American Flagship Dining – an aviation first

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American Airlines Flagship Lounge – JFK Airport

Is it just me who finds it rather bizarre that even though the Wright brothers pioneered flight on these very shores, or that the world’s first commercial airline began operations in this country, why then are US carriers so embarrassingly dominated and overshadowed by their international counterparts? Whether it’s the aircraft livery design, crew uniforms, cabin interiors and comfort, or service in the air and on the ground, United/Delta/American seem stuck in a decade-long taxiway before finally pulling up to match that ever-rising standard. There’s hardly a passenger who would disagree that the worst part of air travel starts and ends at the airport: You can miss at least one birthday standing in the bounty of lines. There’s nowhere to sit. None of the phone chargers work. Vintage dust abounds. There’s never anything to do when your flight is delayed. And who can tolerate those dysentery-inducing food-chain options?

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American Airlines Flagship Lounge – JFK airport

Well, there certainly is a better way to get through it all. For those flying first class on American Airlines transcontinental or international routes out of JFK, the airline unveiled their new Flagship Lounge today, which will elevate the nations’ largest carrier to share similar airspace with the popular British Airways Concorde Lounge at Heathrow, or Cathay Pacific’s The Wing at Hong Kong International.

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Semi-private pods – American Airlines Flagship Lounge

The Flagship Lounge is replete with the expected comforts and conveniences, like a separate check-in facility, charging stations never more than an elbow away, the latest in electronic barista stations, a self-service bar, a perpetually refreshed buffet with 5 hot and more than a dozen cold dishes, a quiet room, a fancy cocktail station and a wide variety of seating from loungers to diners to booths and even a row of adorable, semi-private beehive pods. But unlike some international lounges, you’re not going to find a private cabana, a shoe-shine, a haircut, a massage (or any other indulgent services of a personal nature).

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Showers – American Airlines Flagship Lounge

Despite the fact that the décor is almost entirely color and warmth deprived (would it have killed someone to shlepp in a palm or a vessel of succulents, or anything green other than that bottle of Chartreuse between the Campari and the Bourbon?), it certainly makes up for in space and light. The generous, but highly considered variety of textures and finishes from leather to mosaics, bright woods to shiny pressed metals are all offset by the pervasive plethora of durable fabrics (in what seem to be limitless shades of gray, fawn and brown), built to withstand the impending avalanche of traveler abuse. And while the 8 bookable showers are spotlessly modern, I challenge the design team to find somewhere to spread their belongings out, while washing away a virtual thrombosis after 13+ hours of mid-Atlantic turbulence.

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Flagship First Dining – JFK airport

But none of that should overshadow the real moment of truth in what is without doubt another aviation first: American Airlines has dared to install the first ever, fully functioning restaurant kitchen inside an airport terminal. In a nutshell, there is no better meal to be had in any of the 8 terminals surrounding JFK airport than Flagship First Dining. With (mostly) locally sourced ingredients and a menu that extolls the virtues of regional flavors with some international destination-inspired dishes, chef Scott Keats has created the first gourmet airline dining experience before you even leave the ground.
There has been endless dialogue about the state of our taste buds at 35,000 feet, prompting airline catering programs to introduce highly sophisticated flavor profiles that continue to push the envelope within the limitations of what can be re-heated in the galley of a 777. But let’s say your flight is delayed until the storm passes and you are stuck at the airport for another 3 hours. You snag one of the 10 single seat window-facing tables or a 4-person booth and sit down to real cotton linens and regular sized flatware as you peruse the menu of a dozen options – all complimentary, of course!

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Smoked Duck Breast – Flagship First Dining

It only takes one bite of the perfectly tender Smoked Duck Breast with a deep, rich, woodsy flavor, wonderfully accented by the fruity-jammy au jus and punctuated by the chef’s take on a colorful succotash to realize that this dish wasn’t cooked last month, flash-frozen and trucked in from Minneapolis. The roasted tomato coulis anchoring three Arancini is delectable, but the “rice balls” (as the waiter referred to them) could do with a sprinkle of seasoning.

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Arancini – Flagship First Dining

Chef Keats makes a passionate argument about environmental impacts and sustainable farming, but then the other shoe drops when the magnificent Loch Duarte Salmon gets flown in daily from Scotland! He presents it medium-rare with a splash of broth along a soft pudding he calls “cauliflower risotto”, which is nice and rich and indulgently cheese-laden, but probably requires more of a spoon than a fork to reach the mouth with any dignity.

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Lentil Cake – Flagship First Dining

While there is only one vegetarian entree, it’s a damn good one. I used the last remnants of what was one of four bread roll options (that were offered without name or description) to mop up the delicious ginger sauce surrounding the Lentil cake covered with sautéed mushrooms and baby corns.

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Flagship Burger – Flagship First Dining

And probably the most traditional of all entrees – the one that’s impossible to serve at altitude – will become the signature dish on all future Flagship First Dining menus in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas and London – the Flagship Burger. “I really wanted it to be…unctuous,” Keats proudly declares of his moist, 1.5” thick sirloin patty, cave aged cheddar melt and immaculately sweet-and-spicy maple bacon marmalade.

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Flagship First Dining – JFK airport

Despite the unavoidable first day service jitters with wait staff who have yet to find their hands, feet, eyes and ears: when to refill a glass (before it’s empty), when to serve the condiments (before the dish has been consumed), or when to remove the silverware (not moments before they are about to be needed), this first foray into gate-side dining is bound to catch on at supersonic speed. I also predict some edits to the menu based on popularity and demand. (Did I hear someone ask for a pasta…?)

http://www.aa.com

https://www.aa.com/i18n/travel-info/experience/dining/flagship-first-dining.jsp

 

Dinner on the tarmac with Qatar Airways

I would rather sit through 9 solid days of a junior Karate tournament than voluntarily wade through rush-hour airport traffic on a messy Thursday afternoon, but I happened to be a guest of Qatar Airways who were wining and dining a few guests on-board a Boeing 777 parked near JFK’s Terminal 8.

Having swallowed my fair share of bumpy inflight meals at a variety of altitudes, I can confidently declare that the airlines have pretty much thrown everything they can at the challenge of pre-made, flash-frozen and reheated food that gets plated and served in an artificially dry environment, where passengers’ senses of smell and taste are quickly replaced by escalating boredom. Some airlines have requisitioned the talents of celebrity chefs and master sommeliers to improve their menus. Others have permitted passengers to pre-select their meals a week prior to departure. Some have introduced themed dishes or on-demand food service via the in-seat touch-screen. But regardless of whether the menu was signed by Daniel Boulud or Joel Rubichon, when you find yourself dining while strapped to a chair, the real battle between you and what’s on the end of your fork is at the hands of a caterer 30,000 feet below you.

Qatar is very proud to have commissioned master chefs Nobu Matsuhisa and Vineet Bhatia, who put together some of their inflight meals a couple of times a year. Does this mean you can always expect Michelin star-worthy sushi and Indian food on board? The short answer according to the airline’s head of Food & Beverage, Colin Binmore, is “not exactly”. The long answer involves customer profiles and cultural preferences based on global routes and regions, and the availability of fresh ingredients from foreign airport caterers. So let’s crack that egg open. Once the celebrity chef has had his menu preparations thoroughly photographed, documented, sniffed and scratched, the caterers are painstakingly trained with regular check-ins to make sure that no corners are cut, and that the seasonal fruits are in fact in season and chewable, or that there is consistency with vinegar and chili use (apparently two very popular travails), and that the taste to the passenger closely matches the chef’s original intent.

Onboard plating instructions - Qatar Airways

Onboard plating instructions

Quality control and consistency keep Binmore’s team up all night all over the world, given how broadly things can vary from airport to airport. Why is FCO still over-salting? What’s making the panna cotta from JHB so rubbery? If mangoes are out of season in IAD, then why the hell are they still on the plate? Etc.

Pre-plated Heritage Tomato salad - Qatar Airways

Pre-plated Heritage Tomato salad

It’s a little easier for the wines to be consistent, even though they too suffer at the fickle hands of lazy taste buds at altitude. James Cluer, who heads up the airline’s wine program, does an annual blind tasting of more than 1,000 bottles. The airline’s staunch policy of selecting wines purely based on taste rather than labels, scores or price, make for a very varied and unusual onboard selection. Wines are rotated for inbound and outbound flights to keep things fresh for frequent fliers, and the lists are replaced quarterly (except for a few permanent mainstays like the Kopke Colheita 1974 Tawny Port – arguably the only vintage Port offered inflight anywhere in the world). To better understand the affects of taste at 30,000 feet, Cluer and a few of his colleagues recently performed a very rare challenge by sampling wines at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Talk about going the extra mile!

So, on to Qatar’s award-winning Business class dinner meal (prepared by a kitchen somewhere in Jamaica, Queens.)

With the amount of trips the multilingual and beautifully manicured flight attendants in dark green and burgundy uniforms clocked from seat to galley and back, they deserve their own frequent flier miles program. First on the tray table was an amuse bouche of a rather bland disc of Lamb Tikka sitting on a too soft Risotto cake, which was rescued by a mint chutney with a latent spice kick to resuscitate those airborne taste buds.

Pea Mint Soup - Qatar Airways

Pea Mint Soup

The few times I have eaten soups on board, they have usually been of the overly salty and peppery variety, and so I was somewhat surprised to see a Pea Mint on the menu. Gorgeous presentation with a dollop of basil oil and micro greens, but the abundance of heavy cream and mysterious absence of mint was disappointing. The crouton didn’t help matters either, as it appeared to have done more mileage than the crew. Not sure where (or when) it was toasted, but it had to be abandoned after two fruitless chewing attempts.

The highlight was the spectacular Classic Arabic Mezze platter. A triumphant triptych of creamy hummus, wonderfully citrusy and tangy tabouleh and a surprisingly sweet moutabel (aka babaganush) served with fresh brown and white pita wedges.

Heritage Tomato, feta and Kalamata Olive Salad - Qatar Airways

Heritage Tomato, feta and Kalamata Olive Salad

Having seen the pre-plated Heritage tomato, feta and Kalamata olive salad in the galley earlier, I was enormously impressed at how delicately and affectionately the various additions, garnishes and dressings were layered, stacked and tucked into position to yield an incredibly beautiful and flavorful dish.

Broccoli, Potato and Cheese tart - Qatar Airways

Broccoli, Potato and Cheese tart

I fully understood the dilemma of catering to diverse palettes and ethnic cultures by how well the main course options covered ground: a vegetarian, a lamb and a shrimp. Vegetarians seldom get much in-flight love, and so it was encouraging to see such a solid option with the delightfully fluffy and moist Broccoli, potato and blue-cheese tart. It was hard to fault the super-tender, ultra-slow Braised lamb shank perched on a mound of mash with a tangy chickpea and saffron sauce, but the ultimate re-heating challenge had to be the Arabic spiced shrimp. The window for shrimp crunchiness is shorter than Sarah Palin’s temper, so even if these handsome specimens were butter-poached on the ground, by the time they left the galley oven, they had transmuted into coils of mushy paste. Most certainly a very courageous attempt, but all the “machboos” sauce, fried onions and nuts couldn’t put humpty-dumpty together again.

Braised Lamb Shank - Qatar Airways

Braised Lamb Shank

I skipped the ice-cream, fruits and cheeses and indulged on the incredibly tasty Cardamom panna cotta. The perfect consistency with a subtle, yet undeniably middle-eastern flavor was accented by a tart accompaniment of rhubarb and apple compote.

Cardamom Panna Cotta - Qatar Airways

Cardamom Panna Cotta

Our meal was well paired with about half of the on-board wine options. A refreshingly crisp and tart apple flavored 2013 Sauvignon Blanc from Esk Valley, New Zealand. An amazingly rich tobacco, berry, spicy and caramely 2007 Bordeaux from Chateau Monbousquet. The juicy, fruity and honey forward flavored Fritz Haag 2012 Spätlese, and the epitome of in-flight extravagances – a (slightly-too-small) sample of the nutty, marvelously smooth and deliciously dried fruit flavored ’74 Kopke Tawny port.

Bon voyage! Bon appetite!

http://www.qatarairways.com/global/en/homepage.page

http://www.qatarairways.com/us/en/cuisine-master-chefs.page