Recently, my friend Sarah was singing the praises of Christmastime at the Heathman Hotel's historic Tea Court Lounge as being one of the last slices of the soulful Old Portland that's fast melting away. Decorated with a towering Christmas tree and sparkling ornaments the size of beach balls, it "transports us back to a time when Donald Trump was just another bankrupt Jersey casino owner and FAO Schwarz was still open to induce awe with its outlandish toys," Sarah says.
Things change, of course—and we can thank Russia.
In October, restaurateur Vitaly Paley took over the Heathman's restaurant, which was rebranded as the fish-focused Headwaters. Paley, who has a James Beard Award and two WW Restaurant of the Year plaques won 20 years apart, also decided to redo the Heathman's traditional English tea service.
Paley is originally from Belarus, and tapped centuries of Russian tea culture for a new and exotic experience.
The centerpiece of Russian tea service is the samovar, a fancy version of a tabletop lemonade dispenser. Drinkers use it to add hot water to a liquid concentrate of tea, making it as strong or as weak as individual tastes dictate. Here it's playing a more English role, used to fill teapots with dried, loose tea. Instead of canapés with unidentified pâtés, there's walnut-stuffed eggplant rolls, smoked fish on rye, and piroshky filled with local mushrooms.
"I think what we're serving here is pretty authentic," Paley says.
When the old Heathman revived its tea service in 1984, it cost $4.75, about $11 today. Paley's take—which also features chocolate-peppermint Pu'er tea, a walnut cake with sour cream and, Russian cheesecake—is $38. For children, there's a $16 option, which consists mostly of desserts, including shortbread with marshmallow and sesame candy.
"It's different, and it requires a little bit of explanation," Paley says. "But for the most part, delicious food doesn't require explanation."
Russian tea at the Heathman Hotel, 1001 SW Broadway, is served daily at 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm until Jan. 1. Reservations required; call 503-790-7752.