Review: Sketch Afternoon Tea, London
When I visited the famous pink dining room of the Gallery room at Sketch for afternoon tea it was in the middle of the Covid Pandemic.
Specifically it was on 03/12/20 after London came out of complete lock-down and straight into tier 3. For any foreigners reading please note that tier 3 was meant to be a label for UK areas placed under the most restrictive rules based on infection rates.
Then our PM Boris Johnson announced that London would be placed in a newly invented tier 4 barely two weeks afterwards.
Basically the UK government totally had Covid under control and wasn’t making stuff up every other week.
All this is to say that I visited Sketch during a time when there was much uncertainty around the city and it was a needed break whilst restaurants could legally operate.
Sketch is famous for its impeccable stylish with a capital “S” interiors and Instagram ready decor. These days it’s very popular for women and the Social Media crowd to visit and document, so I finally bit the bullet and paid a £30 deposit to book a midday afternoon tea session.
The restaurant is located over two floors of a Grade II listed 18th century townhouse in Mayfair. It has only operated as a restaurant serving French food since 2003 and has always had an history of hosting eclectic and interesting inhabitants; including balloonists, psychologists, the Suffragette movement, the RIBA and Christian Dior.
The interior is originally designed by the French artist Noé Duchaufour Lawrance and everything about Sketch felt shiny, quirky and deliberate. Since we were right on time for the winter season the Christmas decorations were up and I was really excited to see what the designers did with the place.
The entrance itself didn’t stand out with only bright red sign hinting at anything remotely exciting inside.
However once we’ve passed the heavy velvet curtains we were in a tunnel of lights with a whimsical hopscotch sketch on the ground.
The low lighting in the reception area really added dimension to the rich blue walls and five Christmas trees.
Yes five. Because one is just not in vogue nowadays.
I really liked the mixture of different lighting, baubles, textures and even orientations made these trees pop out, in particular the bright blue tree which matched the walls.
I didn’t manage to photograph the movement, but I was really taken with the quirky cloakroom area which is accessed by pulling a whole wall by its oversized and brightly coloured window/mouth. It was very random and representative of the restaurant’s distinct and multifarious design.
We passed the Glade, a room transformed temporarily into a “Salon Champagne Pommery” behind appropriately green curtains. This area was designed by artists Carolyn Quartermaine and Didier Mahieu to be like a forest. Its plush green carpets, hanging greenery and carefully designed lighting incites a psychogenic atmosphere with a dreamy fairy tale quality.
The second reception area had a creative set up of a projector and cloth screen to insinuate snowflake movements within the building. It wasn’t a centre piece by any means, but little touches like this really showed that Sketch placed careful thought into every corner of its restaurant.
Sketch was very empty when we sat down in the plush seats of the Gallery with only one other table occupied at the time, which gave me opportunities to take remarkably clear photos in a normally busy establishment.
And what a beautiful room it is!
Plush powder pink seats, copper accents, multi-coloured marble flooring and a high ceiling with an artificial window.
The interior is decadent, feminine, almost overly luxurious to the point of kitsch and is created by the Iranian French designer India Mahdavi.
Only the walls fully adorned with hundreds of David Shrigley sketches added some levity to the very plush environment. At first I had the impression that these were very cute scribbles similar in the manner of a child’s drawing.
But then I looked closer and…oh my.
This was a lot more inappropriate than I thought.
Well…what an interesting choice! If this were anywhere else I would call the restaurant weird, but since Sketch has this aura of money and taste I guess I have to call them eccentric instead?
The Gallery being so empty was most likely due to Covid so any future visitors will unlikely have the same experience I did where I went a bit mad with my camera without getting in anyone’s way. I was even encouraged by a waiter to see the futuristic egg pod toilets.
Yes. Egg pod toilets.
The Egg Pod Toilets
Ever dreamed of pretending to be an alien chicken hatching from outer space? Well come to Sketch to fulfill your aspirations.
This uniquely designed area is so open and full of light that the only way of figuring out which toilet to enter is the subtle lighting on the stairs.
The room felt so stark and disorientating with the mixture of shapes, the multi-coloured lights and abundance of white space, that not even the bright and familiar Christmas decor in the traditional colours could overpower the room. Instead it added to the strangeness of the space and felt foreign in comparison.
If it isn’t obvious, the toilets haven’t been redesigned from its basic formation since the restaurant opening in 2003, so it’s part of the original vision for the establishment.
This also includes the area underneath the toilets which is used as an entertainment space. Originally the owner planned for the toilet area to be a bar area and the vice versa, but then he decided to do this instead to be interesting I suppose. This partly explains why there isn’t a partition between the toilet areas.
Everything I saw so far confirmed it: Sketch is maddeningly, strangely, painstakingly and beautifully designed.
But what about the food?
After calming down I finally returned to my seat to wait for our meal.
There were a number of different Afternoon tea options at Sketch, from the simple “Homemade and served sketch-style” at £70 to the £89 “Champagne Afternoon Tea” which offered a glass of Pommery Brut Rosé with your meal.
This is on the highest end of afternoon tea pricing within London and so is generally popular for special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries. There are more affordable menu options at Sketch but not in the Gallery which specialises in Afternoon Teas.
I ordered an alcohol free Bellini Afternoon Tea (£80) whilst my partner ordered the nuts free version of the classic Sketch Afternoon Tea (£70) from the cute storybook-like menus. The total came to a pretty staggering £173.50 with VAT and an optional £1 charity donation (I’ve never met someone brave enough to ask for a £1 donation to be removed). Note that these prices reflect the Seasonal menu.
It took a little while for our beautifully presented food to arrive on stacked trays with specially designed crockery by David Shrigley.
The Gallery did see a few more diners as we waited, but definitely not in numbers I suspect Sketch is used to; again likely due to Covid.
Speaking of Covid some safety standards were in place such as diners having to wear face masks except when sat down, special Sketch sanitiser on the tables, screens being placed for the staff’s safety and mandatory booking.
None of this affected the staff’s attitude and their face masks couldn’t hide their smiles and attentive service. Perhaps what helped was the fact that Christmas was coming and this was reflected in the shiny staff outfits.
The Savoury Food
First came the starter which consisted of skinny Comté cheese soldiers, a quail’s egg and a spoonful of caviar.
The caviar had a powerful and fishy taste which was barely tempered by the egg and cheese soldiers, which was fine with me since I’m a fan of the flavour. I have to say that the mother of pearl spoons were very pretty but felt awful on my teeth.
We then moved onto the sandwiches tray which didn’t contain any nuts.
The Coronation Chicken sandwich consisted of free-range chicken, baby coriander, pickled red onion and malted bread. The red onions gave it a crunchy texture and I liked the tingly and mustard-like flavour from it.
The Salmon Sandwich contained salmon roe, smoked salmon, Jacob’s cream, ricotta, dill, cucumber and malted bread.
I found it very creamy and smooth and this was one of my partner’s favourites.
The Cucumber, Broccoli and Goat Cheese Sandwich was made up of (shockingly) broccoli, cucumber, goat cheese and white bread.
I’m generally a bit leery of strongly flavoured cheese but the goat cheese was very lightly creamy and tasted refreshing when paired with the cucumber.
My personal favourite was the Truffle Croque wrapped in paper which consisted of black truffle, cream cheese and white bread.
The black truffle was cooked into the middle of the bread and one bite caused the strong flavour to ooze out smoothly onto my tongue.
The Egg Gougère sandwiches were made up of gougère (a baked savory choux pastry made of choux dough mixed with cheese), egg yolk cooked at 63°, egg white petals, watercress, egg mayonnaise and dijon mustard.
The gougère in my mouth burst in one bite to release the internal cheese and there was understandably a very strong egg flavour. I ultimately quite liked it, although it was a very leaky and messy sandwich.
We ordered additional sandwiches but this was unnecessary since there was already too much food on the table, so we barely took advantage of the unlimited tea and food refills available.
Speaking of tea we sampled a wide variety of Chinese tea including Phoenix, Wuyi Oolong, Oriental Beauty Oolong, Assam, Red dragon and Rosebud. The one that stood out was the Phoenix which had a very light peach flavour hint to it.
I also had the Matcha which left a very strong residue.
My meal came with a cocktail and I chose a Matcha Bellini containing grape juice and matcha tea. It tasted super refreshingly sweet despite the worryingly green colour and the matcha helped take the edge off this sweetness.
The Petits Gateaux
We moved onto the desserts which were impeccably designed little treats and very pretty.
The Cranberry Battenberg with crystallised redcurrant snowflakes was bursting with cranberry flavour in the strong jam.
I did find the fondant a bit too thick and overpowering though.
The Chocolate & coffee tart with rum ganache and caramelised hazelnuts was extremely rich and decadent and the taste reminded me of Ferrero rocher.
It was nice but I definitely can’t have more than one.
The Lemon marshmallow had a nice sharp taste to counteract the soft texture.
The Cherry Choux pastry and white chocolate was a little oddly designed.
The Orange and Ginger Chantilly Cheesecake was presented in a tiny cup and was soft like a mousse.
There was a hint of ginger with every bite and a very strong citrus taste throughout.
The nuts free version of the afternoon tea only affected the desserts and included a soy based cheesecake, sticky toffee pudding, lime and tapioca pod, banana chocolate and nut-free Battenberg.
The lime and tapioca pod apparently tasted of sweet coco with the tapioca being tasteless and mainly there for the squishy texture.
The banana chocolate cake with a caramel drop and chocolate shell was lightly sweet and crumbly with a tiny hint of banana.
The sticky toffee pudding tasted more like a cake than a pudding and was light and reasonably sweet.
According to my partner the soy based cheesecake was a bit fruity but ultimately unmemorable.
The Scones and Final Dessert
The scones came next and were a unique shape which was popular during the war when rationing meant that wastage was discouraged and lead to square scones.
I really liked that our scones were tucked into napkins like they were in bed. we opted for the raisin free version of the scones which paired very nicely with the mildly sweet jam and thick clotted cream.
The flavours of the jam were quite unique as well, one being organic strawberry and poppy and the other being organic fig.
For the final cake I ended with a Grapefruit & Peanut Yule Log.
I liked that the peanuts offset the sweetness of the cake and appreciated the bitterly refreshing grapefruit in the middle.
My partner went for the Chocolate and Caramel Yule Log which he found satisfyingly rich and dark.
When we finished our meal we were given some of the jam as a gift wrapped in beautiful custom pink packaging.
The Seasonal Performances
Since it was the Christmas season there were special performances showing every hour or so during our meal including a string trio and ballet dancing.
I really enjoyed the musicians who played a mixture of modern and classical music including Shut up and Dance, Defying Gravity, Domino and Over the Rainbow.
The cello really added a rich depth to the music, although I’m not quite sure about the outfits the women wore which looked like dressing gowns.
The emptier than usual room meant that the ballerina had plenty of space for her performance and she timed it perfectly to allow for bigger pirouettes in strategic parts of the room.
Otherwise she mostly did a lot of leaps and jumps along the aisles which were very hard to capture on camera.
I would have liked to see the pink cherry blossoms on her outfit in clearer detail.
These performances were ultimately very memorable and it’s nice to see Sketch put so much effort into creating unique experiences for its diners.
Sketch is beautiful, so beautiful that I doubt any food can match up to its achingly stylish interiors.
Ultimately my experience proved this to be true. The food was fine, the drinks were good and it was all presented well, but certainly not of a standard to warrant a minimum £70 price tag. At this price point I expect every item to be a feast for all the senses and this didn’t happen.
What you are really paying for in a Sketch afternoon tea isn’t the food, but the experience of being served in Sketch’s beautiful surroundings. Every room was reverently designed and everyone impeccably dressed, come to Sketch if you have the cash to spare and you will be in for a visual treat; especially during the Christmas period.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and was absolutely stuffed with food, but this is definitely not something I will do often and is an indulgence reserved for special occasions.
Address: 9 Conduit St, Mayfair, London W1S 2XG
The Gallery Opening hours:
Champagne breakfast – Fri – Sun: 09:00 – 11:00
Afternoon Tea – Mon – Sun: 11:00 – 16:00
Dinner – Mon – Sun: 17:00 – 23:00 (Last orders 21:30)