You suspect Oxford Exchange is serious about tea when you look at the menu and see that the staff includes a “Tea Sommelier.”And you know it’s serious when you meet the tea sommelier herself, Abigail St. Clair.
It’s not just that she has a name straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. The charming Ms. St. Clair is also the owner of TeBella Tea Company, a purveyor of fine teas that opened two years ago on Davis Islands. OE owner Blake Casper is “a big tea drinker,” she says, and as a Davis Islands resident he became a TeBella regular. “We know what to prepare for him when we see his car driving by.”
All those Earl Greys with milk made an impression: He asked St. Clair and TeBella to be the official tea-meisters at Oxford Exchange.
OE patrons can take their tea at a counter in the central lounge area, with its comfy leather sofas. They can also order it with breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea, which is served Monday through Saturday from 3-5:30 p.m.
St. Clair says Americans sometimes use the term “high tea” to describe what’s served at OE: a three-tier tray of sweets and savories, usually involving cucumber sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and other goodies. But in the UK, high tea is more like supper: a meal of meats and cheeses served around 6 p.m. at tall tables (hence the “high” part) with beer, not tea, “and nary a scone in sight.”
Whatever it’s called, we should count ourselves lucky that St. Clair is in charge of it, just for the tea alone. While she recommends a black tea as accompaniment for the pastries et al, her tea menu is an amazingly diverse array of colors and creeds, from Moroccan Mint to Yuzu Oolong to Blueberry Mountain Sunrise.
The iced tea is brewed by the glass — the TeBella Festival Blend (with hints of orange and spice) makes for one of the best iced teas I’ve ever tasted — and the special Earl Grey Lavender Lemonade is an inspired way to take your tea with lemon (or vice versa).
St. Clair, who studied to be a veterinarian at Mt. Holyoke, once trained Beluga whales in captivity. But she’s long had a love affair with the considerably less unruly world of tea and its rituals, and is eager to prove that it can be more than just “lukewarm water and a Bigelow teabag.”
She was not sure her love would be shared by Tampa’s coffee-centric population, but she’s been pleasantly surprised by the response so far at OE: “Thirty-six percent of the people who walk in the door have a cup of tea with lunch,” she says, and OE has been serving 100-150 cups of it a day.
A group of affable academics confirmed the success of her endeavor one recent afternoon in OE’s sunny dining room. “We’ve had tea at the Ritz in London,” said Jeanne Vince, a University of Tampa librarian who was at OE with her husband, Raymond, a retired professor of American literature, and two friends from Minneapolis in town for a conference. “So when I say this is a great tea, I mean it.”