Summary: Frilly and feminine, the English Rose can do food but can't do tea.
The English Rose Tea Room in Pleasanton is the sort of tea house you can expect (or dread) in suburbia: frilly, feminine and faux Victorian. It's the sort of room that screams "no men allowed." If you have a Laura Ashley dress or a feather hat screaming to come out of the closet, this is the place where you can wear them sans embarrassment. But while The English Rose is a good place to come play dress up, it's not the place to come for a good cup of tea. They can do frill, they can even do food (as long as you don't expect anything English) but they just can't do tea.
The English Rose's menu offers a large variety of teas, I'd say at least three dozen including about ten black teas. You can get a pot by itself, with scones ($10) or with assorted sweets & savory bites for $15-20. If you don't like tea, you can do iced tea instead (really).
We all chose the "Queen's Tea" ($20) which included a little bit of everything. Their tables are very small so if you are in a large group (we were five) you can only order two or three pots of tea at the time. In other tea houses, where your tea kettle is refilled with hot water as you use it, this would not much of a problem - but the tea concept and the service at The English Rose is so incompetent that it actually meant we were without tea for half of the time there.
The service problems became apparent with our first question to our waitress. The English Rose lists among its black teas a "First Flush" and a "Second Flush" Darjeelings. We were confused by the terms and asked the waitress what the differences between the two were. She clearly didn't know, but instead of acknowledging that and perhaps offering to find out, she instead tried to make something up. Alas, her creative abilities seemed to be limited so she just stammered as she tried to read aloud the tea descriptions. It was sad to watch. For the record, I've since found out (thanks Google!) that a first flush Darjeeling is made from the first leaves of the new season and has a light amber color and a flowery yet tannic flavor. A second flush is made from the leaves that grow later in the season, after the first flush leaves have been picked away, and is darker, more well rounded and less delicate than the first flush. We ended up trying both, but we didn't really like either. It was probably not a problem with the tea but with the way they brew it.
Making a good cup of tea is no mystery. You start with a good loose tea, put it at the bottom of a tea pot, fill it with boiling water and then you let it brew until it's as dark as you like it. When it gets too dark, you refill it with more boiling water. At the English Tea Rose, they seem suspicious of the idea of loose tea, so instead they put it in a bag in the tea pot. They let it brew for a few minutes in the kitchen and then they bring it to you sans bag. Our first pot (the second flush Darjeeling) came that way and it was terribly, terribly weak. It couldn't even support a bit of milk and sugar. After that we insisted that the tea bag remain in the pot, which confused our waitress quite a bit; later cups were stronger though still not that good. Charlotte did like the Ceylon tea (the first on the list) so if you go, you may want to give that one a try.
The service issues were unfortunately not limited to the server's lack of tea knowledge and her inability to pour tea without spilling it. After we were done with our first two pots (each pot seems to have approximately five cups and there were five of us, so this didn't take long) it took several minutes to fetch her and ask her for more tea, and then of course we had to wait until it was ready (hint to The English Rose: have some water boiling all the time, you will need it). Part of the pleasure of going to a tea house is having the tea mindlessly flowing - which alas, was not the case here.
Fortunately, while The English Rose can't do tea, it can do food. Most of the little sweet and savory bites we were served were quite good. The tiny mushroom brioche was full of flavor, a sausage encased in phillo dough was pleasantly spicy and I even enjoyed the bite-size vegetable tart. Several of us also liked a very sweet shaved carrot tart, though Regina was less fond of it. A spinach and cream cheese roll was very popular and a particular favorite of mine. Alas, their sandwiches were much less successful. Each sandwich was about 1/4 of a regular sandwich. We got two egg salad each, and the best that can be said for them is that they were edible. Another one with some deli meat and cheese tasted most prominently of mustard. The bread wasn't fresh which certainly didn't help. We all also got a grape (OK, but they're not in season) and a nice, ripe strawberry (they are in season).
The sweets were a mixed bag. A cheesecake bite was delicious as was a caramel brownie. A chocolate cake petit four, on the other hand, had no flavor whatsoever. The scones were small, flat and sprinkled with colored sugar (I'm not kidding). Charlotte, our British-South African friend, was so disgusted at this that at first she wouldn't try them. But alas, once you cut the sugar away, they weren't bad. They'd been served warm and the devonshire cream and berry preserves were good. The lemon curd had a strange creamy color and texture, but wasn't bad either.
I don't think we'll be rushing back to The English Rose. Actually, I can't imagine every going back. Fortunately there are still quite a few tea houses that we can try in the Bay Area, and after that, there is always Lovejoy's.
The English Rose Tea Room and Gifts
163 W Neal Street
Tue-Sat: 11:00am to 5:00pm