Think teatime is a thing of the past? Think again. At Malaya Tea Room, teatime is a tasteful, curated throwback to 1920s Malaya — but the experience feels modern, fresh, and relaxing.
Malaya Tea Room opened just over two weeks ago at 920 Central Ave. in Alameda. It's the product of four years of effort from owner Leena Lim, an Alameda resident who grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Lim has fond memories of her mother taking her out for high tea at the Shangri-La in Malaysia — but she also cherishes the more casual teatimes that she shared with her family at home. Teatime in Malaysia can be elegant or informal, Lim said, but without fail, 3:30 p.m. always means it's time for tea.
At Malaya Tea Room, Lim serves sandwiches, snacks, and teas that draw from British and Southeast Asian cultures. Lim said the menu is true to what you'd find at a tearoom in Malaysia. The British introduced the concept of afternoon tea to what was then known as Malaya — but even after Malaya became independent and was renamed Malaysia, the concept of afternoon tea stuck.
Accordingly, you'll find a British tea menu with a choice of two classic teatime sandwiches like smoked salmon and chive, cucumber, ham and brie, and chicken-apple salad. Salad, scones with clotted cream and lemon curd, and an assortment of sweet treats accompany the sandwiches.
Lim invited me to visit Malaya Tea Room to try the Malaya tea menu, which comes with a choice of two sandwiches including curry chicken, pork jerky, kaya (coconut jam) with butter, sardine with tomato sauce and cucumbers, and capelin roe and butter. I tried the curry chicken, which was a Southeast Asian-style curry flavored with curry leaves, lime leaves, and shredded coconut for a fragrant flavor with a touch of sweetness. I also went for the sardine with tomato sauce, which delivered an umami punch. Sweet treats included a light, chewy pandan macaron from local baker Macarons by Natalie, plus a mini fruit tart and pineapple tart baked in-house.
Those who can't decide between the British and Malaya tea sets can order a British-Malaya tea, which comes with three sandwiches; for those looking for a lighter snack, the afternoon tea includes one sandwich.
What's the tea, you might ask? Malaya Tea Room offers 18 varieties of brewed tea, ranging from the signature Golden Monkey (a straightforward, strong black tea), plus more unusual options like Earl Grey with vanilla cream and black tea with grapefruit and cocoa nibs. Herbal tea options include blue butterfly pea flower tea, while green tea options include flowering jasmine tea. But the most unusual — and my personal favorite — is the Malaysian-style pull tea, a street vendor drink made by "pulling" milk tea between two cups to create a frothy tea. Lim serves a basic pull tea option along with one made with fresh ginger, which was creamy, spicy, and subtly sweet.
The atmosphere is another part of what makes Malaya Tea Room special. Malaysian and American pop classics play softly over the speakers. Lim gradually culled decorations for the space over the course of two years from local antique shops, including Pauline's Antiques. Think palm fronds, wooden furniture, golden pineapples, and jaguar sculptures, plus personal touches like a photo of Lim's parents on a (chaperoned) date — after which they, of course, went out for tea.
Malaya Tea Room is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with two-hour seatings starting at 11 a.m., 1:15 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. Prices range from $15 for a kids' tea set to $57 for a British-Malaya tea set. Reservations are strongly recommended, and are required on weekends. To learn more, visit MalayaTeaRoom.com.
Editor's note: The online version of this article has been updated to reflect Malaya Tea Room's new seating times.