Nothing unites friends more solidly and loyally than a shared love of cake, and my friend Vick and I can attest to this extremely earnestly. For our November monthly meet up, we decided to hit Chelmsford high street for some festive shopping, but also so that we could sample Small Talk Tea Rooms – a small yet kitsch venue that seems to bring the world of the 1950’s housewife into the modern day with a swanky stylised wink.
The atmosphere upon entering was bustling – we went on a thriving Saturday afternoon dead on 12pm, and when we arrived we were dismayed to see that all of the tables had been taken. However, we didn’t have to wait long to nab a space of our own and we gratefully settled down in high back dining chairs at a traditional rectangular dark wood table. Small Talk Tea Rooms has really gone to town to provide a home away from home, yet also providing nifty alcoves and corners so you can natter away in peace. I loved the random placement of chunks of exposed brickwork walls, complete with window sills that seemed scattered at random throughout the vaguely cramped room. Our table was directly behind one of these walls and it did afford us some more privacy which was nice, a dated floral lamp sitting pretty on the window sill.
Decorated in a creamy shade of white juxtaposed with a gentle sage green, I did feel instantly at ease. Dark wooden furniture such as side boards and chest of drawers were placed around the edges of the room, tidily housing dinky china wear and glistening glasses like you would find at your grandma’s. Our table was covered in a doily style net tablecloth, which was again topped with glass which made mopping up after our leaky teapot ten times easier with our limited paper napkins. With an old fashioned and quirky vibe, it is evident that a lot of thought has been put into the ambience and atmosphere of the tea rooms, so that stepping inside is like being transported back in time, where afternoon tea was the norm instead of a treat.
Never before have I had such a choice of tea. Their tea menu alone is an entire booklet and contains such a massive array of choice I was actually baffled – I clung to traditional breakfast tea as I browsed the rest of the list. I’m not much of a fruit tea fan as I normally find them bland, but the combination of flavours in the selection offered here were actually rather tempting. With black teas, fruit teas and green teas galore, there was no way you wouldn’t find something you liked. Although I was intrigued by the fruity numbers named after my favourite cocktails, I knew I would prefer a classic tea with my lunch.
Their food menu also provided some tasty options, although disappointingly you had to pre-order for afternoon tea, so we had to scrap that bright idea pretty pronto. I was in the mood for sweet stuff so I skipped the savoury selection altogether and ordered a cream tea for myself. This consisted of one fruit scone, one plain scone, two small packets of strawberry jam and a narrow, tallish white side dish full of soft clotted cream, topped with a decorative strawberry that I swiftly ate before I had even taken a photo. Out tea cups and saucers were all a plain and crisp white china, the decent sized tea pot snuggled under a darkly coloured embroidered tea cosy. Vick ordered the cheese platter for her lunch, complete with two slices of sliced wholemeal bread, a pile of salad and large slices of cheddar, blue stilton and brie.
I must confess, I was a little disappointed with my cream tea. I am a great lover of scones, as I am of most things sweet, and I was looking forward to digging in to this luxurious and usually heaped afternoon treat. The scones themselves were lovely – still slightly warm, large in size and a really lovely soft texture that made them really yummy. The jam packets however were skimpy at best. I just about managed to lather a thin and translucent layer across both my cut open scones, but where the spreading was so stretched out, you couldn’t really taste the sweet strawberries, just that there was something gooey under the cream. It was a smooth jam as well, so no unexpected chunks of fruit to liven up the layer any. The clotted cream was also on the sparse side, although it was velvety soft and full to eat which was delightful. I managed a bit more of a generous scoop across the scones of the cream, and this added to the moistness of the cakes. With some more jam and cream, this would had been absolutely perfect, but as it stood, I felt they were being really tight with the accompaniments, and they didn’t even offer to provide more, like most other tea rooms do. Although I still enjoyed it, I couldn’t help but be a tad disappointed as well.
To top off lunch, we had to have a slice of cake to finish. When the waitress was reeling off the cake selection, I was impressed by the variety of tastes and flavours and there definitely would have been a favourite for everyone in your group. She mentioned a chocolate fudge cake, carrot cake, Victoria sponge and drizzle cake to name but a few, yet the one that caught both our eyes was the lemon meringue. The base was a soft and crumbly cake that held up a deliciously thick, custard like lemon curd layer. The lemon zing was fresh and vibrant, yet still soft enough not to overpower the dessert or make it bitter. The consistency and texture of this lemony goodness was very much like the custard you would find in a trifle, yet slightly more pliable, so it was really lovely to dig in to with your spoon. It just tasted so creamy yet light with that pucker of lemon for individuality. The meringue topping was also sensational, the pointed peaks of the baked egg whites were slightly crispy on top with a beige, caramel shaded glow yet gorgeously downy and chewy underneath, making it a complete texture explosion throughout all of the layers as you ate. This slice of cake was pure perfection and definitely made up for the lacklustre cream tea in some respects.
Price wise, Small Talk is reasonable so ideal for a catch up with friends or family if you fancy something a bit different from all the usual chains. My cream tea was about a fiver and I believe a slice of cake worked out to about £3 approximately, and they were huge slices so you really got your money’s worth there. The service however put another dampener on our tea session, as the waitresses seemed dull and uninterested, with slow delivery of our orders. Not one of them actually greeted us at the door either. They all ignored us until they could begin to see another table leave and only then were we approached which I though was rather rude and not good for enticing business to stay in a crowded venue. They rushed us when we were deliberating the menu and gave the bare minimum of polite personality.
In conclusion, Small Talk Tea Rooms is a real mixed bag. The tea list selection is inspiring and decadent in its sheer volume of choice which marks it out as a tea lover and speciality hot spot to hit. The food on the whole was your classic British tea room fare, with a variety of sandwiches, baguettes and jacket potatoes decking out the surrounding tables, although our main ambition was completely cake centred. The cream tea was nice, but I honestly couldn’t call it more than that as I simply didn’t have enough jam or cream to complete my scones. The lemon meringue on the other hand was brilliant and showed a tentative glimpse of how fantastic this venue could be if the same dedication and attention to detail was showed to every aspect of the menu and business as it was to producing that sensuously sweet slice. The décor and styling was very professionally done so it felt natural and homely which does give it a different spin to many of the glossy coffee houses out there, so vintage lovers would be right at home there. I think I would return for a slice of cake and a cuppa, but I’m not sure if it is somewhere I would really hunt out for a meal. Decent pricing though and worth a nosy look in if you happen to be passing.