Christmas is the time for afternoon tea – that’s my motto anyway! There’s almost nothing better than a lovely afternoon tea with friends, just stepping away from our everyday lives to enjoy each other’s company in a relaxed atmosphere with great tea and lovely bites of food.

This year, one of my teas with friends was at the Bistro Menil in Houston. This cozy cafe sits right next to the Menil Collection museum, where they serve great food and afternoon tea a few days a week. We were able to snag a table in the lightest corner of the room, with big windows on two sides that let the outside in and a great selection of Christmas music playing throughout our service – it was the perfect setting for an afternoon tea.

This is not a completely traditional afternoon tea service – there are no scones, for one thing. Though there is more than enough delicious food, with desserts that are a little oversized (for the traditional tea anyway). So I’m not even sure we missed the scones that much.

And the savory course is also not traditional – but the salmon, cucumber sandwich with mascarpone makes the perfect combination; the tiny, maybe 1-inch round bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches make one great bite; the crab bites are delicious – something just a little spicy makes them a little extraordinary. They had to be my favorite savory bite. And the duck with mango chutney on walnut bread – while a little brown visually – was delicious! And there’s enough to have at least two of everything or more.

Before I forget, and move on to the sweet course, the tea service starts out with a cup of champagne and a starter. In this case, the starter was a savory zucchini-cannellini bean soup served in an espresso cup, to be drunk and not to be eaten with a spoon. (I ask you – what’s not to love about anything served in an espresso cup?!) It was simply superb – I could have drunk a whole bowl of it.

As to the sweet course, all three were full of flavor – the lemon tart probably my favorite, with meringue that was just short of being over-bruleed (but I love a very toasty meringue!). The crème brulee was your quintessential vanilla crème brulee – smooth and vanilla-ey, and perfectly executed. And the chocolate mousse was so nice and light and still with great chocolate flavor – it made the perfect ending to the meal.

You can tell from the picture that the three desserts barely fit on the dessert plate altogether! Which tells you something about their serving size.

About the only thing we had to mark Bistro Menil down for was the tea, which came from a bag. And while just fine from an everyday flavor perspective, lacked that bit of “specialness” one wants at Christmastime (or for me, at any afternoon teatime!).

And one of these days I’m going to find a luxury afternoon tea in Houston that actually dresses up their sweet course with Christmas décor so one knows it’s Christmas. You know – icing piped into the shape of a tree, a chocolate garnish in the shape of a present or a snowman, or something! This is one of those that the London hotels and tea shops have simply perfected at Christmastime! And that is definitely missed in general in Houston, if not the US more broadly.

Still, the Bistro Menil is to be commended for their afternoon tea service and putting their own spin on this favorite ritual!

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