A few months ago, the following Chowhound discussion thread header caught my eye: "Best Bay Area high tea? In a museum in Oakland!" The Chowhound poster raved about crust-less, open-face finger sandwiches and warm hospitality — as though you'd been invited over by "a group of good cooks [who] were in friendly competition to see who could produce the best 'goodies.'" By the time I read that there were lemon curd tartlets, I knew that further investigation was in order.
The museum turned out to be the Pardee Home (672 11th St.), a historic Italianate villa estate in Oakland's Preservation Park district. About three and a half years ago, the nonprofit museum began offering tea service as a way to raise money to pay for the house's basic upkeep.
Molly Kenney, the co-chair of the Tea Committee, explained that the five or six women who started the program were all accomplished home cooks who enjoyed taking and serving tea anyway. They figured, why not help the museum raise some money?
Now, there are eighteen women on the committee who donate all of the food and volunteer their time, so the entire cost of the tea service — $25 a person for high tea; $10 a person for a less extensive "light tea" option — is pure profit for the Pardee Home.
It's a lot of work. Between setup, service, and cleanup, the volunteers put in five hours for a single session of tea. All the food is made from scratch, with offerings varying from week to week depending on who's in the kitchen.
Four of us went for tea on a recent Saturday, and I'll attest that the meal — and the whole experience — is well worth the $25. The dining room where you take tea is as stately and opulent as you might expect, but with enough quirkiness to keep it from feeling stuffy. As for the food itself, it was more than we could finish — at least eight different savory items and eight different sweets — and much of it was delicious. Highlights included cucumber sandwiches (the cucumbers cut into delicate blossoms) and smoked salmon sandwiches (shaped like little hearts); warm cranberry scones, served with fruit preserves and clotted cream; and miniature brie-and-bacon muffins. And, of course, there were the lemon curd tartlets, each topped daintily with a refreshing sprig of mint.
The default tea (as many pots as we could drink) is a black English breakfast blend — a versatile choice that pairs well with both sweets and savories. Persnickety tea drinkers (and caffeine abstainers) can put in a special request ahead of time.
Included in the price of tea is an optional hour-long tour of the home, which turned out to be as pleasant a surprise as the tea itself. Our docent, John, was a repository of obscure knowledge about the Pardee family and Oakland history writ large. I loved the crazy old light fixtures that were half-electric, half-gas; an upstairs room that was done up in the most god-awful wallpaper imaginable; and, from the cupola at the very top of the house, one of the best panoramic views of Oakland I've seen.
You can put in a reservation request via the museum website or call the office at 510-444-2187. The smallest party they'll accept is four people; the maximum is twelve.
Scream Sorbet Closing?
Sad news for East Bay frozen-dessert enthusiasts: Temescal's Scream Sorbet (5030 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) will likely go out of business, as soon as early next month. As Scream founder Nathan Kurz wrote on Chowhound: "...We'll be closing down in early March unless our situation rapidly changes for the better. It's not a certain fate, but definitely the direction we are headed."
Kurz noted that among the challenges facing the business include a need to submit architectural plans to the Alameda County Health Department for legally required improvements on its Telegraph Avenue storefront, plus about $50,000 in unpaid bills. For the time being, he's holding out hope that a new investor or business partner will emerge who can help the company ride out this difficult stretch and, just as importantly, achieve its long-term financial goals.
Scream's unique seasonal sorbets — notable for their smooth, exceptionally creamy texture and intense purity of flavor — have been a darling of the food media and among local ice cream lovers since Kurz first started selling at a handful of farmers' markets in early 2008. The company distinguished itself by using high-tech Pacojet machines (most commonly found at high-end dining establishments that practice "molecular gastronomy") and well-sourced seasonal fruits and nuts — an approach that resulted in high prices, but also an extremely high-quality product.
Most recently, Scream was in the news for its ambitious morning cafe program, which was intended to bolster the company's revenue during the slow winter months — a venture whose necessity, in retrospect, was probably indicative of the business' difficulties.