simply dropped on the tray with no grace or elegance resting lifeless on the cold plates.
We were offered no menu and no drinks selection and were simply asked what we wanted to drink. I was expecting a choice of teas with some floral or exotic options that would be different from the classic blends but instead, when inquiring, I was uninspiringly offered earl grey or English breakfast tea. My mum and sister opted for the champagne and were poured a glass of big-bubble house blend especially made for The Raffles Hotel which was a nice touch. The tea came in tea bags rather than in the form of loose leaves but was served in a traditional silver pot. It was promptly replenished when it went cold or ran out.
Sampling the sandwiches, sweets and the rest of the buffet options was even more disappointing. I had been reading online quite a bit about their food selection and was pretty confident it would be abundant and good, so we had a light lunch beforehand. Although the sandwiches were tasty and made with fluffy white bread and a generous amount of filling, the sweet selection was soulless. There was a soft chocolate mousse with pear that was quite delicious if very rich but the fruit cake and the tea pastries that were offered looked and tasted like they were pre-packaged in a factory rather than made with love in a gourmet kitchen. They were very dry and had to be washed down with copious amounts of tea.
I quickly moved onto the buffet hoping for redemption but found similarly disappointing options. Aside from the lifeless croque-monsieur, there were curry puffs, possibly the best bit in the whole menu: flaky, soft and filled with vegetable curry goodness. This is no surprise though. Tiffin means “light mid-day meal” and curry tiffin is a long time favorite and what gives the name to the room. The Sarkies brothers, founders of The Raffles and other grand hotels such as the Eastern & Oriental and The Strand, had a famous curry restaurant on Raffles Place from the 1890s called the Raffles Tiffin Rooms. During colonial times, Sunday tiffin curry was a common pastime. Today’s room is only named such since the end of the 1980s.
The buffet also contained a selection of fresh cut fruits. There was rock melon, watermelon, both in red and in yellow, and dragon fruit but they all looked pretty sad on the bare trays. The scones, the king of any afternoon tea selection, were quite big and pasty. The clotted cream was fine but the jam had already been placed on our table when we arrived, only in one flavor and looked as if it had been dropped as a “blob”. There was also a selection of dim sum but even that, was not at the level of grandeur of The Raffles Singapore.
The barbecue buns were thick and tasteless, as they are supposed to be, but not filled enough leaving you eating mostly the rice bun part. We had had dim sum for dinner at a hawker center the night before and for $3 we had 2 tasty buns overflowing with juicy barbecue meat. The rest of the dim sum was quite nice with bigger than usual pieces on unlimited supply.
The problem was perhaps not the food in itself or the practically nonexistent service level we got after being shown to our table. Or even the fact that the so popular Tiffin room lacked the charm and pompous atmosphere I had expected, but that for the price you pay, the experience simply does not deliver. The total bill for 3 people two of which had one glass of champagne, came up to just under $300 which I felt was an exorbitant bill given the shortcomings.
Note: This review was published in 2014, so the standards may have changed since. Best to go and experience for yourself. Drop me a comment below if they have upped their game!
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