Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Reaching For The Light
There is a dining experience I revisit a few times a year that I would like to share today because it it not exactly a meal that everyone gets to try, and on terra firma, most people wouldn't bother. While the setting is constantly evolving and free flowing, overall it is an extraordinarily civilised and elegant and reminds me in a very tangible way just how fortunate and blessed I really am. First Class Meal Service on American Airlines.
Over the years, the experience itself, and the menu have changed, but at the same time, much has stayed the same. The recent changes, seats that recline to beds, and for the first time in ages, lobster tail on the menu, are all for the best. Other changes, including the removal of all metal cutlery and no individual salt and pepper shakers, are melancholy reminders of the sad times we live in.
We all know the jokes about airline food, and of course, despite their better efforts it is still dreck, (and now they have the gall to charge you for it! The outrage!) but for me, on long transatlantic flights, sitting there in that big loungy chair, (now with even more lumbar support) it transcends bad food and dry air and is a perfect metaphor for my entire life and I am able to briefly recapture the childhood I was so lucky to have. Times when my family would go on strange and exotic trips together, when everything was taken care of and my only worry was if I could get my brother to share the deck of cards.
I also remember flying to Florida as a little girl and the nice woman sitting in the next seat offering me her dessert, and later some dried papaya. I had never had papaya and was smitten, but it is that a perfect stranger offered me food from their plate that really stayed with me. Where else but on a plane do people feel guilty enough about wasting food, or the hunger of others, that this happens?
This past flight, after situating myself in the exceedingly decadent seat 3-A, the Flight Attendant came by (Flight Attendant, people. Flight Attendant. Not Stewardess. Never Stewardess. These are working professionals who are there primarily for your safety, please treat them with respect.) and offered me a pre-flight glass of Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Champagne. Blitzed though I was from my hour long stay in the Admirals Club, and my extraordinary send off at Encounters restaurant, I could not resist. I took a sip, and settled back for my 11 hour stay.
An hour later I was present with a warm towel to wipe my hands, and mixed warm nuts and vegetables in a creamy pesto ranch dip. The warm nuts included the new addition of roasted soybeans that were a great compliment to the lightly salted cashews, almonds and pecans. The raw carrots and celery in ranch dip are presented in a slim glass with the dip at the bottom. The carrots, as they always seem to be, had that greyish hue they take on when they have dehydrated a bit. I ate them anyway and ordered a Sapphire and Tonic, which was poured generously, and served with a slice of lime. Ahhhh.
The menu itself is a little work of art, with a beautiful painting entitled Reach For The Light on the cover. I am not sure that is exactly the phrase I want to be focused on so high up in the air, but with another G&T my nerves settle. After a little struggle with my table, the cart comes around with our appetizers, composed to order. A delightful smoked salmon plate is offered with my choice of capers, red onion, sour cream and lemon wedges with toast points. I opt for extra capers and leave the onions. It is beautifully presented and since there is some sort of fact that we can’t taste as well at altitude, the saltiness is not overpowering. Mmm.
The plates are cleared and wine and warm rolls are offered. I have always taken the sour dough rolls, but this time opted for multi-grain, which was a touch tough, but tasted hearty and was a good foil for the obscene amount of butter I slathered on it. From the white wine choices, I had a small glass of Louis Latour Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru. It was served perfectly chilled and tasted rich with fig and honeysuckle.
Next course, the salad. They offer a light and airy focaccia bread and start with fresh, seasonal greens (seemingly so, in the dim light it isn’t entirely clear) and then you are offered your choice of tomato wedges (too green for my taste), olives (green or nicoise black, all pitted), onions, yellow bell peppers (which were ripe and crisp and sweet and delicious) and lobster tail with lemon wedges. Dressing choices were creamy basil or olive oil and balsamic. Since the lobster came with lemon, I just stuck with that, some salt and fresh ground pepper. The serving size was perfect and the lobster was delicate, yet meaty.
For the entrees there was a choice of: Lamb Medallions, Manchego Chicken, our old friend the Cannelloni or Filet Mignon. Since they also offer Dine Upon Request (meaning, you can have any of that food any time later in the flight) I thought I would start with the Filet. Sort of a surf and turf theme for my decadent little meal. The exceedingly tender stead was served with a slightly underseasoned red pepper and basil sauce (though the basil was fresh), a manchego cheese and tomato, potato torta which was, keeping with tradition, dry as a bone and flavorless, and then there were the lightly buttered, perfectly cooked (they were microwaved after all, weren’t they?) hariots verts. Being at altitude also affects ones ability to drink (more) so I had just a teensy taste of the Chateau Batailley 1999 Bordeaux. A dense, dry wine that had a sensuous berry flavor.
And now on to a girl’s favorite part. The dessert cart. This is where change has not reared it's ugly head in 15 years, and the choices are a cheese plate (Saga Blue and Jarlsberg.), Mango Sorbet, Grand Marnier Fruit Salad, OR the world famous, fantastic, yummy and delicious custom made, Ice Cream sundae served in the worlds cutest round glass. Vanilla Ice Cream with my choice of butterscotch, hot fudge, berries, whipped cream or pecans. Because my father always has it this way, I order it like him. Vanilla ice cream with a hearty splash of Kauluah and a small dollop of whipped cream. Heaven in a bowl.
What with all that eating and drinking, I laid back to sleep for a few hours, watched a few movies and then decided I just had a to try the Manchego Chicken. It was nice. Really juicy, but a touch oily. It was a breast of chicken wrapped in cheese (which seemed more to be broiled on) on overcooked basmati rice, with really divine artichoke hearts, wilted spinach and a rich and heady red-pepper demi glaze that made me want to lick the plate. Washed down with some sparkling water, this was a perfect midnight snack. I do sort of wish I had had room for the lamb, but even on an 11 hour flight a girl can only eat so many times, and we hadn’t even gotten to breakfast!
For some reason, the American Style breakfast (all that is really offered) just never cuts it. I ordered some orange juice and the extra rubbery Asiago Omelette, with roasted red pepper turkey sausage and a fantastically dry scallion and sour cream potato timbale. Since that was just not edible, I changed to having an English muffin, some of the salmon from dinner and a large bloody mary to wash it down. Leaving me full, satisfied, and just tipsy enough to find customs amusing.
I love American Airlines. I have the utmost respect and admiration for everyone who works there, and am beyond grateful for the incredible service I have always received. And if you ever get a chance to dine first class style, I really do recommend it. It is the ultimate bourgeoisie experience. Though I do wonder what they were served in coach…
In flight catering is a $5 billion/year industry.
A spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic, which commissioned a study, says taste and smell is affected because pressurised air in the cabin dries out the nose's olfactory bulb. The ability to taste salt and sweetness is reduced by at least 30%.
American Airlines’ Chef’s Conclave includes such luminaries as: Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles
“American, Delta and United are among carriers that recently started replacing some or all of their domestic meal service with bagged or boxed snacks such as tortilla chips, cookies and dried fruits.Airlines say the switch saves them money and may even give fliers more edibles for their buck, including some more healthful options such as granola bars and green tea. "It comes down to food wastage," said United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski. "We're not wasting food because the stuff is nonperishable. "Since implementing buy-on-board programs in the last couple of years, airlines have had trouble predicting how many customers would buy sandwiches and salads on flights. That left fliers hungry if the airline ran out of meals or the carrier with perishable leftovers if there were not enough takers. After snack boxes "sold out on almost every flight" when tested on its low-cost carrier Ted late last year, Urbanski said, United decided to replace its buy-on-board meal program with snacks on some flights starting last month.” LA TIMES, May 1st, 2005