Tea and monks: my visit to St. Sabbas Orthodox Monastery

One of my favorite things I’ve ever written was a review of a restaurant. Yes, maybe it has something to do with food. Yes, I could talk about food forever. But I think there’s something wonderful about capturing an experience. A snapshot that’s more than a photo. The taste and smells and events all build a scene… I’d like to think my food reviews make me a better fiction writer, too. They’re helping me visualize better.

This review, dear reader, is a place you may recall. I talked about this place last year: the restaurant inside St. Sabbas Orthodox Monastery.

Yelp made it one of their reviews of the day in May. It makes me happy to have tickled people with a more involved review. It’s definitely more elaborate than “service was terrible, we’ll never come back”.

Enjoy. Maybe you can come visit yourself!

Nestled in the quaint neighborhood streets of Harper Woods, among the homes and schools, is a luncheon experience you wouldn’t expect. When at the gates before The Royal Eagle Restaurant, you’re greeted by a sign requesting no cell phones, no shorts, skirts, or sleeveless tops, and no gum chewing. Upon entering, you will quickly realize you have left the line of small mid century homes behind you and stepped into the tranquil and ornate surroundings of St. Sabbas Orthodox Monastery. This is where The Royal Eagle restaurant calls home. Twice a week, the parishioners open their doors for a midday Russian tea luncheon. The luncheon is one of only two limited weekly offerings the monastery has; the other being a dinner on Thursday nights, currently with a six week wait. The tea service does not have quite the waitlist, but is only served Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 11 p.m. to 2 p.m. with reservations required. I was intrigued by the whole concept and the juxtaposition of this restaurant inside a monastery inside a neighborhood, so I ventured in.

I was greeted by friendly waitstaff in traditional garb. Seated quickly, I was given a brief introduction to the restaurant, the menu of teas, and the set luncheon menu. The atmosphere is initially peaceful, though the conversation of the other patrons was lively; a cacophony of chitchat and sipped tea. The decor might be a turnoff for some, as it is reminiscent of the nicest room in someone’s Russian grandmother’s house. The tea selection is diverse, served quickly, and at the perfect temperature. I enjoyed a lavender earl grey tea while I waited for the first course, which was borscht. Borscht, for the uninitiated, is a soup featuring beets. It was delicious with delicate flavors. The beets were not overwhelming, and the fresh dill complimented the earthy tones in the dish.

The next round was several small tea sandwiches, featuring brie cheese, smoked salmon, black forest ham, and cucumber, of course. The brie was to be topped with a cranberry walnut sauce, but after a conversation with the waitress, she quickly accommodated me with those sandwiches sans nuts. Next, the main dish of the lunch, a green salad with a raspberry vinaigrette on the side of baked chicken on a stick in cream sauce. While the name lacked some flair, the chicken was moist and flavorful. The portions were modest, so some coming with an appetite would perhaps expect more.

Initially my server explained that dessert was a surprise, but considering my nut allergy, the surprise was quickly revealed: a peanut butter brownie and blueberry scone. Since my allergy wasn’t to peanuts, I proceeded. The scone wasn’t too dry or crumbly and was a perfect companion for tea. The brownie was likely the best brownie I have consumed to date. If you enjoy a fudgy brownie, with peanut butter frosting that actually tastes of peanut, you are in for a treat.

I definitely went into The Royal Eagle with some silly misconceptions in mind. They accept credit cards, which surprised me for some reason. They proudly display their, “People love us on Yelp!” sticker. And an overturned teaspoon revealed the answer to an age old question: yes, monks do shop at Ikea. While the decor may be more traditional, there is nothing dated or out of touch with the restaurant’s offerings. It delivers on making the lunch tea service a really special and high quality dining experience. I would recommend to give them a try, if this fine luncheon sounds like it would be your cup of tea.

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A monastery in the middle of a neighborhood.

I think a brief review of this blog might reveal that I have a thing about monks. I don’t, really. Just have come across some interesting stories lately. This most recent brush was for a class assignment – to review a restaurant and write about it. My review of The Royal Eagle can be read on yelp here, but in the interest in not being redundant and talking about what makes this restaurant unique, lets review the facts.

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Fact 1: This restaurant is on the grounds of the St. Sabbas Orthodox Monastery. St. Sabbas is a Russian Orthodox church (see above). Monasteries are typically tasked with doing something to support themselves. This ranges from making beer or jellies to selling ink on the internet, as we previously talked about. St. Sabbas has a restaurant. They’re really popular. This is because the food is tasty but also due to limited availability. Tea is twice a week and dinner is just once, so the wait can be lengthy (right now it’s 6 weeks). There are rules to visiting The Royal Eagle Restaurant, due to their management. No cell phones, though I was told it was OK to take photos. Modest clothing options are enforced. The bathroom had a bag with a long skirt in it – not a forgotten garment, but something available if a guest came wearing something a touch too scandalous. At least one review I read noted that the reviewer was asked to wear the skirt (a bit of a feather in her cap). I wasn’t asked to rein it in when I came. I guess I’m not tempting to monks!

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Fact 2: The monastery is just on a street in an ordinary neighborhood. I found it driving around one day. In the photo you can see homes on the left and the monastery on the right. It was the craziest thing. And the building are all bright and colorful and the whole thing just stands out like Dr. Seuss set up a church in town. I mean no disrespect; it’s just kind of ornate and fantastical in a way that really is in great contrast to the mid century homes around it. Apparently they’ve been buying up the land for years.

Fact 3: It was great. I would have a picture of food here, but I was being respectful of the whole ‘no phones’ rule. It was good! Seriously, I ate what was the best brownie I’ve ever eaten. That not hyperbolic. It’s factual. I just love that this simply exists in my neighborhood. They have a little gift shop and the counter clerk was the chef. Another little surprise for my day. “Oh, that is a nice white coat you’re – wait. Wait a minute here.” Churches are littered all over the Detroit area, but I feel like stumbling on this monastery was really pretty special. The grounds are apparently beautiful in the summer and the inside of the church? Breathtaking.

There’s just something to be said for getting outside and exploring.